Douglas & McIntyre
Frank McKenna

Book details:

November 2009
ISBN 978-1-55365-490-2
6" x 9"
272 pages
16 b&w photographs
Biography & Autobiography / Biography
$34.95 CAD

Douglas & McIntyre

Frank McKenna

Beyond Politics

Excerpt / Additional Content


Chapter 9: Almost Ballistic

McKenna’s Canadian Embassy foreign service chief Claude Carričre, who later joined the Privy Council Office in Ottawa as foreign and defence policy advisor to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and to serve as deputy secretary to cabinet, was one of the bureaucrats who, while awaiting the arrival of their new ambassador, had to be rolling their eyes over the BMD mess. Carričre agrees with McKenna that there was significant confusion among the ministers involved, and in particular between Minister Pettigrew and Prime Minister Martin. “From our point of view it was sort of a negative,” says Carričre, “because he [ McKenna ] had just arrived and he hadn’t been told” about the government’s decision. Carričre characterizes this as an extremely challenging period. “There was concern on the part of the U.S. administration at the way this was communicated and there was an attempt at the time to improve the relationship with the Martin government. This was the beginning of the non-improvement, if I can put it that way.” It was all the worse, Carričre adds, because there were such high expectations with McKenna as the ambassadorial choice. As far as Carričre knows, a situation that ridiculous had never occurred before.

Former U.S. assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs Roger Noriega, now the visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and managing director of his own firm, Visión Américas, llc, remembers thinking at the time that Martin had “changed calls” on McKenna, leaving the ambassador standing out in the cold and thinking, “Where’d everybody go? I thought I was supposed to be making things work here.” Noriega is an avid Canada-watcher who was well aware of McKenna when he took the job in Washington. In fact, several people in Noriega’s circle knew that McKenna had served as a Canadian premier, and in their eyes he was close to having the stature of a former U.S. state governor.

To Noriega, the BMD debacle was all the more unfortunate after Martin’s effort to send someone of McKenna’s stature to improve relations between Canada and the U.S. In a meeting with his boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, it was clear to Noriega that she was very upset with McKenna over the BMD mess. Noriega suggested that Rice raise the matter when McKenna presented his official credentials to President Bush, but she did not bother to hide the fact that she was prepared to penalize or embarrass the new Canadian ambassador. “Well he just earned himself having his credentials accepted by the deputy secretary of state,” Noriega quotes her as saying, which was her way of sending the message that McKenna’s stature in Washington was diminished before he’d even started the job. The deputy was Bob Zoellick, who later became head of the World Bank and who was sitting right there when she made the remark. Zoellick looked up over his glasses and told Rice he couldn’t do it because he was going to be out of town. That left the task to Nick Burns, who was undersecretary for political affairs, but who was not at the meeting to say whether or not he would be in town. “So then Nick can do it,” she chirped. “This was one of the early times,” says Noriega, “that I saw Rice kind of overreact and take things personally.”

After the meeting with Rice, it became Noriega’s “unappetizing responsibility” to introduce himself to McKenna over the phone and tell him that he was being shunted by the secretary of state in favour of a junior person, not exactly a great start for a ceremony that was intended to be the start of a key relationship. Noriega was told not to sugar-coat the explanation. He was under explicit instructions to explain the exact reasoning why. “You can’t do something like that and then just pretend it’s something else, and McKenna picked up on that right away. He was very nice about it,” Noriega says. “That was the thing about the guy. He is a remarkably even-keeled, kind fellow.”

From that point on, Noriega made a point of developing a strong relationship with McKenna. He later told him how unconscionable it had been for Rice to deal with McKenna the way she did at that time, expressing that he was just plain embarrassed over the whole thing.

As for McKenna’s subsequent relationship with Rice, Noriega says that in spite of the way she treated him at first, Rice did not write McKenna off. He refers to the incident as “totally episodic. It was not something that she held a grudge about, as far as I could tell.” He and Rice patched things up and developed a working relationship. There really wasn’t much choice, as the two had so much common work to deal with that it behooved them to get along. “I worked at it,” says McKenna. “I was the ambassador from Canada. She had to deal with me.”

But Rice did not work at it to the same extent. McKenna said to her on one occasion that he found it difficult to get on the radar screen with the U.S. “You don’t want to be on our radar screen,” she told him. Given the chilliness he felt from her, McKenna got things done mostly by going around her and getting results from other quarters.

It’s difficult to imagine that the BMD episode and the premature disclosure of McKenna’s appointment did not have a serious impact on any ambitions he might have had for a future in federal politics. He was not oblivious, after all, to the goings-on in the national political theatre. He had had countless dealings with Ottawa when he was premier, including everything from negotiating transfer payments to attendance at first ministers’ conferences. And there were the machinations involving the Meech Lake Accord. Why would he subject himself to the less palatable side of federal politics when he could function day-to-day in a relatively more collegial and loyal private sector environment?

In spite of the early speed bumps and the potential friction it could have caused between the two, Martin looks back with satisfaction over his choice of McKenna as ambassador. “On the one hand he is smart as hell and on the other hand very, very articulate — and that’s what we need in Washington,” says Martin. “We needed someone who could drive to the heart in Washington and deal with the administration, but under the American congressional system.”


Chapter 18: A Diplomatic Debate

There were signs in the spring of 2009 that Stephen Harper’s Conservatives were starting to pick up on the need to communicate better in the U.S. In mid-April, the government actually admitted publicly that they were paying lobbyists to try and smooth the way for more Canadian exposure. Just a week or two prior, the prime minister had suddenly begun to appear on major U.S. talk shows similar to the ones McKenna had been chasing four years prior. There was, however, something institutional and robotic about Harper’s message and delivery compared to the impassioned style of McKenna.

The debate over McKenna’s effectiveness as Canadian ambassador continues with the boyish, if not impish, Chris Sands, a regular go-to guy whenever the media are looking for analysis on Canadian affairs in Washington. He looks amazingly like the straight-laced pc guy in the Macintosh computer commercials; he also has the wholesome look of a man of the cloth — and, in fact, teaches young people at his suburban Washington-area church. Having earned his PhD from Johns Hopkins University specializing in Canada, U.S.-Canada relations and North American economic integration, Sands seems like he’s everywhere: an adjunct professor at the American University School of Public Affairs; a senior fellow at the American University Center for North American Studies; a member of the advisory committee to the U.S. Section of the North American Competitiveness Council; a lecturer at the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State for the Department of Homeland Security; and a senior fellow at Washington’s Hudson Institute, a public policy research organization that forecasts trends and develops solutions for governments, businesses and the public at large. You know the company you’re about to keep by the photographs on the wall of the institute’s lobby. With the likes of Ronald Reagan and Dick Cheney among those prominently displayed, everything looks and feels Republican.

Sands is a talking machine who especially appreciates being interviewed about Frank McKenna, if only because it gives him a chance to discuss Canada. Hardly anybody at the institute talks about Canada because most things there are so American-centric. Calling McKenna the first truly “political ambassador” to the U.S. in Canadian history, Sands reinforces the sharp contrast with previous ambassadors, especially Chrétien and Kergin. “Kergin was an inside guy, just as Raymond Chrétien had been, but McKenna came in with the political skills,” says Sands. By “inside guys,” Sands means that the two were too low-key for Canada’s good. The problem was exemplified by President George W. Bush’s oversight in not thanking Canada in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and of his failure to speak publicly when a U.S.-led friendly fire incident in Afghanistan ended up killing four Canadian soldiers (even though Bush had carried out the proper protocol of calling Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in the middle of the night to advise him of the incident and to express his regret on behalf of Americans). Canada was not on the radar at a time when Canadians felt they were involved in U.S. causes — and Canadian citizens became incensed about it.

So along comes McKenna riding on expectations that, because of his political background, he would be the salesman for new Canadian policies that Prime Minister Martin had promised would be more pro-American. But the Martin government, rather than shifting to a more pro-American stance, “became extremely ambivalent about whether it really wanted to get close to this [ Bush ] administration,” Sands explains. He believes the Martin government saw that domestic polls did not support U.S. policies such as bmd. “They were willing to be in Afghanistan. That was a big commitment, but they went in a little bit tentatively and then with the wrong equipment and they had a lot of issues trying to get organized there.” These conditions created an overall drag on the U.S. attitude toward Canada, which spun off into issues such as border security. For example, while the Martin government thought Canadians would be exempted from passport requirements for entry into the U.S., the Americans were in no such frame of mind. Canadians became subject to this requirement on June 1, 2009.

Sands disagrees with the many who believe McKenna was effective during his year in Washington and could have been the right guy to improve relations if he had not been crippled by policy in Ottawa. Instead, he believes, both McKenna and Martin fell short because they were unable to make a breakthrough on the issues Americans were most concerned about, especially BMD and border security.

Sands thinks McKenna’s tactics were superficial. “He met people, he was friendly, he was more outgoing, but in terms of Washington public diplomacy, it was a little underwhelming. He didn’t do a lot of the think tanks, he didn’t talk to the universities. He wasn’t snubbing them, but he just wasn’t doing much in the way of public outreach.” The plan to infiltrate Congress could have been a good strategy, Sands agrees, but only if McKenna had something tangible to offer congressional representatives when he did manage to get an audience with them. He needed something more tangible than just glad-handing and goodwill.

Sands is not unaware that at least some of Martin’s policy positions had to do with the minority government situation he was caught up in, hence the poll-watching on BMD and Martin’s thumbs-down on Canadian cooperation in that area of security. The Americans could sense that Martin was in a weak position when it came to policy development.

Sands said that McKenna’s “sunshine” on Canada wasn’t necessary with the Washington crowd who already know the country. It was not going to be effective in the face of the Martin policy gap, no matter how well-built initiatives like Connect2Canada were. Sands likens Connect2Canada to a pub night party where Canadians get together to do things like watch election results from home. He called the project just another form of spin.

Sands’s view on the McKenna team’s diaspora approach pretty much matches that of Allan Gotlieb, who says that “star-spangled Canadians do not and never will form part of a legitimate Canadian constituency. They will not pressure congressmen to be nice to their former fellow countrymen. They will not rise up against the nasties who want to restrain Canadian exports into the United States. Canadians who are now American citizens will act like Americans.”

Bernie Etzinger disagrees, believing that the information gleaned and delivered through mechanisms such as Connect2Canada was both meaningful and effective. A chunk of their audience were CEOs, VPs, entrepreneurs, people inside the political systems. As well, the initiative was never seen through to its envisioned scale and therefore was never permitted to take flight in the way that was intended. Much more effective, Sands says, was the more natural lobbying effect of Canadian-owned businesses near the Canada-U.S. border. He compares the effectiveness of their lobby to that of the Mexican-American lobby. Quite apart from any previous embassy activity, Sands says, the Canadian business community was already into free trade long before the Canada-U.S. free trade agreements were signed.

“Governments follow, [ they ] don’t lead,” he says. “I don’t think in North America that trade follows the flag. It never has. Canada-U.S. free trade did not open up Canada-U.S. trade for big business. They were already there. What it did, it generalized the benefits and simplified things for the businesses that had already made their investments and decisions about where they wanted to go.” In that sense, the agreement served to ease along or perhaps accelerate the activity already taking place between the two countries. The same was true of Mexico-U.S. businesses and their trade relations. If the Canadian government really wanted to be effective, all they needed to do was watch where the business community was going and invest more energy in that direction.

Sands says that although it was good that McKenna placed considerable stock in relations with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian American Business Council, he thinks McKenna may have put too much stock in the singular, one-by-one approach to the Canadian diaspora, who really don’t present a voice or form a lobby with any real sense of glue. Sands has firm theories about ambassadorial effectiveness. “If you’re McKenna or you’re whoever, how do you engage with your maximum leverage?” Sands says you do this by getting inside the headspace of the business community, which is already so far advanced in terms of cross-border integration. The North American auto industry would be a classic example, says Sands, as well as the Wal-Marts and Campbell’s Soups of the world. (Another example, closer to home, is McKenna’s td, which is aggressively expanding its U.S. activities while maintaining its footing in Canada.)

Sands believes that by focusing more on the business community as an ally, the Canadian government would have greater success grabbing congressional as well as administration attention when issues demand. “That is arm number one of what I would be doing,” he says. This sounds like the kind of philosophy McKenna could easily buy into.

“Arm number two” is the state governments, which Sands says are underestimated. This too matches McKenna’s way of thinking. “We have found in the last ten years or so — and you have probably observed it as well — that while the federal governments fiddled and were unable to really connect, the states and provinces have stepped forward and filled the vacuum and started dealing with things,” says Sands. Governors and premiers see themselves more or less as equals, while the U.S. president and the Canadian prime minister are far from equal. One reason the states and provinces can have greater success is because they are closer to their voters. “That’s the whole idea of federalism, you know. And we are pragmatic federalists in both our countries, which is to say we have two [ levels of ] governments that work for us, at least — not counting mayors — and we don’t care who does it. Whoever gets the job done wins points.” Sands agrees that McKenna was focusing on the “second arm” by dealing directly with governors and by encouraging the opening of thirteen new consular offices across the United States.

Although Sands thinks McKenna “had the ability to be maybe a bit of a game changer,” he inherited an embassy that was going through a sea change away from a group of foreign affairs career people who he says “didn’t like the Americans very much.” Sands says it was a particular problem during the Jean Chrétien era. “McKenna was good at his job. He just needed to do it longer.”

“It’s so ironic,” he says. “Canada is a country full of people who get along with Americans, I’d say the majority. Maybe they don’t love us and don’t always love George Bush, but they get us.” Sands contrasts some of the embassy’s foreign affairs people with former Alberta energy minister Murray Smith, whom the Alberta provincial government sent into Washington as their “mini-ambassador” to represent their interests stateside. “He’s great, you know, he’s a backslapping guy who seems like he belongs in the States. He’s really easy to deal with. You have tons of them. And what you [ the Canadian government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade ] were sending down were really odd ducks and people who in the embassy just stewed over the fact that the red carpet wasn’t rolled out, that Canada wasn’t getting enough credit.”

Sands says that some of the embassy staffers were antagonistic toward what they saw as the “anti-internationalist Bush administration with its six-guns blazing. And it was hard for McKenna, because it was a problem under [ Michael ] Kergin; it had been a problem before that, where even under Raymond [ Chrétien ] you had people who were seen around town as being not very friendly; I mean, just not liking us. Canadian diplomacy was oriented around a lot of complaints, a lot of laundry lists of things we were doing wrong. The number of Canadian delegations coming down [ to the U.S. ] is numerous as the stars — chambers of commerce, groups or whatever. And they all complain.”

Sands calls this phenomenon “Canada fatigue on Capitol Hill.” Other countries, such as Denmark or the Netherlands, operated on a much more balanced agenda, occasionally raising an issue, but Canada was on all channels all the time. True, Denmark and the Netherlands don’t share a border with the U.S. and aren’t linked to it in the same way Canada is, but the difference was just too extreme.


Chapter 21: Starfish

McKenna’s vision for the development of his own foundation began to really and truly crystallize with his work on behalf of another one. On September 13, 2008, in the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav, tropical storm Hanna and Hurricane Ike, he boarded a sixteen-seat military-style helicopter to fly to Gonaďves, Haiti’s fourth-largest city, and from there on to the capital city of Port-au-Prince. On board were film star and social activist Matt Damon, Haitian-born rapper and social activist Wyclef Jean, and td’s James Dodds. The men had volunteered to help distribute food with onexone (pronounced one-by-one), a charity that McKenna has chaired since March 2008. Matt Damon has also committed himself to the charity, which recently partnered with Wyclef Jean’s own foundation, Yéle Haiti, which assists his fellow Haitians in the areas of education, health, environment and community development.

As the helicopter moved through the humid Caribbean air, what they saw completely stunned them. More than five hundred people had been declared dead and nearly fifty thousand homeless as a result of the string of natural disasters, all made worse by the dearth of emergency preparedness. And the evidence of the disaster was inescapable.

Thousands were literally living on their rooftops to escape the devastation of flooding and to avoid the threat of looters. McKenna was nearly in tears. “Haiti was eye-opening for him,” says Dodds. “It was like nothing he had ever seen before. It moved Matt Damon, too.”

The victims were not thinking about work or school or money; they were thinking about moment-to-moment survival. “It was one of those things,” said Dodds, where “you are so overwhelmed that you tune it out until you’re home in your comfy bed and you begin to think about it.” Dodds said that for all of them, the sense of devastation in Haiti lingers, especially the notion that just an hour or so by air from the U.S. mainland such absolute poverty exists. Months after Frank McKenna returned home, Julie says, he is still affected by the Haiti trip. “He found the whole thing very moving.”

“I’ve never in my life witnessed the devastation that I saw in Haiti,” McKenna says. The trappings of a normal civil society were almost totally non-existent, owing to the government’s constant instability, which he says made it impossible to deal with the horrible level of poverty and lawlessness that are so rampant in the country. The cumulative effect of four hurricanes within the period of a month became a tipping point for the already ravaged nation. “I have witnessed poverty in a number of places around the world, but nothing of this magnitude.”

Onexone was founded by Canadian Joelle (Joey) Adler to celebrate the life of her late husband Lou Adler. Having admired McKenna before she even met him, Adler — together with Rogers Communications’ Edward Rogers — had asked him to chair Onexone. “I remember knowing about Frank when he was premier and also when very often he would be asked to comment during federal matters,” says Adler. “There was something that drew me as a person to him.”

Always a political junkie, she was not disappointed when she finally had the chance to meet him, in contrast to the disillusionment she was feeling about politicians in general. “He’s one of those guys that’s respected and loved.” His involvement has been good for the foundation and has definitely heightened his humanitarian sensibility. Still riveted by what he’d seen in September of 2008, McKenna followed up on his first Haiti experience by developing a continuing commitment to the country. In March of 2009, he joined Bill Clinton and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to promote the development of an anti-poverty action plan for what is classified as the poorest country in the entire western hemisphere. Rhyming off a litany of problems that have pushed Haiti further and further toward poverty and violence over the decades — political, environmental, economic and social — he made a plea for governments and business to rally behind the Clinton Global Initiative and other forces to help right the country. “Clinton saw us [ Damon, Jean and McKenna ] in Haiti and had a team down there the next day.” Next thing McKenna knew, Clinton was announcing at a global initiative function in New York City that his new number-one project was going to be assisting in Haiti.

“Because he saw us on TV,” says McKenna. In broader global economic terms, McKenna said that people in developed nations may be undergoing challenges because of the economic crisis that emerged late in 2008, but that there is no comparison to what’s taking place in Haiti. “We have to realize that whatever pain we’re feeling, it is miniscule compared to the misery of people who are living on less than a dollar a day,” he said in a news release publicizing the March mission with Clinton.

Putting things further in perspective, he speaks about factories which have as little as two hours of electrical power per day unless supplemented by generators. Haiti, he believes, could become as much a valid Caribbean tourism destination as the neighbouring Dominican Republic or other island nations that have made tourism the backbone of their economies. Just as he did with NB Works in the 1990s, McKenna talks about employment as being a major part of the fix. “There is no better form of aid than a job,” he says. “If people could actually make investments here that would make sense for them and create jobs here, that’s an extremely beneficial form of aid.”

This is the same type of philosophy professed by famed primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall. Her worldwide Roots & Shoots campaign, like other projects seeking to create change in the developing world, promotes putting people to work, introducing micro-credit systems to Third World nations and denouncing “aristocrats appearing before the beggars” as a pitiful form of providing relief.

A new generation of compelling voices has entered the aid dialogue, including economist and author Dambisa Moyo. A native of Zambia now working at Goldman Sachs, Moyo argues that the rich world and Africa should create new ways of helping poor countries to become more independent. She uses the example of Ghana to illustrate how some countries have successfully tapped the bond markets for funds, and she espouses the virtues of micro-finance, venture capital and opening up trade links.

In late April 2009, McKenna and Dodds flew to Rwanda to join Matt Damon, Edward Rogers, Joey Adler and Judith Irving of New Brunswick’s industrialist Irving family. There, they visited several relief projects first-hand. Damon, who had just wrapped production on a new Clint Eastwood film about Nelson Mandela, said in an interview from Kigali that he would unequivocally become involved in anything that McKenna asked him to, because he trusts McKenna implicitly. As a Hollywood celebrity, he’s met enough “BS artists” and enough genuine people to be able to tell the difference, and also to be highly scrutinizing. “We’ve been in enough situations, and the integrity the guy has — you can’t fake it.”

Damon and others who are giving to the Rwandan relief effort are very important players in bringing about change, but according to Adler, “the single most important person on the trip is McKenna. A lot of people might have just lent their name to something like this, but Frank brings the experience to guide, to do media, to promote [ the onexone ] brand and give extra help to a country which needs moral support and a foundation.” In Rwanda, the entourage met with President Paul Kagame to discuss opportunities for future development in the war-ravaged country. Kagame told them that his country and its people are thankful for the forms of philanthropy they are receiving, but that they do not want to perpetuate a culture of dependency — a philosophy that closely mirrors McKenna’s own.

In spite of what Rwanda went through during its genocide, Adler believes that now, with reformation and leadership from the likes of President Kagame, it is like a country in its infancy and can serve as a blueprint by which other African countries can grow. Adler thinks onexone should concentrate its energies and resources on a single country where they can make a pronounced difference rather than spread the organization thinly over too many initiatives. She spoke about ditches being dug for the laying of fibre optic cables, about hospitals which now have computers and cellphones and about a president who is driving the development of environmental policies. Kagame, she claims, does not want handouts for his people; he wants partnership and development for his country, which Adler believes is fully behind him.

McKenna admires the goals and aspirations of onexone and thinks about Starfish in comparative philosophical terms — the project realistically admits that you can’t save everyone in Haiti, but if you can take one village and make life better, then you have something for other villages to emulate. He uses the example of creating a model village through the provision of medical care, finding fresh water solutions, bringing into play agricultural solutions and establishing ideas such as micro-finance. “And then with that seed of that village, maybe it will go somewhere, maybe it won’t. But if it succeeds, then all of the other communities can say, ‘Here’s something that we can emulate.’ So it’s that idea of, as an individual, recognizing that you may not be able to save the world, but if you can save a piece of it, sometimes that helps.”