Forget Keystone XL, the Canada-U.S. relationship is too big to fail.
Actually, Ambassador Bruce Heyman, the former investment banker and big-league campaign fundraiser President Barack Obama tapped as his envoy to Ottawa, did not put it quite that way. He is relentlessly upbeat about Canada-U.S. relations, but sufficiently inculcated with the diplomatic niceties that he can smoothly side-step discussion of irritants such as the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline.
The Globe and Mail reported last week that Mr. Heyman had a troubled first year in Canada, arriving when Stephen Harper's government was already cool to the Obama administration over issues such as the delays in approving Keystone XL, and for months was unable to meet with senior cabinet ministers.
However, during a 20-minute interview on the margins of the SelectUSA conference, a government-sponsored gathering on the banks of the Potomac intended to boost foreign direct investment in the United States, the ambassador did not utter the word "Keystone" even when asked whether Mr. Obama's long delay in deciding whether to approve the controversial plan had damaged bilateral relations. Instead, Mr. Heyman spoke glowingly about the broader relationship and made no direct reference to the President or the Prime Minister.
"I don't really focus or spend time on rocky bits," he said, while acknowledging that a relationship as big and complex as the one between Canada and the United States will always have "challenges."
Pushed on whether Keystone XL, the $8-billion pipeline that would export carbon-heavy Alberta oil sands crude across the U.S. heartland to the Texas coast had soured Canada-U.S. relations or was just a focus of media attention, the ambassador replied: "I don't believe it has affected the commerce between our two countries."
And commerce is a great measure.
"Trade is at record levels and growing," Mr. Heyman said. "There's no better trading relationship in the world."
Not to mention that – political differences notwithstanding – Canadians and Americans like each other, as Mr. Heyman was keen to point out.
"The relationship between the United States of America and its citizens and Canada and its citizens, I think is good," he said.
As for the differences, Mr. Heyman was not about to discuss them publicly.
"I'm not Pollyannaish. There will be, and sometimes are, challenges, but we work through those," he said.
One way is to engage sub-national governments.
"I've reached out to 50 governors and encouraged them [to go] on trade missions," Mr. Heyman said. "I'm reaching out to premiers and encouraging them to come to the United States."
The ambassador is also pushing hard on little things that make a big difference. One is regulatory harmonization on everything from sizing to safety standards so that goods can flow easily across the border and be sold in the other country.
Some high-profile efforts – such as joint action to toughen rail tankers in response to several catastrophic derailments – are well known. But Mr. Heyman listed a range of impediments.
"Our safety standards on everything from baby car seats to lipstick contents to bottles of baby food to the labelling on cans of soda, all of those are a little different and that may seen innocuous, but those differences impede trade," he said.
"We're trying to find ways that our regulators can work together in advance of setting rules so that the rule setting is harmonized up front. It's easier to do that in advance."