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Magnanimous in defeat, Lawrence Cannon bids adieu to Foreign Affairs

Lawrence Cannon delivered his swan song as Canada's foreign minister with good humour and few regrets Monday, arguing he would not have changed "one iota" in the failed campaign for the United Nations Security Council that marked his biggest setback in the role.

Mr. Cannon, who entered the cabinet post with no international experience in 2008 to put a political veteran's touch on the Foreign Affairs portfolio, leaves as the longest-serving foreign minister since Lloyd Axworthy in the 1990s.

His surprise election defeat at the hands of an NDP upstart in his Western Quebec riding of Pontiac now leaves Stephen Harper looking for a new foreign minister - and has led to speculation Mr. Cannon will eventually move on to a prominent overseas appointment.

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The outgoing minister, in a speech to diplomats at his department's Ottawa headquarters, underlined support for democracy and human rights around the world as the most important role for Canadian foreign policy. And he slipped in a joke at his own expense.

"The force of the instinct for democracy can sometimes surprise us, as has been the case in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya, and Syria - and I'm almost tempted to add, in Pontiac," he said. "But I don't think anybody ever thought of me as Maniwaki Gadhafi."

Mr. Cannon's two-and-a-half-year tenure at Foreign Affairs seemed to mark a shift for the Canadian foreign minister to a role as chief spokesman for a foreign policy that is firmly under the direction of the Prime Minister.

There were few initiatives Mr. Cannon could claim as his own. But after Mr. Harper went through three short-lived foreign ministers in his first minority term, Mr. Cannon served to put a mellower face on international relations during the second Tory minority.

He jetted around the world to warm relations with China, served as a key player in Canada's efforts to help stabilize post-earthquake Haiti, and when allies complained of Canada's plans to quit Afghanistan, it was Mr. Cannon who quietly met U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington to discuss a new, sizable role for Canadian troops in training Afghan security forces.

Mr. Cannon leaves at a time when Canada is heavily involved in a military mission around Libya, and when several Canadians are being detained at the hands of foreign governments. The Taliban released video over the weekend of captured 26-year-old Colin Rutherford, and Canadian Al Jazeera journalist Dorothy Parvaz has been detained by Syrian authorities.

Mr. Cannon said junior foreign minister Diane Ablonczy, who is responsible for consular cases, is still in her post and in charge of those cases.

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He cited as his greatest regret the fact he will not be in office to greet the last Canadian combat soldiers to serve in Afghanistan when they return home, but insisted he had no misgivings over a major failed campaign: the Canadian bid for a seat on the UN Security Council, which was defeated last fall by competition from Germany and Portugal.

That bid - the first time Canada has not won a Security Council election - has been ascribed by many to Mr. Harper's pro-Israel stand, his government's shift from aid priorities in Africa to trade priorities in Latin America and a lack of Canadian policy to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. But it was also the result of the government's reluctance to campaign early and aggressively for the seat, an odd lapse for an electoral veteran like Mr. Cannon.

Mr. Cannon, however, ascribed the loss to the government's insistence on sticking to its policies, and said he would do it the same way again. "I would not change one iota of what we did," he said. "We stood on principle."

The departing foreign minister heard plaudits from his own senior civil servants, who credited him with listening respectfully to the views of his officials - something of a sore point at a department where seasoned diplomats had felt their role was restricted or dismissed by the Conservative government.

But he also poked some fun at the traditions of diplomacy, like the regular statements of concern for developments around the world, and at himself.

"I have learned much in my time here. For example, briefings are rarely brief. And secret intelligence is often neither. Also, my friends, I never imagined that I could be so often deeply troubled or deeply concerned," he said. "I also know that objects in overhead bins can shift during flight, and I don't need to be reminded ever again."

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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