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Cannon's job is to put a warm touch on Harper's cold calculations

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, the grandson of two cabinet ministers, says 'basic politics is sort of in my DNA.'

blair gable The Globe and Mail

He's done retail politics since he was a boy, on the streets of Quebec City and Gatineau. He's dapper, charming, well-read, with a gift for getting along. Now, at 62, Lawrence Cannon is Canada's retail Foreign Affairs Minister: His job is to put a warm touch on Stephen Harper's cold calculations.

This is the biggest week Mr. Harper will ever have on the international stage, hosting both the G8 and G20 summits. And Mr. Cannon is primed to play his role - as spokesman, not policy-setter, building a platform for the PM.

"We've got now a Prime Minister who has a compass in the right place, and knows where he's going," Mr. Cannon said in a recent interview in his Parliament Hill office. "That's reassuring for a guy like me,"

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In this era of leaders' summits and instant communications, it's national leaders who make foreign policy, and foreign ministers who sell it. Not since 2000, when Lloyd Axworthy left with a legacy of such initiatives as a land-mines treaty, has any Canadian foreign minister really stamped his name on the job. The concentration of power in the PMO is particularly true in Mr. Harper's government, where all ministers face tight restraints, clearing each policy and statement.

But the job suits Mr. Cannon. He's not without his own colourful past - he is a former Liberal, used to date Sheila Copps - but his professional strengths are as a politician-diplomat, a smooth spokesman who builds relationships with counterparts. His weakness, according to many who've worked with him: He won't drive an ambitious initiative that catches light on the world stage.

"He's someone who projects calm reassurance," said Fen Hampson, head of Carleton University's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. "Is he someone who is going to be taking a lead intellectually on major foreign-policy files? No. That's neither his background nor his inclination."

In March, he hosted a meeting of G8 foreign ministers for talks to set the security agenda. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, arriving for a warm-up meeting of five Arctic Ocean nations, expressed State Department pique by leaking talking points - which she didn't read behind closed doors - criticizing Canada for not inviting other Far North nations. She backed out of a joint news conference, leaving Mr. Cannon at a podium alone, insisting everyone had agreed in the end.

The next day, Ms. Clinton, exuding power, casually slapped down Canada's policy of excluding abortion from the centrepiece G8 maternal-health initiative. Mr. Cannon smiled and held his tongue.

Privately, foreign officials gave him high marks for handling the sessions, and egos, with aplomb. But he was not the obvious choice when Mr. Harper - after rotating through Peter MacKay, Maxime Bernier and David Emerson - picked Mr. Cannon, then Transport Minister with no international-relations experience, to fill the Foreign Affairs post in 2008.

While he doesn't have a hardened worldview, he does have politics in the blood. He's the grandson of two cabinet ministers. As a boy, he spent summers with his maternal grandfather, Mackenzie King's Quebec City cabinet minister Chubby Power. "Basic politics is sort of in my DNA," he said. "I say to some people, sort of jokingly, that it was osmosis."

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At 10, when his Uncle Frank ran in the 1958 election, he was a "checker" pointing voters to the private house chosen by the incumbent as polling station. "I saw somebody go in, dressed as a woman, to vote a [second]time," Mr. Cannon recalled.

After university, he worked in Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa's office. He door-knocked his way to election, defeating the PQ's formidable Pauline Marois in 1985, and as an MNA, earned a reputation as a bon vivant. "I wouldn't say wild and crazy. He was a fun-lover, it's true," said Liza Frulla, a former federal and provincial Liberal minister and Mr. Cannon's friend since they served in Mr. Bourassa's cabinet together. "And people loved him back."

He was then a federal Liberal. An old friend tried to lure him to Paul Martin's 1990 leadership campaign, but he instead joined Ms. Copps's campaign, becoming her Quebec spokesman and, for a time, her boyfriend.

Some Liberals whisper that after the break-up, Jean Chrétien's federal Liberals made him feel unwelcome. But Mr. Cannon says he was disappointed by Mr. Chrétien's 1995 referendum campaign and disillusioned by the sponsorship scandal. In 2005, he was in municipal politics in Gatineau when he was persuaded to join the Tories. He became Mr. Harper's Quebec lieutenant, eventually moving up to Foreign Minister.

He has made mistakes. Mr. Cannon heated up the controversy around the maternal-health initiative when he mistakenly said it would exclude family planning - not just abortion but also contraception - because the pro-choice Red Tory misread his government's policy, and erred on the side of conservatism.

His favourite issue, Mr. Cannon says, is a long-standing Harper priority, the Arctic - not for combative assertions of sovereignty, but because the Far North will shape the world in 20 years. His goal, he says, is to build his network in the international club.

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"The more you're able to stay in this position, the more you meet these individuals, you get to know these individuals, you get to be able to influence and indeed push Canada's positions," he said. "What I'd like to be able to do, of course - the Prime Minister willing - is to continue in this function."

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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