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Obama seeks environment partner in Trudeau, says envoy to Washington

Canada’s new ambassador to Washington stands in the Oval Office with President Barack Obama on Wednesday after presenting his credentials.

Lawrence Jackson/The White House

President Barack Obama is determined to "renew and refresh" Canada-U.S. relations and burnish his legacy with a multidimensional continental climate-change strategy when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits the Oval Office on Thursday, says Canada's new envoy to Washington.

Ambassador David MacNaughton, who presented his credentials to Mr. Obama last week, told The Globe and Mail that high-level talks will run into this weekend as senior officials work behind the scenes to reach agreement on a broad range of initiatives from border and trade measures to energy and the environment.

"Obviously they have a lot in common in terms of values and how they see the world," Mr. MacNaughton said in his first interview since being named to the post in January. "It's really their shared values that are really important and particularly the focus on the environment. The President is serving his last year and he is trying to focus on legacy issues."

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Mr. MacNaughton said the President spoke to him about how important it was to have a partner in Mr. Trudeau, who endorsed the ambitious targets set at the Paris climate-change summit, an issue in which former prime minister Stephen Harper showed little interest.

"There is an awful lot of anticipation and an awful lot of excitement in Washington about the visit," he said. "He [Mr. Obama] obviously emphasized the importance of Canada's role and our relationship with the United States and how pleased he was the Prime Minister is making a commitment to renew and refresh the relationship."

U.S. officials have privately complained to Canadian ministers and senior officials that the Harper government had allowed the bilateral relationship to wither, even to the point of ostracizing U.S. Ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman, who is a personal friend of the President.

As part of the bilateral climate-change strategy, the two leaders are expected to announce new measures to tighten fuel and emission standards and foster green technology, including greater use of electric cars.

"The transportation sector, whether it be heavy vehicles including tractors on farms and transportation by truck, these areas are ones where there is some low-hanging fruit," he said. "On the electric vehicle side, that has potential and there are such technological innovations, particularly in terms of batteries."

Expect an announcement on regulations to deal with the release of methane gas from fracking and other gas processing as part of the strategy to combat global warming.

"That is being under discussion and I think we are making real progress. Obviously, the Prime Minister and the President will have more to say next week," he said, while also noting there's also likely to be an announcement on harmonization of environmental and food standards. "We want to give a shot in the arm to that. Streamlining regulatory standards is not just good for business but it's good for consumers. There is a real savings to be had in terms of people who are going to consume the goods."

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The Americans are pushing hard for Canada to adopt an exit/entry system that will track the movement of everyone who leaves the U.S. or Canada with the information available to authorities in both countries. The federal Privacy Commissioner's Office has raised concerns about this record system in the past although Mr. MacNaughton indicated those concerns will be addressed.

"We are working hard and hopefully to be able to say something about this next week, but we are not quite there," he said. "With any luck and some hard work over the weekend, hopefully, we can be a little more specific about it," said Mr. MacNaughton, a former high-priced corporate consultant, who co-chaired Mr. Trudeau's Liberal election campaign in Ontario.

Officials have also been working on measures to expand U.S. customs preclearance at more airports, such as Toronto Island and Quebec City, and to extend the trusted travel program to include trusted employers as well as preclearance at manufacturing plants in Canada to make it easier for people and goods to flow across the border.

The toughest bargaining has involved the expired softwood lumber deal. Canada has until October to reach a new arrangement or U.S. tariffs could kick in. There is the possibility that Canada and the U.S. could name special envoys to settle the dispute.

"Hopefully between now and October, we can find a way to resolve this in an amicable way, which is good for both Canada and the United States. We are not there yet," he said. "We are not going to be there next week but hopefully we can come to an agreement as to how we will go at this over the next several months. If it ends up that everyone agrees that special envoys are the right answer, then so be it."

Whatever is achieved on Thursday will still need to be acted on and that may prove difficult given the fact Mr. Obama has less than a year left at the White House.

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"I wouldn't call this President a lame-duck yet," Mr. MacNaughton said. "He is pretty engaged and active and one of the things we are hoping to do is to use this visit as a way to work with the current administration to get as much done as we can in a period of time that they are focused."

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About the Author
Ottawa Bureau Chief

Robert Fife is The Globe and Mail's Ottawa Bureau Chief and the host of CTV's "Question Period with The Globe and Mail's Robert Fife." He uncovered the Senate expense scandal, setting the course for an RCMP investigation, audits and reform of Senate expense rules. In 2012, he exposed the E. More

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