In early January, when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney announced that Gen. John de Chastelain, the chief of Canada’s defence staff, would be Canada’s new ambassador in Washington, the appointment caused a stir among embassy staff members. According to one, some of his colleagues had visions of an inflexible military man briefing his new staff with flip charts and a wooden pointer. The impression that de Chastelain made during a four-day visit to Washington last week could not have been more different. During an hour-long meeting with senior members of the embassy staff, said an embassy official, de Chastelain handled the issues impressively and came across as “cool, collected and sharp-witted.” Those qualities should serve de Chastelain well in his new role at a time when Ottawa is intent on building a strong reía| tionship with President Bill Clinton’s Democratic administration.
De Chastelain, who begins his new duties as successor to the outgoing ambassador, Derek Burney, in February, arrived in the U.S. capital at an opportune moment. The Canadian Embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue provided one of the finest vantage points in the city for viewing the inaugural parade. As a result, U.S. senators, senior Democrats and other Washington notables attended an Inauguration Day reception at which de Chastelain acted as host. The affair provided de Chastelain with a valuable introduction to Washington power brokers. Said an embassy official: “Hosting a party that attracts the Ateam of Washington has carved months of work off de Chastelain’s job.”
In addition to making new contacts at the party, the 55-year-old de Chastelain spent some of his time in Washington with old military acquaintances, including Gen. Colin Powell, chief of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff. They both attended a Jan. 16 meeting with outgoing president George Bush at Camp David, Md. De Chastelain told Maclean’s that he was not overly concerned by indications that the Clinton administration might try to defend the U.S. economy with tough protectionist policies. Declared de Chastelain: “We have everything to gain from being competitive ourselves and by demonstrating to the United States that it is in
their interests that we be strong as well.” According to Ottawa insiders, Mulroney was in a quandary in early January over a replacement for Burney. Then, as he was about to begin a Florida vacation, Mulroney reread a letter de Chastelain had sent to him two months earlier as a reminder that his term as chief of defence staff would expire in August. Said a senior Mulroney aide: “It hit the Prime Minister like a bolt of lightning. There was someone who had cut a swath through Ottawa.”
Tough: According to the aide, Mulroney was impressed with the military commander’s measured handling of the armed standoff between soldiers and Mohawks at Oka, Que., in 1990, and Canadian participation in the 1991 Gulf War. In Mulroney’s opinion, said the aide, de Chastelain “is incredibly competent and has the force of character that allows him to move and work quickly.” The career soldier, whose rapid rise through the military ranks began when he joined the Canadian Army in Calgary in 1955, made his decision quickly. Mulroney offered him the job at 4 p.m. on Jan. 4, and called back at 9:30 p.m. from Florida for an answer. De Chastelain accepted.
De Chastelain has a reputation in military circles of being a seasoned but tough-minded
professional. He presided over Canada’s military at a time of severe budget restraint. Respected internationally as commander of Canada’s peacekeeping forces, de Chastelain has made a favorable impression on key figures in the U.S. military establishment. Said Powell of his fellow general: “He is not only a great friend, but a tremendous officer who will serve the Canadian people with skill and distinction.” In his new job, de Chastelain will try to gain the attention of officials in a newly installed government who do not attach a high priority to Canadian affairs. As Burney told reporters at an embassy briefing last December: “This is not a traditional diplomat’s job. You don’t sit at your desk composing elegant telegrams for obscure desk officers to read.” Canadian ambassadors in Washington can lobby Congress and effectively promote Canadian interests, as Burney did over the issue of acid rain. Putting Canada’s case forward in Washington, said de Chastelain, is “like Chinese water torture—if you keep repeating the message, somebody is going to get it after a while. That is what I am going to do.”
E. KAYE FULTON in Ottawa with HILARY MACKENZIE in Washington
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