Gary Mar, the province’s man in D.C., has plans for global diplomacy
LUIZA CH. SAVAGEJanuary282008
Gary Mar, the province’s man in D.C., has plans for global diplomacy
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE
“I wouldn’t purport to say we are developing a foreign policy,” insists Gary Mar, Alberta’s new diplomatic representative in Washington, and the only provincial envoy with his own office within the stately Canadian Embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue, a stone’s throw from Capitol Hill. No, not yet.
But a controversial diplomatic posting that began three years ago as an effort to promote the interests of Alberta’s booming energy industry is quietly being cranked up a notch—with Mar setting his sights beyond energy and even beyond the United States.
A cherubic 45-year-old political protege of Ralph Klein, Mar held five different portfolios in the Klein cabinet and happened to be the minister of intergovernmental affairs who oversaw the unprecedented creation of the province’s diplomatic shop here. Now Mar has been hand-picked by Premier Ed Stelmach to serve in the office himself, succeeding Murray Smith, and has arrived with a vision for using the Washington post as a springboard to a fledgling global dip-
lomatic offensive. “There is no doubt that we should have a focus on Washington—but there are leading and senior diplomats from all over the world who are located in Washington and we should also spend some time putting Alberta’s message before other nations,” Mar told Maclean’s in an interview in his still-undecorated embassy office. He also muses about Alberta setting up diplomatic posts in places like Beijing, Hong Kong and Tokyo, where it already has trade offices. “There may come a day when an
CANADIAN DIPLOMATS WERE APPALLED BY A PROVINCE MEETING WITH FOREIGN OFFICIALS
office like this becomes a reality,” he says.
When the province moved into the embassy, some veteran Canadian diplomats were appalled by the spectacle of a province holding its own meetings with senior officials, even testifying before Congress. The notion of fractured representation ran counter not only to traditional diplomatic culture but to the very principle of foreign policy and diplomacy as a core federal constitutional responsibility. Sure, other provinces had set up offices in D.C.—Quebec and Manitoba had their own representatives to lobby on certain issues—but their operations were lowkey. Alberta’s were anything but. Not only
did the Smithsonian Institute devote part of an annual summer festival in 2006 to the province, even trotting out an oil sands truck onto the National Mall—which served as a springboard for lunches, conferences, receptions and an A-list gala dinner—but Alberta had private entree directly into the White House thanks to long-standing ties with VicePresident Dick Cheney, a former oil man, and with the president’s father, George H. W. Bush.
Mar himself joined Klein on a visit with Cheney at the White House. “I don’t know if I’m at liberty to talk about that,” he says of his meeting with a vice-president so devoted to secrecy that he does not use email and tries to avoid writing at all. “Premier Klein and the vice-president enjoyed a very cordial relationship. They did talk about personal matters in addition to business,” says Mar. Then he adds, “I think that the persona of the vicepresident in person may be much warmer than is portrayed through the media lens. I quite enjoyed meeting with him.”
Will the Alberta government miss the Bush administration? “Yes, it will be a loss,” says Mar. “But it will be a loss regardless of who wins the White House in terms of the connection we currently enjoy.” He adds,
“It matters not whether it’s a Democrat in the White House or a Republican. We’ll be making a whole new set of contacts.”
Stelmach himself arrives in Washington this week for meetings. What message exactly will he and Mar be sending? Mar wants to reassure a nation panicked over its dependence on “foreign oil” that Alberta oil is different. “The U.S. spends a great deal of effort securing energy that comes from other parts of the world, and they secure that energy through enormous military effort. This is a source of energy where the security issues are not nearly as high and won’t require the same military to secure,” says Mar. But it will require more pipelines and more refineries to bring more oil to markets in the U.S. and beyond. “It requires infrastructure—and it should require a commitment to better environmental technology. And that should be a two-stroke win for any U.S. government
that is formed after the election,” he says.
With few Americans aware that Canada is their largest supplier of oil and energy, Mar will explain that Alberta has the second-largest reserves of oil in the world—around 175 billion barrels—behind only Saudi Arabia. He will argue for routing the planned Arctic pipeline through Alberta to make the province a distribution hub to U.S. markets. He will argue to other countries that unlike many other oil producers, Alberta will continue to be a net exporter for years to come. And he’ll note, of course, that the province owns the resource.
Mar is also in Washington to defend the environmental reputation of the oil sands,
which have been under attack from critics who argue that the exploitation of the resource ruins the landscape, produces greenhouse gases, and consumes unsustainable quantities of water and natural gas. “Twenty years ago I don’t think anyone anticipated that the technology would exist to allow us to even be able to develop this resource,” he says. “Today we can say with confidence that our process for exploiting this resource uses less fresh water than before, less natural gas than before, and our technology continues to improve.” This is the message he wants to aim at environmentally minded politicians,
such as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “This is something you want people like Gov. Schwarzenegger to know—that we are committed to improving technology that will reduce the environmental footprint that our exploitation of this resource will have.”
Mar is also looking for ways to expand the interests of Alberta in D.C. Agriculture will be a major focus, says Mar, who met with Alberta potato seed farmers before setting off for his new post. He also wants to find a way to get Alberta a greater slice of research funds from the National Institutes of Health, the primary federal U.S. agency for conducting and supporting medical research. Their budget is US$28 billion. “Some of it comes to Alberta,” he says. “I would be interested in ensuring that we maximize the value of the research dollars that come from the NIH to our province, where we do some gold standard worldclass research in the area of health.”
MAR AND STELMACH WANT TO REASSURE A NATION PANICKED BY DEPENDENCE ON FOREIGN OIL
The Alberta office has also been criticized at home, principally for its cost—$1.2 million annually—and for the expense account of Mar’s predecessor, right down to how much he billed the province for taxis. But Mar waves it off. “I think there are critics who know the cost of everything and know the value of nothing. I think that perhaps if people better understood why we were doing this, they would have less concern about how we’re doing it and how much it costs,” he says. Alberta exports goods worth $80 billion to $90 billion a year to the U.S., mainly energy and some agriculture, he says. “Ensuring that we can anticipate issues coming out of the U.S. and resolve them is quite important to our economic activity in the province.”
Mar notes that the office has so far enjoyed a good relationship with Ambassador Michael Wilson. He says Alberta’s diplomatic efforts are an example of what Prime Minister Stephen Harper calls asymmetrical federalism: “There is a recognition that within Confederation we are all equal but our interests in certain areas may differ province to province.” And what if the federal government takes a position on something, like the Canadian Wheat Board, that Alberta opposes? Will they air their differences in front of foreigners? Will congressional eyes glaze over at explanations of Canadian constitutional theories? “We’ll make that clear to anyone we speak to,” Mar says simply, “that Alberta’s position is different from that of the federal government.” M
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