OTTAWA – Barack Obama’s former envoy to Ottawa has pulled back the veil on how the previous Conservative government of Stephen Harper froze him out over the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.
Bruce Heyman, who was the U.S. ambassador to Canada from 2014 to 2017, offers an on-the-record insider account of one of the worst-kept secrets in Ottawa diplomatic circles in a new book penned with his wife, Vicki.
Harper had staked a lot of his government’s reputation on getting U.S. approval for the Keystone XL pipeline, which he saw as critical to getting Alberta oilsands crude to foreign markets through the United States.
But Heyman made it clear there was little he could do push the project during his initial April 2014 meetings with John Baird, then the foreign-affairs minister, and Harper and his wife, Laureen, because of internal U.S. reviews.
Heyman writes that began an “ice age in relations” between his office and Conservative cabinet ministers until he, Harper and their spouses were able to build new bridges in a long delayed dinner in July 2015.
TransCanada Corp. wanted to build a pipeline through Montana and South Dakota to Nebraska, to connect with lines carrying oil to Gulf Coast refineries, but it faced widespread opposition over concerns about possible spills and environmental damage.
The plan languished for years in the purgatory of U.S. government and legal reviews before Barack Obama killed it two days after Justin Trudeau was sworn in as prime minister in November 2015. President Donald Trump has since revived the $8-billion project.
Keystone set the stage for a pair of grim get-to-know-you meetings with Baird and Harper, as well as a firm but polite dressing-down from the top-ranking foreign ministry bureaucrat days after the Heymans arrived in Ottawa.
Heyman’s book fills in the narrative gaps on the breakdown in relations between Conservative Harper government and the Obama Democrats.
A Harper spokeswoman had no immediate comment because she had yet to read the book.
Baird asked to meet Heyman before he’d formally presented his credentials to the Governor General and pushed the envoy on Keystone. Baird also asked if the U.S. was prepared to pay for a new bridge at the busy Detroit-Windsor crossing.
“I’m afraid we are not,” Heyman told Baird, but added that perhaps their “people” could meet later to find creative solutions.
“The meeting never happened,” Heyman writes.
An awkward meeting in Harper’s Parliament Hill office followed in which the prime minister “did not so much as crack a smile” as small talk among them and their wives went nowhere.
Days later, on Good Friday, a Nebraska court ruling further delayed Keystone’s approval, so Heyman was “summoned” to Foreign Affairs headquarters in Ottawa for a meeting with deputy minister Daniel Jean. Embassy staff told Heyman they couldn’t recall a time when an ambassador had been “called in” like that.
Jean and Heyman had a polite “back and forth” in which the bureaucrat “carefully and dutifully read out to me” from a document that stressed how important the pipeline was to the government and how “urgent” approval was required.
Heyman held his ground.
“In the days that followed, I noticed that all meetings scheduled with various ministers, for one reason or another, were cancelled,” Heyman writes. “Message received: I was frozen out.”
Over the subsequent months, dinner invitations to the U.S. ambassador’s Rockcliffe Park mansion came back from the Prime Minister’s Office with the response: “Unable to attend.”
So the Heymans went ahead with a dinner with Trudeau, then the Liberal leader, and his wife, Sophie, in the fall of 2014 that went very well. After their guests had left, Bruce asked Vicki if she’d ever met someone with Trudeau’s leadership potential.
“In 2006,” she replied. “His name was Barack Obama.”
In September 2014, the Harper-Heyman freezeout thawed as reports emerged that Canada was preparing to join a U.S. coalition that wanted to bomb Islamic State militants in Iraq.
But there was a bizarre twist: Heyman says the U.S. Embassy knew nothing about it.
Reporters bombarded the PMO for details on who exactly in the White House was asking for Canada’s military assistance.
“The embassy watched the Ping-Pong match while declining the many media requests for clarity,” Heyman writes. “It was obvious to me that Prime Minister Harper and his team were in a bit of a jam.”
This time, when Heyman reached out to Harper’s office, his call was returned.
Heyman then gave a series of interviews, starting with The Canadian Press, declaring the U.S. was inviting Canada to participate in the Iraq effort. When pressed on who asked whom first, Heyman replied that simply didn’t matter, and that Canada wanted to help was most important.
“After that, everything opened up for me in Ottawa. When I asked for meetings with cabinet ministers, I got them,” Heyman writes. “The ice was beginning to melt.”
Finally, the Heymans and Harpers broke bread together, in July 2015 at the prime minister’s 24 Sussex Drive residence.
The wives helped break the ice and eventually “we felt the real Stephen Harper emerge” when he smiled and recalled playing the piano at The Beatles’ historic Abbey Road studio in London. That led to a lively tasting of favourite Mexican spices and flavourings.
Concludes Heyman: “And with the help of the hot sauces of 24 Sussex, the ice age in relations had finally thawed.”