Free to talk
David Wilkins settles into a plush armchair in the foyer of the Chateau Laurier hotel in Ottawa.
"Ask me whatever you want,'' he says, a wide grin on his face. ''I'm free to talk now.''
As the U.S. Ambassador to Canada during George W. Bush's second term, Wilkins may not have been free to talk. But that didn't mean he wasn't a sought-after quote by Canadian reporters.
Whether it was advising Liberal MPs to tone down their ''emotional tirades'' over softwood lumber, or advising Canadians to ''get a passport'' to meet the proposed new U.S. entry requirements at the border, Wilkins was famous for being diplomatically undiplomatic — and for his efforts to portray an unpopular president in the most flattering light.
These days, Wilkins is a partner in a large U.S. law firm, where he is still sought after for his views on Canada-U.S. relations by business groups and by new clients, including the government of Saskatchewan.
In an interview at the venerable hotel just two doors down from the U.S. Embassy, Wilkins remains true to his Republican roots. The Bush administration, he says, advocated free trade and that's been a benefit to Canada.
Now, with the Democrats in office, there is talk is of erecting trade barriers to protect American jobs and Canadians should be worried.
"You know, we're hearing a lot of protectionist sentiments in the U.S.," Wilkins says. "It may sound good, it may sound patriotic to Americans, but economists and historians agree, it flat doesn't work.''
Wilkins understands why Canada is now trying to negotiate new trade agreements with the European Union and other countries.
"Under the Bush administration we had a lot more free trade agreements than Canada did. Now it looks like the tables have been turned. You all are interested in negotiating free trade agreements, you won't see many from us in the next few years.''
Wilkins also cautions that there is a strong move in the United States to bring in tougher emissions controls that could work against Canadian energy exports, especially oil produced from Alberta's tar sands.
"I think there's a lot of serious rhetoric that could have serious consequences down the road. Now I hope common sense will prevail. I think you have to weigh the economic consequences against the environmental benefits, and too much weight is now being given to the environment.''
It's a message Wilkins will be delivering in Calgary later this week, mixed in with a little political reminiscing.
"You know, as I said the last six months I was here. George Bush was a good friend of Canada. And now it's proving to be more and more obvious that he was.''
— Chris Hall
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