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Politics A bipartisan diplomat, Lawrence Cannon survives Ottawa’s shuffle

Lawrence Cannon, who will finish off his term as Canada’s ambassador to France, benefited in Paris from his capacity to act in a non-partisan manner.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

In the months leading up to last year's election, Conservative organizers in Quebec held their breath as Lawrence Cannon mulled a return to politics.

The former minister would have had to quit his job as Canada's ambassador to France, but there were signs he was willing to provide a much-needed boost to the Conservative campaign in the province. His wife and their two children returned to live in Canada around that time, and the Conservatives were running high in the polls in the Quebec City area, where a winnable riding was his for the taking.

Instead, Mr. Cannon gambled and decided to stay in Paris. He quickly ingratiated himself to the new Liberal government, surviving this week's purge of a number of Conservative appointees in Canada's diplomatic ranks. He now gets to finish his fifth year in France.

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A Liberal official said the government wants to make it clear that "having had a career in another party is not a death sentence."

Shortly after he was sworn in last November, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was accompanied by Mr. Cannon as he went to the Élysée Palace for an official visit with French President François Hollande. Mr. Trudeau was impressed by his ambassador's performance, and the feedback he received in Paris and Ottawa was unanimously favourable.

"The Prime Minister wants to reprofessionalize the diplomatic service," the senior Liberal source said. "Lawrence is doing a good job over there and the Prime Minister has decided that he will finish his term."

Not everyone was as lucky, as a number of other ambassadors appointed by former prime minister Stephen Harper were replaced this week. Canada's outspoken ambassador to Israel since 2014, Vivian Bercovici, was replaced by Deborah Lyons, a respected diplomat who was envoy to Afghanistan. The Liberal government also replaced Bruno Saccomani, the former RCMP officer in charge of Mr. Harper's security detail, who was appointed as ambassador to Jordan in 2013. He is replaced by career diplomat Peter MacDougall.

A minister under Quebec premier Robert Bourassa in the 1980s and 1990s, Mr. Cannon was a star recruit for the Conservatives in their 2006 election breakthrough. After winning his seat in the riding of Pontiac, in western Quebec, he was named minister of transport and then foreign affairs, until his defeat in the 2011 election.

One year later, he was appointed by Mr. Harper as Canada's ambassador to France.

A former Conservative organizer said Mr. Cannon allowed a number of party officials to dream about his candidacy last year, when the party hoped to regain a number of seats in Quebec.

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"He is the type of guy who never closes the door on an opportunity as long as he is thinking about it," the Conservative source said.

Still, friends of Mr. Cannon said he benefited in Paris from his capacity to act in a non-partisan manner, rooted in the fact he was a Liberal in Quebec politics and a Conservative at the federal level.

"He is what they call bipartisan in the United States, in that he is not dogmatic," said a former Conservative official from Quebec, who added that Mr. Cannon would not have been surprised had he been quickly recalled by the Liberal government.

In diplomatic circles, officials said Canada's relations with France and members of La Francophonie are thriving. In addition, Mr. Cannon got kudos for setting up crisis units during the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice. There were no Canadian citizens among the victims, but everything was in place to deal with any emergency, sources said.

"You could see he had the necessary experience," said one federal official.

Mr. Trudeau will be able to choose Mr. Cannon's successor based on the winner of France's presidential election on May 7, 2017.

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Regarding Mr. Cannon's next steps, friends said they don't expect him to return to active politics, although he will face pressure to run for mayor in Gatineau, where he once sat on city council.

Still, one of his friends predicted that Mr. Cannon, now 68, will "remain in the public arena" and speak out on issues he believes in, such as free trade between Canada and the European Union.

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