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The word "designate" is still attached to his title, but Washington's future ambassador to Ottawa is on track for a diplomatic test as he enters what promises to be a pivotal year for Canada-U.S. relations.

Although ambassador-designate Bruce Heyman has yet to be sworn in by the U.S. State Department, his Senate confirmation this week means he will soon assume a post that sat vacant for more than eight months.

No date has been set for Mr. Heyman's arrival, but the Chicago investment banker appears well aware that his tenure won't be without its challenges: There's the Keystone XL oil pipeline, the Windsor-Detroit crossing, intellectual property law, a potential reopening of the 20-year-old North American free trade agreement and the list goes on.

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"Time to get to work!" he tweeted after his confirmation Wednesday – the same day Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canada, like the United States, is "interested" in reopening NAFTA, particularly on the issue of labour mobility and government procurement.

The U.S. embassy in Canada wouldn't arrange an interview with Mr. Heyman on Wednesday, since he has not yet submitted his credentials to the Governor-General here. An attempt to reach Mr. Heyman at his Goldman Sachs office in Chicago failed. Canada's ambassador to the U.S., Gary Doer, was also unavailable.

But onlookers with diplomatic experience say Mr. Heyman has an exciting but tough road ahead, particularly given the frustration in Ottawa regarding country-of-origin meat labelling and the Obama administration's drawn-out non-decision on TransCanada Corp.'s proposed Keystone pipeline, which would deliver Canadian crude to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

"I don't envy him," said Derek Burney, Canada's ambassador to Washington from 1989 to 1993 who currently serves on TransCanada's board of directors.

Fen Hampson, a director at the Ontario-based Centre for International Governance Innovation, said Mr. Heyman is walking into a "very sour relationship" and "has his work cut out for him," while former Canadian diplomat Robert Collette called it a "delicate time."

Mr. Collette joined Mr. Burney in advising Mr. Heyman to choose and nourish his relationships here wisely. "How he will interact with the people responsible for certain projects, the media and the authorities – our Prime Minister and so on – will be something he will have to carefully manage," he said.

As both the U.S. and Canada look beyond North America to build trade relationships – Mr. Harper just inked a Canada-South Korea free trade deal this week – it is possible to forget the breadth and depth of Canada-U.S. relations. The neighbours are the world's largest trading partners, with $710-billion in goods and services in 2012. Canada is the largest foreign supplier of energy to the U.S. The U.S. is Canada's largest foreign investor. And about 300,000 people cross the border each day.

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Maryscott Greenwood, who served in the foreign service at the embassy in Ottawa, said Mr. Heyman's entry comes at a time offering "terrific possibilities." Specifically, the senior adviser to the Canadian-American Business Council in Washington said she hopes his tenure will coincide with progress on the Beyond the Border initiative and the U.S.-Canada Regulatory Cooperation Council.

"Those are things that are works in progress and they're not done yet," she said. "What they could really use is a shot in the arm, a cheerleader – but not just a cheerleader, a champion."

She called the Windsor-Detroit crossing one of the "thornier" issues Mr. Heyman will face, since Barack Obama hasn't promised the $250-million required to build a border inspection plaza. As for the pipeline, Ms. Greenwood said the Vanderbilt University graduate is arriving at the table late in the game – and besides, she said, "that's a decision that'll be made in the Oval Office."

Mr. Heyman, a top Obama fundraiser, will follow in the footsteps of David Jacobson, who is also from the President's home city, Chicago.

"I think Canadians are going to love him," Ms. Greenwood said.

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