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Louise Blais is a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations and former consul-general to the U.S. She is currently diplomat-in-residence at Laval University.

Emerging from his party’s latest cabinet retreat, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced he has assigned two ministers to oversee a “Team Canada” approach to relations with the United States, regardless of our southern neighbour’s electoral outcome in November (which could see Donald Trump elected to a second presidential term). I have long advocated for an all-hands-on-deck approach to our relationship with the U.S., both while I was in government and ever since. So why do I find myself deeply worried at this moment?

Canada’s relationship with the United States is an existential one. We are reliant on the U.S. for our economy and security. And internationally, like it or not, we derive most of our influence from how the U.S. treats us. It’s fundamental to how the rest of the world treats us.

When Mr. Trump first came onto the political scene in 2015, I was the consul-general responsible for six states in the southeastern U.S., including Georgia and South Carolina. Before long, he started campaigning to tear up the North American free-trade agreement. In my then-territory, which ironically benefited the most from our trade pact, it was clear many Americans were about to vote against their best interest. I was in MAGA land.

Recognizing this, and leading up to the 2016 GOP convention, I spent hours speaking with Republicans and conservative politico types – anyone who could have influence within a Trump presidency. Back then, he did not appear that competitive. But I thought: why take a chance? There is too much at stake.

I had countless discussions with ultraconservative legislators, whom I knew well, and who endorsed Mr. Trump early on. This included insightful exchanges over lunches and dinners with then-senator Jeff Sessions (later attorney-general), congressman Tom Price (later secretary of health), and former governor Sonny Perdue (later agriculture secretary). Soon, I was introduced to staffers who held the pen on trade policy for the Trump campaign. One of them in particular, who ended up joining the White House as Mr. Trump’s legislative director, danced into one of our meetings singing O Canada, telling me that he honeymooned in British Columbia and loved our country.

What did I learn from that moment in time that still applies today?

First, even the most conservative of Republicans are friendly to Canada. While we may not be top of mind, they know the general contours of why having Canada as a neighbour is a net positive for them. Yet, what they value above all else are relationships. Specifically, relationships that are not opportunistic but instead built over time (years) and based on mutual respect, even in times of marked differences. (Many of them, by the way, have bipartisan friendships behind the scenes.)

They are proud and they are sentimental, rooted in family and community. They will invite you to tailgate at a football game and regale you with fabled stories of sports heroism or what their grandpa did years ago. They will be generous and courteous.

While it is true that it was best to avoid religion and gun control as conversation topics in these scenarios, when those discussions did come up (in one instance, when an official wanted to bring their guns on a hunting trip to Canada and wasn’t allowed to), I learned where these beliefs originate: from a fierce rejection of government overreach and the belief that it does more harm than good in the long term. This knowledge was helpful in crafting our messages to the U.S. government, so that they resonated with a bipartisan audience.

I also learned that staying in touch, and sending congratulatory messages related to births, graduations and other life events, meant a lot to my conservative American colleagues. Just a simple How are you? or How are the kids? went a long way. I remained the diplomat, and they the elected official, but the respect was personal. Plus, seeing the Canadian consul-general light up their phone also reminded them of their special bond with Canada – that we are in this together.

After working to build trust, I was eventually able to ask for things on Canada’s behalf, such as the repeal of Country of Origin Labelling (COOL). Only once that rapport was established could I hope to be reached by them for Canada’s views on something they were working on.

Down the road, one such friend, a congresswoman (now senator) helped me organize an initial call between the Prime Minister and then-president-elect Mr. Trump. Another insider contact agreed to graciously host my ambassador at a Trump transition team lunch in New York that I happened to know was going on because I was in touch with them.

Based on my experiences, I am supportive, but also sadly skeptical, of this latest grand Team Canada announcement.

First, because many of these relationships were years in the making. Having them should be Canada’s policy every single day of the year; it should never be done in a panic. The Americans will see right through that. Never mind that we are disparaging Republicans when we imply they are all future problems to be dealt with. That, too, they notice. Trust me. I remember when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told me in September, 2016: “We hear what you guys are saying about [then-candidate] Trump. Be very careful, because you are picking sides and that is badly seen.”

It is one thing for pundits and Canadians to express their views on American politics, but if I were asked by our government about how we should craft a winning strategy with our neighbours, my first advice would be: Not to comment on their elections other than to say that this is a domestic issue and for the Americans to support who they wish. And, importantly, Canada will be ready to work with whoever is in the White House and in Congress.

After all, our country would be the first to cry foul if an American administration meddled in our elections and voiced a preference for the leader of our own democracy.

Second, I would keep the rhetoric in check concerning this new charm offensive. I would just do it internally, and make it okay for government officials to meet with MAGA officials, which I sense there is still resistance to, or at least discomfort with. If we truly want insurance for January, 2025, we have to be believable and not so obviously self-serving or disingenuous. And we certainly can’t be patronizing, or vocalizing about which candidate we feel is most virtuous. American politicians will notice that, too.

We are already extremely late in the game. Doing this only now, coming out of a cabinet retreat, betrays our bias: That we waited until it was clear that Mr. Trump or the Republicans had a chance to regain power. Yet, this is the situation we find ourselves in again. And that’s on us.

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