Canada’s chief of protocol ‘There was never a day in the U.S. where I didn’t feel as though I was working on things that mattered’

| June 30, 2017 | 0 Comments
Photo: Jana Chytilova

Photo: Jana Chytilova

Roy Norton became Canada’s chief of protocol in July 2016. From 2014 to 2016, he was Canada’s consul general in Chicago, and from 2010 to 2014, Canada’s consul general in Detroit. For the four years prior, he served as minister (congressional relations and public affairs) at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C.
Prior to that assignment, he served for six years in the government of Ontario, based in Toronto, as president and CEO of Ontario Exports Inc., assistant deputy minister (trade), and chief of protocol/assistant deputy minister (international relations).
During an earlier assignment in the economic section of the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C., he was part of Canada’s negotiating team for two NAFTA chapters.
In the 1980s, in Ottawa, he served for five years as senior policy adviser to foreign minister Joe Clark, prior to which he worked for eight years in the House of Commons and Senate.
His PhD in international relations, is from Johns Hopkins University. He also holds master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins, Harvard University and Carleton University.
He was born in Ottawa — “people have children here, too,” he said — and sat down for a conversation with Diplomat’s editor, Jennifer Campbell. This is an edited transcript.

Diplomat magazine: When did you take on this job, one to which one of your predecessors, Larry Lederman, refers as “Canada’s head waiter”?
Roy Norton: July 2016. Not that I’m counting the days, but it’s been almost nine months.

DM: To take this job, you came back after many years abroad?
RN: I lived in the United States for 16 in total. Six [at one time] and then 10, with six in Toronto and five in Ottawa before that.
DM: And did you leave your most recent post — Chicago — for this job?
RN: Yes. I was supposed to be in Chicago until this summer and maybe longer, so I left early to come back for this job. And when I read that there was no snow in Chicago in January or February, I said to myself, ‘I came back early for this?’ I’m happy to have come back for the job, but the winter I found a little bit brutal and then yesterday [May 9]… snow!”

Roy Norton met the Pope when the Trudeaus visitied in late May. (Photo: Jana Chytilova)

Roy Norton met the Pope when the Trudeaus visitied in late May. (Photo: Jana Chytilova)

DM: What is a typical day like in this job?
RN: It begins every day with the operations committee, which is the assistant deputy ministers, the deputy ministers and a few hangers on like me, getting together for a meeting at 9 a.m. There might be a breakfast meeting or a function before that meeting, but generally, I arrive at 8:40 a.m. I go to the meeting for 15 minutes and then my day starts. At least those are on the days I’m here. A third of the time I’m abroad. I don’t do ministerial travel — just the prime minister and the governor general. It’s not that I’m above ministerial travel, it’s just that there’s only so much I can do. There’s enough travel associated with the governor general and prime minister that staff accompany ministers.
[If I’m in Ottawa], we can create a construct of a day because there isn’t really a typical day. There will be some management, some meetings with directors or individual staff members, discussion with human resources about upcoming staffing. There usually will be something to do with financial management. There is almost always something to do with the diplomatic corps. [It might be] one or several heads of mission who come and call on me to do one thing or another, or there’s attendance at a national day event, more often a late-afternoon reception-type thing, sometimes a dinner or a dinner after a national day event. There are several of these things a week, for example.

On Malala: "She's a nice person; she's a caring person; she's an interested person."  (Photo: Jana Chytilova)

On Malala: “She’s a nice person; she’s a caring person; she’s an interested person.” (Photo: Jana Chytilova)

If we have an incoming visit at that instant or one that’s anticipated, we’ll be planning for that. We might have a meeting with the ambassador of that country, or the RCMP or Health Canada or others who might be involved in that visit. If we’re planning an outgoing visit, by the governor general or the prime minister, a lot of planning goes into these, too. There’s a fair bit of email traffic, like hundreds per day that require being dealt with. I’m something of a Twitter addict, so I try to scroll through the feed. It’s a tool I use to highlight national day and other events involving foreign official visitors. There are lots of attachments and articles I’m interested in. I read them on the screen or print them and take them home and read until I fall asleep. I haven’t tended to come [to the office] much on the weekends. Technology makes it possible to work from home so BlackBerry and my computer link me to our system here and make it possible to do work from home on the weekends, although I live only a short walk — 10 minutes — away from here in New Edinburgh if I do need to come in.

On the job: "There isn't really a typical day." (Photo: Jana Chytilova)

On the job: “There isn’t really a typical day.” (Photo: Jana Chytilova)

DM: What was the best part of the visit by Nobel-Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai?
RN: She’s inspirational. I don’t encounter many 19-year-olds who have the poise and the confidence and yet the humility at the same time. There’s nothing aggressive or smart-alecky about her. She’s a nice person, a caring person, an interested person. She’s interested in talking to people about their experience and their thoughts. She’s clearly very articulate. Her people who accompany her are equally nice.

DM: You mean her parents?
RN: Her parents, for sure, but she also has three or four staff; the president and the communications director of the Malala Fund, some of whom came beforehand and advanced the visit.
[After she arrived], we went to Ridgemont High School first thing in the morning. The students were enraptured by her. Then we came to Parliament for some formalities and then the presentation of honorary citizenship in the library, which was just a beautiful ceremony. Then [there was] her tremendous speech in Parliament. She was hosted for a meeting with the prime minister, which lasted longer than anticipated. He quite enjoyed the conversation. Then she was hosted at lunch by [several ministers] and a few parliamentarians. Then, she was presented with an honorary doctorate from the University of Ottawa. She did some media interviews, then a Facebook thing with the prime minister. She then met Opposition Leader [Rona] Ambrose for 40 minutes; then she came back to the hotel for a few minutes and then attended a reception hosted by the Pakistani High Commissioner, [Tariq Azim Khan.] It was a very intense day, but she is 19 and probably has a fair bit of stamina. Or at least more excuse for stamina than I have. Then her flight was at 10:40 p.m. to London. She was flying all night. They all fly economy.

On Joe Biden: "He's a gregarious fellow."  (Photo: Jana Chytilova)

On Joe Biden: “He’s a gregarious fellow.” (Photo: Jana Chytilova)

I was with her from arrival to departure. It’s one of the treats of this job. You do get to spend time with people that most of us have some familiarity with, but don’t necessarily get to know. I felt quite chuffed about the whole experience.

DM: Are there other dignitaries you’ve met that would rate as highly as she does?
RN: Oh, they all rate highly, of course. People are polite and solicitous and kind and nobody has been boorish or rude, which is maybe a little bit of a revelation. People are inherently good or they’re on their best behaviour when they’re in Canada.

DM: Would you name some others?
RN: I could name them all — or none. My first major visit was Chinese Premier Li [Keqiang]. I went to the plane to greet him and we had a few moments and then spent three days together.
Then there was Prime Minister [Manuel] Valls of France — he had a very good visit. Then there was the Crown Prince and Princess of Norway, very lovely people who were in Canada for three days, in Ottawa, Toronto and St. John’s, Nfld.
We had Joe Biden. The snow was coming sideways on the 8th of December when I greeted him at the airport, but he lingered at the bottom of the steps and talked to everybody. We went to the Sir John A. Building on Sparks, O’Connor and Wellington. It’s a peculiar way of accessing it, but you enter on Wellington. You go down a set of stairs and wend your way essentially through the basement the length of the block, from Wellington to Sparks and then you go into what was the Bank of Montreal vault, where the prime minister greeted him. So I’m with Biden and he drapes his arm around my shoulder. For the length of that block, he kept his arm over my shoulder, telling me how he and his wife had just been in Banff and how much they loved it, about how he spent time with his children in Canada and how much he wants to come back. He’s a very gregarious fellow. I had met him in Washington when he was a senator, but he wouldn’t know me from Adam. So that was cool. That’s the most intimate I’ve gotten with any of our visitors. We repeated this [trajectory] with Italian Prime Minister [Pablo] Gentiloni and we chatted the length of the way again.

Malala Yousafzai was in Ottawa in April to receive honourary citizenship from the government of Canada. She also spoke in parliament and had a private meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Photo: Jana Chytilova)

Malala Yousafzai was in Ottawa in April to receive honourary citizenship from the government of Canada. She also spoke in parliament and had a private meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Photo: Jana Chytilova)

Southbank Centre

Southbank Centre

Southbank Centre

We do all official events invitations — the paperwork — for the prime minister.
DM: Any others of special note? Have you met Bono?
RN: I met Bono at the Global Fund Replenishment [meetings] in the middle of September. That was funny because the prime minister was in a room and I would greet people and then take them in to introduce them to the prime minister. So, I would say, [for example] ‘Prime Minister, this is Sheik Hasina, the prime minister of Bangladesh’ and so on. And then I had to say ‘Prime Minister, this is Bono.’ Because what else do you say? ‘Mr. Bono?’ It all seemed a bit surreal. But he was gregarious and he’s certainly committed a lot of his time promoting global development. He was happy to give his name to this because we got pledges of $13 billion at that conference for the next tranche of global funds.

DM: You have experience in the U.S. and I understand you were uncharacteristically vocal when you were consul-general to Detroit. What can you tell me about that posting?
RN: It was fun; validating and gratifying. It was intense. Canada had been trying, ever since 9/11, to get concurrence on the part of Michigan on building this bridge and, largely because of the efforts of the monopolist owners of the Ambassador Bridge, we struck out repeatedly. Very conveniently, just before I got there, [Canada’s] then-government said ‘we will pay Michigan’s share.’ What a difference that makes. Whereas my predecessors had to sell Michigan on coming up with one billion to two billion bucks, my task was to persuade Michigan to accept our money. That wasn’t as easy as you might have thought because it didn’t change the fact that the monopolist owners of the Ambassador Bridge didn’t want a competing — as they saw it — bridge to be built. They deployed their resources generously to dissuade influencers. We were essentially running a campaign to convince [Michiganders]. It became a real campaign when the Morouns — the owners of the bridge — got onto the ballot in 2012 a proposition that sought public approval to amend Michigan’s constitution to prohibit the building of any new bridges between Michigan and Canada.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met at the White House in February. NAFTA renegotiations are scheduled to begin in August. (Photo: Office of the President of the United States)

U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met at the White House in February. NAFTA renegotiations are scheduled to begin in August. (Photo: Office of the President of the United States)

Starting out, the polls indicated that it was about 60 [per cent] to 40 [per cent] in favour of not building the bridge. We had to persuade Michigan voters that they should vote no [to the constitutional change]. In the end, we won 60 [per cent] to 40 [per cent]. They spent more than $40 million; we spent about $1 million, principally from the auto industry. So it was the force of opinion [that won the day]. I found myself accompanying the governor to a lot of events and he would call on me to speak. These were rallies almost — there were many hundreds of people and lots of media. Canadian diplomats don’t get involved in domestic politics, [but in this case] how do you avoid it? The government, to its credit, gave me scope and freedom to get out there and talk to the media, including during our election campaign, when we usually pretty much go dark and silent. That was May 2011, and it was a pretty critical time.
At these speaking opportunities, I took to putting up my right hand and swearing on behalf of the government and the people of Canada that this bridge will cost the American people nothing. The Morouns were saying it would still cost the Americans $1 billion to $2 billion. Michiganders didn’t believe their own governor, they didn’t believe the presidents of the auto companies and they didn’t believe a lot of legislators, but such is the Canadian brand in Michigan that they believed Canada. The pledge seemed to have an impact and that told me that our country is well regarded.

DM: After that, you moved along to Chicago, where you were posted for nearly three years. How was that?
RN: The states [for which I was responsible] were Wisconsin, Illinois and Missouri. I travelled extensively in the three states and would also meet members of Congress in Washington as well as in their districts, and then state legislators, [members of the] media, unions, universities, all the people who are potential allies or those we should be cultivating to ensure they’re aware of our interests and how our interests intersect [with theirs].

DM: And what are your thoughts on the Canada-U.S. relationship now?
RN: NAFTA wasn’t under any threat per se when I was in the U.S., but pollsters certainly told me it wasn’t popular in the U.S. I saw a poll just today that shows that NAFTA is overwhelmingly popular in Canada, next most popular in Mexico, then less popular in the U.S. We don’t believe Americans fully comprehend the extent of the benefits that their country has derived from NAFTA, how integrated their economy has become with Canada’s and with the Mexican economy. And lately no one, other than the [U.S.] Chamber of Commerce and some academics and a few politicians, has been bothering to sell Americans on the benefits. Leadership has been reluctant to do so.
We will continue to try to sell the benefits and to work with allies whose industries have become integrated with our own; who depend on the supply chain relationships, consumers who benefit from lower-priced, better-quality goods and those who think Canadian energy is better than energy from the Middle East. There are lots of interests in the U.S. that should align with our own. But the government believes that NAFTA could be improved and has signalled it’s willing to sit down with the Americans and Mexicans to achieve improvements. The Canadian government will have an agenda of objectives. If there’s a will to achieve improvement, that will be done. There’s a lot of rhetoric, but we don’t know what the negotiating strategies of the Americans will be. We hope there will be goodwill and a disposition to recognize the benefits and to try to achieve a stronger NAFTA that makes the continent still more competitive globally.

DM: It feels a little more comfortable now that [U.S. President Donald] Trump has said he’s willing to negotiate rather than scrap it.
RN: Yeah, but nobody should take any comfort in day-by-day developments. There’s a fair bit of volatility and it’s a dynamic issue. But the trend line is improving a little. There may be more disposition towards achieving a constructive outcome than a desire simply to annul it. If that change has roots, it’ll be partly as a result of the government of Canada’s efforts to build support among allies and [Americans] who think like we do.

DM: Are you concerned about the state of the relationship?
RN: I chose to serve in places I can drive to, which is unusual as a diplomat — and that’s because of how critically important I feel the relationship is. There was never a day in the U.S. where I didn’t feel that I was working on things that mattered, that people at home cared about. Maybe it was a compelling urge [on my part] to be relevant.
I saw ups and downs, for sure. But generally, on both sides of the border, it’s recognized as essential. That’s the strongest card in many respects that we will play. Just last week the newly confirmed secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue, or at least I think it was [he], showed the president a map with the 10 states that would suffer the most if trade flows were to diminish. There were six on the northern border and four on the southern border and the six on the northern border, with the exception of New York, were all states that voted for Trump. So hopefully awareness is being instilled and support is being built and if there’s a negotiation at all, it will be productive and constructive.

DM: As chief of protocol, you’re really the ultimate diplomat’s diplomat. When you’re dealing with heads of state and ambassadors and high commissioners from countries with which we have differences of opinion, do you have frank conversations?
RN: It depends on what the issue is. The geographic bureaus deal with missions on issues of substance. I sometimes jokingly call myself a travel agent and event planner and sometimes add ‘I don’t do substance.’ Which doesn’t mean we never have substantive discussions. Newly arrived heads of mission come to see me first — usually it’s a half-hour conversation. Then I’ll be there at the credentials ceremony and we speak again. We get together thereafter with some frequency. Maybe because I’m the first person they meet, I’m considered an interlocuteur valable. I’m always conscious of what our posture is and I’m not going to declare war or give a country a free pass if we don’t like their behaviour. I will reinforce the Canadian messaging, but I’m not the principal source of that messaging. If by contrast, the issue of visas of children of diplomats, for example, comes up, or if it’s got to do with other privileges and immunities, then I am indeed the person that delivers at the end of the day.

DM: You were a senior policy adviser to foreign minister Joe Clark. That would have been interesting. He was well-liked as what was then called the secretary of state for external affairs.
RN: It was a fascinating time because my files included the campaign to liberate South African blacks from Apartheid. We travelled three times to South Africa. We had meetings around the world [on that], met with interest groups, worked with other like-minded governments and tried to encourage them to do the same. It was an intense time. We were involved at the time in the Central American peace process. El Salvador in particular was at war with itself. The Reagan administration wasn’t very happy with us. We shared our views, but didn’t share information with them. But we weren’t, then or now, dictated to by Americans about [what] Canadian foreign policy priorities were.
[During that time], we also did a full-scale parliamentary review of foreign policy; we did one of aid policy as well. And, we established the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, the first president of which was Ed Broadbent. That was the last bill to pass in Parliament before dissolution for the 1988 election — the one on free trade.

DM: Later, you were on the negotiating team for NAFTA. How was that?
RN: From the vantage point of our embassy in Washington, I was on the team for two chapters — the investment chapter and the intellectual property chapter, both of which were path-breaking. These were things the Americans wanted. They likely had some concerns about securing their investments in Mexico. They were probably less concerned about Canada. They did want protections for patents for drugs and copyright in cultural areas, but their principal objective was that the Uruguay round was about to get under way in 1994 and they wanted those chapters in the multilateral trade environment. So they were test-running them in some respects, saying, ‘Let’s negotiate; hone and refine them and prove to the world that an OECD country like Canada and a less developed country like Mexico can agree to them.’ I participated in this in Washington and cultivated the communities that were interested in those issues. Then, I would share that intelligence with our team — it was a heady time as well. I was in the economic section of the embassy.

DM: Do you have a family you’ve been taking to all these postings?
RN: I do not, which means I work a lot, which is probably why I don’t have family. I have a dear friend with whom I will retire eventually. She often tells me to stop working, but she did tell me to take this job, so I blame her constantly. She’s in Toronto, but we commute. It’s a lot better than commuting to Japan and Vietnam, when she was ambassador. She was a diplomat; now she’s retired.

DM: You must have national day invitations most days of the week. How many do you go to?
RN: I go to every one I can, without regard to the size of the country. I do sigh when I get an invitation for a Sunday afternoon, but I just accepted one, or a Friday night. I think you show respect by showing up. At every one of these, however, someone will approach me about something, such as an official visit, and ask to get that going and what they can do to make that happen. There’s business being done at every one of these.

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