The U.S. Ambassador Canadians Loved to Hate
Former U.S. ambassador to Canada Paul Cellucci, who lost his struggle with Lou Gehrig’s disease a year ago June 8, may not be a household name today in Canada. But during his tenure in the turbulent years from 2001-2005, he became the poster child for what some Canadians saw as the overly aggressive and even bullying administration of president George W. Bush.
Mr. Cellucci was the ambassador who told Canada – in a “ham-fisted” way according to one pundit – that it needed to spend more on its military. He urged Canada to join the U.S. in the war in Iraq, and warned of a possible chill when Canada declined. He tried to convince former prime minister Paul Martin that Canada should participate in a missile defense shield of North America since it had already spent 50 years defending the continent’s airspace with the U.S. in NORAD.
By the time Mr. Cellucci returned to his home state of Massachusetts in 2005, CBC comedian Rick Mercer offered this advice: “Don’t let the door hit you on the ass!”
I worked for Mr. Cellucci as his deputy at the U.S. embassy for three years. The Paul Cellucci I knew was so different from his public persona that it raises as many questions about how Canadians perceive Americans as it does about Mr. Cellucci or the policies he represented.
Canadians don’t take advice from the U.S. well, even though they are fond of handing it out. In Paul Cellucci, Canada had a knowledgeable friend who not only was willing to speak the unvarnished truth and allow his daughter to marry a Canadian hockey player, but who was also the polar opposite of the robotic Bush enforcer that became his caricature.
Mr. Cellucci’s affection for and familiarity with Canada was obvious well before he became ambassador. As governor of Massachusetts, Mr. Cellucci led a trade mission to Quebec City in 1997 when I was serving there as the U.S. consul general. He could recite the details of Canadian natural gas deliveries from Sable Island to New England, knew that Hydro Quebec ran a power line from James Bay to Boston, and had worked closely with all the premiers of the Maritime Provinces. He knew that Newfoundland refers to a place as well as a dog. Few U.S. ambassadors have arrived in Ottawa better informed.
At no time was this knowledge put to better use than in the confusing and rumour-plagued days after September 11. Mr. Cellucci helped beat down the misinformation that some of the 9/11 hijackers had arrived from Halifax. He provided the blueprint for what would later become the U.S.-Canada Smart Border Accord. And no one was more upset that president Bush failed to include Canada in a list of countries deserving thanks when he delivered a speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress that September. I know because we were watching the speech together at his Rockcliffe residence. The “oops” was audible.
Mr. Cellucci would proudly tell you he managed to visit Canada from Sable Island to Vancouver Island, and from Resolute to Point Pelee. He made friends easily, which you might expect from a man who spent 30-plus years as an elected official, and treated everyone he met with respect. That included the Embassy staff. Most of the political appointee ambassadors I knew in my foreign service career rarely darkened the doors of the in-house cafeteria. But Mr. Cellucci liked nothing better than to sit down and chew the fat with whoever was in the place when he arrived. Far from disdaining the career civil servants, he nurtured them.
Mr. Cellucci was also easy on his most determined detractors. When then-Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish characterized Americans as “those bastards” in an infamous 2003 outburst, Mr. Cellucci’s reaction was not umbrage or outrage. He engaged her in a filmed comedic skit for a press club dinner in which he donned his Robert De Niro “Taxi Driver” persona, and answered Ms. Parish’s insult with, “Are you talkin’ to me?”
In a powerful speech on Parliament Hill just days after 9/11, prime minister Jean Chrétien quoted Martin Luther King as saying that in times of trouble, “it is not the words of your enemies that you remember, it is the silence of your friends.” Canada, the PM promised Mr. Cellucci, who was at his side, would not be silent.
Paul Cellucci in turn was never silent about Canada. He said what he thought needed saying, and said it clearly and with respect. In a world where that is increasingly rare, I would hope that Canadians would consider that having a straight shooter as their highest U.S. representative for four years was not a rebuke or punishment, but a clear sign of the value the U.S., and Paul Cellucci, put on them and our relations.