Manitoba's "angry rhetoric" on a dispute over Devils Lake in North Dakota embittered U.S. officials and made for a "terribly strained" relationship, secret American diplomatic documents released by WikiLeaks suggest.

The documents shed new light on the longstanding spat between Canada and the U.S. over Devils Lake, calling it a "prime example of failed diplomacy." One of the people at the centre of it all — former Manitoba premier Gary Doer — is now Canada’s ambassador in Washington.

The lake in North Dakota has no natural outlet, and for years state officials wanted to give its citizens relief from flooding by sending Devils Lake water into Manitoba’s watershed via the Red River.

Foreign species

North Dakota spent millions constructing an outlet to re-route the water and, despite years of political protests and court challenges by Manitoba and Canada, pumps were switched on in August 2005, redirecting floodwater into the Sheyenne River, then the Red River and, ultimately, into Lake Winnipeg. Manitoba had argued pollution and harmful foreign species would be introduced into Canadian waterways from Devils Lake.

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An outlet diverts water from Devils Lake into the Sheyenne River, a tributary of the Red River, which flows north into Lake Winnipeg. ((CBC))

A confidential diplomatic cable three months before that, coming to light only now through WikiLeaks, shows the acrimony behind the scenes. U.S. diplomat John Dickson wrote on May 10, 2005, "The U.S. and Canada are clearly on a collision course over Devils Lake, one that could have been avoided in a number of ways over the past two years."

Doer, who was Manitoba premier at the time, had been demanding the U.S. refer the Devils Lake project to the International Joint Commission, a bilateral body that settles disputes between the two countries under the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty. Although Doer is not named in the cable, Dickson wrote that the Canadian arguments "have taken on an air of empty moralizing. Their actions reflect more a strategy of delay or cancellation of the project at all costs, using whatever argument seems convenient at a given moment."

By 2005, $25 million had already been spent on the outlet and U.S. officials argued Canada should have asked for the referral to the IJC much earlier.

'The angry rhetoric and intransigence of the provincial government in Manitoba ... has served to harden the attitude in North Dakota.' — U.S. diplomat John Dickson

Dickson called Canada’s behaviour "unfortunately disingenuous." He wrote, "The angry rhetoric and intransigence of the provincial government in Manitoba, now escalating at the federal level in Ottawa, has served to harden the attitude in North Dakota, rather than help move toward a solution."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper named the leader of that provincial government, Doer, as his ambassador to Washington in 2009. Doer’s biography on the Foreign Affairs Department's website credits him as having worked "extensively with U.S. governors to enhance Canada-U.S. co-operation" on several issues, including water protection.

But in Dickson’s 2005 assessment, the Doer government and Ottawa's policy showed "little concern for the very real plight of their neighbours, despite a fairly long history of co-operation over flooding issues in the Red River Basin."

Play down negative impacts, memo advises

Dickson, who in that year was deputy chief of mission to U.S. ambassador Paul Cellucci and his successor, David Wilkins, also explored how to limit the diplomatic damage over the transborder spat.

"Once the water starts flowing through the outlet,... we should be prepared to make the best case possible that water from the outlet has not introduced alien invasive species to the Sheyenne and Red Rivers and that the outlet has not had a significant negative impact on water quality downstream," he wrote.

"We should be ready to respond quickly and forcefully to complaints from Manitoba, the Canadian government and the media with our own message, one that will depend to a large extent on North Dakota’s compliance with EPA water quality standards and the best possible research on the alleged invasive species in Devils Lake."

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Former U.S. ambassador to Canada David Wilkins says Doer's effectiveness hasn't been jeopardized by the Devils Lake spat.

Dickson suggested it would be useful for North Dakota to invite water officials from Manitoba and Canada to participate in ongoing monitoring activities. That would help establish transparency and credibility for U.S. authorities with their Canadian counterparts, he wrote, and start to "rebuild trust in this terribly strained relationship."

From his office in Greenville, S.C., Wilkins told CBC News that he always had a good working relationship with Doer, even when there were disagreements, and that the views expressed in the diplomatic cable would not impact Doer’s effectiveness as Canadian ambassador.

"This is a cable written by one person, back six years ago.... He was trying to express his views on a very ticklish subject between our two countries in May of 2005," Wilkins said. "And if you had asked Gary Doer and his people, they probably would have said the U.S. was not co-operative."

In Winnipeg, former Canadian foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy agreed.

"At the time when this was on, I don't think the Americans were very happy about Premier Doer because he was pushing the pedal on this one. And that's the way this works, but I don' think it reflects on his job now," Axworthy said.

Doer was not available for an interview.

Ongoing negotiations

Canada is still concerned that certain organisms in Devils Lake water could have harmful impacts downstream, including in Canadian waters, a Foreign Affairs spokesperson said. The IJC is expected to release its assessment of the risk posed by these organisms in the next few weeks.

A separate U.S. cable dated November 19, 2004, had recommended the issue be sent to the IJC for a review, as Canada and Manitoba had been asking.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson declined comment on the cables, but said that the dialogue has moved significantly in the past six years and that both countries have shown goodwill toward addressing the matter.

The State Department said two working groups meet regularly on the Devils Lake issue and there are protocols in place to notify the public if any environmental harm arises downstream.