Gary Doer reflects on his years as Canada’s ambassador to the U.S.

I have the advantage of having read both the Free Press’s and the Sun’s accounts of the talk Gary Doer gave Monday, May 8, at the Shaarey Zedek, as the Jewish Heritage Centre’s Kanee Lecturer.

While both reports were fairly accurate in what they reported, both were relatively short. What follows is a more comprehensive report of what Doer said – lucky as I am not to be constrained by a lack of time or space to give a fuller depiction of events – as both reporters for Winnipeg’s two dailies evidently were.
To begin with, I got a kick out of reading in the Free Press reporter’s otherwise accurate report that there were only a “few dozen people” in attendance at the Shaarey Zedek that evening. The Sun reporter accurately reported that there were 300 people there. Now, I don’t know whether saying there were only “a few dozen” qualifies as “fake news”, but I sure have to wonder how the Free Press reporter could have been so off in her estimate of the size of the crowd.
 Further, neither report dwelled on Doer’s interesting observations about Israel and its relations with Arab countries. They also didn’t capture Doer’s colourful telling of several anecdotes – including a terrific story about Jean Chretien and Izzy Asper, so here goes:

Doer’s appearance as the 12th speaker in the Jewish Heritage Centre’s Sol & Florence Kanee Distinguished Speaker Series was billed as “Style & Substance: THE NEW WASHINGTON’S Impact on Canada and Israel”.
Gary Doer was Premier of Manitoba from 1999-2009 and Canada’s Ambassador to the U.S. from 2009-2016. His easy ability to ingratiate himself with almost any audience was always a remarkable asset, even when he was dealing with adversaries. (I admit that I had my own rather hostile dealings with Gary Doer over the Crocus Fund, but I never harboured a personal grudge toward him over his handling of what I would describe as a black mark on his government’s record.)
Before he went upstairs to give his talk I ran into Doer downstairs at the Shaarey Zedek. I thought I’d ask him a question there that I wouldn’t ask him upstairs, so I said to him: “Gary, Jon Gerrard has said that he’s considering taking another run at the Liberal leadership. So, would you consider coming out of retirement to rescue the NDP here?”
Of course, Doer knew I was being facetious, but he replied: “If Jon Gerrard had won three terms as premier he wouldn’t be thinking of running for his party’s leadership. Jon Gerrard hasn’t won anything!” Ouch! Come on Gary, Jon Gerrard is one of the nicest guys in politics. Couldn’t you have said something like “Jon Gerrard still has a lot to contribute and I wish him well.” Oh well, once a fierce politicians, always a fierce politician.

Rabbi Alan Green welcomed the crowd with this observation about Gary Doer: “Gary Doer is someone who always walked the bridge between politics and diplomacy without fear.”
Thereupon Mel Myers introduced Gary Doer, noting that Stephen Harper caught a lot of people by surprise when he appointed Doer as Canada’s Ambassador to the United States in 2009.
When Doer took the podium himself he began his remarks, which seemed to be given extemporaneously, by recalling that he had actually met Sol Kanee when Doer was just a kid. It turns out that the Doers had a cottage near the Kanees on Lake of the Woods and that Doer would often encounter Kanee.
As he noted, “I had met Sol Kanee, so it was a real honour when Mel Myers asked me to do this lecture.”

Doer immediately reverted to old-time politician, telling this story: “When I got to Washington (in 2009), I realized that it was really ‘old Washington’. When I got there, there was a huge snowstorm – one inch! The place closed down for five days!”
“I was asked: ‘What do you do when it snows?’”
“I answered, “We shovel it, we put it in dump trucks, we dump it in the river, it powers turbines, and we sell it back to Americans at seven cents a kilowatt hour!”
(Funny, during the question and answer period no one asked Doer about some of the disastrous decisions the NDP made with regard to Manitoba Hydro and the decision to relocate the Bipole 3 line to the west side of Lake Winnipeg from the east side. Ah, I guess everyone was just too polite to get into some of the less appealing aspects of his record as premier.)

Continuing in his folksy way, Doer recalled his 2003 visit to Israel. “When I had the opportunity to go to Israel I learned there were many, many opportunities for Manitoba to learn from and partner with Israel. One of the things I learned was about water conservation. Even though we have 100,000 lakes we do a poor job of water conservation,” he commented.
As well, there was an “agreement with the Hebrew University that I was very much a part of,” he continued. As well, “I learned how vulnerable Israel is based on geography. You can’t understand that, living in the U.S. or Canada, which are so large.”
Doer also observed that during his 2003 visit, he “learned that there were terrorist organizations that had a charitable tax status in Canada.”
He also noted that he “learned about the inequitable demands” that were being put to Israel in return for peace.
“Other countries must accept Israel’s right to exist as a condition for peace,” Doer insisted. Later, as ambassador to the U.S., Doer said he was consistent in supporting that position. “There was no ambiguity on the position we were taking on Israel,” he said.
However, “We were always dealing with anti-Israel resolutions at the U.N.,” he noted. Interestingly, the individual with whom he worked most often to counter the anti-Israel resolutions that were constantly being brought forward – other than the Israeli ambassador himself, was the Columbian ambassador to the U.S., he said.
As far as what Canada’s stance toward Israel was while he was ambassador, “Sitting on the fence is completely unacceptable to Canadians,” he declared.
Doer noted that, although he was no longer ambassador to the U.S. when it took place, America’s abstention last December during the vote at the U.N. condemning Israeli settlements on the West Bank was particularly disappointing to him.
With regard to the relationships between the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and ambassadors from some Arab countries, Doer admitted he was surprised that the Israeli ambassador, along with the Saudi and United Arab Emirates ambassadors “got along better than I would have expected.” What united Israel and those countries, along with other Arab countries, was “an absolute fear of Iran and their ability to develop a nuclear weapon”, he suggested.

Turning to another subject – one which harkened back to his time as Premier here, Doer told a colourful story about Jean Chretien expressing dismay over being asked to provide funding for what was then the proposed Human Rights Museum.
As Doer recalled, he had to fend off Izzy Asper’s insistence that the Federal Liberal government provide funding at the same time Doer had to deal with Chretien’s complaining about Asper.
At the time, Doer recalled, the number one priority for Manitoba was obtaining federal support for the expansion of the Winnipeg Floodway, following the disastrous 1997 “Flood of the Century”. With two competing demands for federal support, Doer found himself caught between Asper’s pressuring him to lobby Chretien for money for the museum on the one hand, while he was also asking Chretien for money for the floodway.
Yet, to Asper, the floodway was being used as an excuse not to provide funding for the museum. “Izzy used to say that the Winnipeg Floodway was ‘Duff’s Ditch’ and now that I wanted to expand it, I was a ‘son of a ditch’.”
One time, Doer said, he was on a plane with Chretien when they were on their way to Moscow as part of a “Team Canada” mission to promote business between Russia and Canada. At four in the morning, Doer said, he was awakened by Chretien, who said to him: “You know that guy, Izzy – he doesn’t understand you can’t have money for a floodway and for a museum.”
Nevertheless, persistence paid off – and Doer remarked, in tribute to the enormous volunteer effort that ensued to raise funds for the museum: “The people who raised that $140 million are the reason we have the best public museum in Canada.”

Again, switching gears, Doer returned to observations about life as the ambassador to the U.S. He noted that “90% of the items that are discussed in the Oval Office are about national security, while news reports focus on the other 10% of items that are discussed.”
“How Canada could work with the U.S. as an ally was always part of the negotiations,” Doer said. “And that will continue to be the case under the new president.”
With reference to what were some of his proudest accomplishments as ambassador, Doer noted that the “pre clearance agreement” that allows trucks carrying goods back and forth between Canada and the U.S. without having to go through inspections each time was one of his “proudest achievements”.
In addition, the fact that Canada is now the world’s largest exporter of oil to the U.S. was also something about which Doer claimed great pride. (Again, no one asked him later how, as an NDPer, he could brag so much about increasing oil production nor how he could support the Keystone Oil Pipeline. I guess politics are largely situational, aren’t they?)
In one of his funniest anecdotes, Doer told the story how then-President Obama had great fun with Donald Trump at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. At the time Trump had been vociferous in claiming that Obama had not been born in the U.S.
At that dinner Obama actually produced a copy of his birth certificate and projected it on to a screen to show that he had, in fact, been born in Hawaii. Then Obama said to the audience that not only did he have his birth certificate, he also had actual footage of his birth! Thereupon he began to play a clip from “The Lion King” while Trump glowered in the audience.

In terms of what are his greatest worries with regard to new cross border tensions between Canada and the U.S., Doer suggested that the imposition of a border tax and the reduction of corporate tax rates in the U.S. should be of foremost concern to Canadians.
Finally, Doer returned to the subject of Israel’s position vis-à-vis the new Trump administration. He really didn’t have anything new to offer on the subject, noting that “the issue of moving the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is a ‘work in progress’.” Again, he affirmed that the recognition of Israel’s right to exist has to be a precondition for any eventual peace agreement between Israel and any other parties, including the Palestinians.

Following his remarks Doer said he was willing to field questions – which were slow to come at first.
The first question was about Doer’s future plans. Just that day it had been announced that Doer was going to be doing some work for the Alberta government on the softwood lumber file, but he didn’t refer to that in his answer, saying instead that “I was really blessed to have three terms as Premier of Manitoba and to be Ambassador to the U.S. I’m going to continue enjoying being a citizen and living in the best country in the world.”
Doer was asked for his overall assessment of President Obama’s record with reference to American relations with Israel.
Harkening back to his earlier criticism of the American abstention on the vote to condemn Israeli settlements last December, Doer said, “I didn’t mean to be negative.” There were many positives in the U.S. – Israel relationship during Obama’s tenure, he noted, such as the development of the Iron Dome anti-missile defence system.
With regard to the agreement reached with Iran over nuclear development, Doer observed that “I think he (Obama) was sincere in trying to put in a nuclear agreement with Iran.”
Referring to Obama’s famous drawing of a “red line” in Syria over Assad’s use of chemical weapons, the problem, as Doer explained it, was that “there weren’t 100 votes in either the Senate or House of Representatives that would have supported a resolution for limited military reprisals” against Assad, and “Obama would have wanted a resolution” before retaliating.
As far as Obama’s relationship with Canada was concerned, “Obama was good with Canada,” Doer suggested. “He was a multiliteralist. On balance, he kept the world safe.”
The one difference of opinion Canada, under Harper, had with Obama when it came to the nuclear agreement with Iran was that Obama was willing “to trust and verify” whereas Canada’s position was that we should “verify first”.
Asked for his opinion on the Affordable Care Act, Doer observed that in Canada 11% of GDP is spent on health care, while in the U.S. the figure is 18%. On the other hand, “wait lists in Canada are too long”, while certain aspects of the quality of care in the U.S. are superior to ours. Still, as Ambassador to the U.S., it was not his position to lecture Americans about their health care system, he said.
“We would not want the ambassador from the United States to tell us what’s wrong with our health care,” Doer noted.
Doer was asked about Israel’s relations with other Arab countries.
He answered that there was a consensus between Israel and Arab countries that they shouldn’t trust Iran. “I don’t have any trust toward Iran,” he himself noted.
Doer added that he “was surprised to see cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia on some issues – not all issues, but some issues.”
The question of approval of the Keystone Pipeline was brought up. “Where do you see things going now?” Doer was asked.

The question of approval of the Keystone Pipeline was brought up. “Where do you see things going now?” Doer was asked.
He answered: “I see North America as having energy independence and not really relying on foreign oil again (including from Venezuela). Obama approved one and a half pipelines while he was in office. He approved two thirds of the Keystone route but one of his lucrative fund-raising bases was the Hollywood types and hedge fund managers in New York.
“Will it (Keystone) get approved now?  he wondered. It’ll be up to Nebraska again. They stopped it once, they might stop it again.”
Asked what he will tell his kids and grandkids about his time as ambassador, Doer said “The most important experience I had in Washington was giving gold medals to members of the Devil’s Brigade.” (The Devil’s Brigade was an elite Canadian-American commando unit that operated behind enemy lines during World War II.) Doer described his utmost admiration for the surviving members of that unit.
Finally, without mentioning his own recent appointment to provide advice to the Alberta government on the softwood lumber issue, Doer was asked where he thought the softwood lumber dispute was headed.
“I was involved as Premier with the initial softwood lumber agreement and the extension of that agreement” Doer noted. “We also won every tribunal case, but the best allies we have in the U.S. are our customers: All home builders, bedding companies, Home Depot – that’s how we’ve got to do it. There are more customers than small lumber owners” (who are the ones lobbying to impose duties on imports of Canadian softwood lumber.)
There you have it – a long and probably too detailed account of Gary Doer’s talk as this year’s Kanee Speaker. But it’s been a long time since Gary Doer spoke to a Manitoba audience so I thought I’d give a comprehensive account of what he had to say, given that he was probably the most popular politician we’ve ever seen in Manitoba.

As a post script to this article, I was informed that Gary Doer donated the entire amount of his speaker’s fee to the Jewish Heritage Centre – quite the mensch!