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Much-delayed ambassador arrives at testy time for Canada-U.S. relations

The U.S. Capitol is seen at night on Sept. 30, 2013. Congress will begin 2014 with a showdown over a White House-backed bid to renew unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans.


Like spring, Bruce Heyman's arrival in Ottawa, has been rather delayed.

The new U.S. ambassador – a big-time Chicago fundraiser for Barack Obama – will collect his political reward from a grateful president when he finally makes it to Bytown on the Rideau sometime soon, probably before the last snow is gone. Now that he's sworn in, all he has to do is present his credentials to the Queen's representative and Ambassador Heyman will be in business.

And Canadians will be able to follow Ambassador Heyman, and his wife, Vicki, the first social-media savvy diplomatic duo from the United States in Ottawa on Twitter.

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Delay, hype and hashtags aside, the new ambassador arrives at a tough time in Canada-U.S. relations. Like his predecessors, he has two tasks; selling the views of the Obama administration to Canadians and telling the president just what his northern neighbors care about.

All is not well along what both nations used to brag was the world's longest undefended border.

Canada-U.S. relations haven't been so testy – at least between the leaders – since Ronald Reagan regarded Pierre Trudeau as a meddling intellectual who foolishly thought that chatting with communists could be useful during the most frigid days of the Cold War.

Mr. Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper are hardly ideological fellow-travelers. On topics as disparate as Iran and climate change, the two differ. The forced bonhomie of box-of-beer-bets about Olympic hockey outcomes doesn't fool anyway. (Has Mr. Harper done his March madness bracket – a sport Mr. Obama does care about?)

In Washington, some observers who follow Canada-U.S. relations think the long delay in naming Mr. Heyman (made longer by Senate foot-dragging over his confirmation) was a deliberate slight.

Others believe the original plan was to get the Keystone XL decision out of the way before sending Mr. Heyman north.

That didn't happen and the new ambassador may be faced with explaining to Canadians why Mr. Obama ignored the pleas and occasional intemperate outbursts from Canadian cabinet ministers demanding a Keystone XL decision. Of course, if Mr. Obama gives Keystone XL the go-ahead, Mr. Heyman will get to bask in the warmth of a happy Harper government.

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Keystone grabs most of the headlines and often seems to eclipse the rest of the complex Canada-U.S. relationship.

But the pipeline may not define Mr. Heyman's tenure.

"He is extraordinarily smart, very open-minded and brings with him a secret weapon which is his really-talented wife," said Scotty Greenwood, senior adviser of the Canadian-American Business Council. Ms. Greenwood, who served in Ottawa as chief of staff to former ambassador Gordon Giffin during the Clinton administration, follows Canada-U.S. relations closely.

In her view, the long months of delay in getting the Heymans to Ottawa may prove a benefit. "It has allowed him to immerse himself in the issues," she said, adding the new ambassador really understands "the nuances of the Canada-U.S. relationship."

That's a view shared by others who know the investment banker and long-time Obama supporter. Mr. Heyman has spent the months since last spring – when it first emerged the President would likely tap him for the Ottawa post – studying Canadian issues and politics.

Well-informed and genuinely interested are two useful attributes for an ambassador, even when the importance of stationing a prominent diplomatic envoy in a foreign capital sometimes seems quaintly out of date in an era of instantaneous communications when leaders talking directly as often as they see fit.

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Mr. Heyman tells how – in 2006 – at a small dinner party, he and his wife met then-senator Barack Obama. It was a turning point for the power couple. Ever since, they have been part of the Chicago circle that remains very close to Mr. Obama.

That ability to have the President's ear, and to be known and personally trusted by the man in the Oval Office, is of great value.

One of Mr. Heyman's Republican predecessors, David Wilkins, explained just how important.

It really matters, to "have an ambassador who can pick up the phone and call the White House," he said a few months ago.

Recalling a time when he had intervened with then-president George W. Bush, Mr. Wilkins said he told the president "if we wanted Canadians to be our best friends we needed to solve" the problem at hand. It was done.

Mr. Heyman can make that call.

His friend in the White House has shown scant interest in affairs Canadian since he was elected six years ago.

Canadians may learn to appreciate Mr. Heyman's insider status.

Paul Koring is a reporter in The Globe's Washington bureau.

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