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Canadian embassy the hottest ticket in town for inauguration

by Barrie McKenna (feat. Colin Robertson)

The Globe and Mail
January 17, 2017

The Canadian embassy in Washington is promising that its bash for Donald Trump will be bigger than ever – a signal that Ottawa wants to reach out and impress the incoming U.S. president when some of the cornerstones of the Canada-U.S. relationship are under threat.

The embassy’s invite-only inauguration “tail-gate” party and VIP brunch is going ahead as planned Friday, and officials insist it could be even larger than similar events held for previous incoming U.S. presidents, including Barack Obama in 2009.

As many as 1,800 people are expected at the embassy, which has hosted inauguration parties every four years dating back to 1993 – for Bill Clinton – leveraging its strategic location on the Pennsylvania Ave., parade route, between the Capitol and the White House.

Bigger, but also a little more awkward than usual, given that Mr. Trump has railed against much of what Canada holds dear, including open borders, free trade and international institutions such as NATO.

But Canadian ambassador David MacNaughton isn’t about to pass up a rare opportunity to mingle with guests, expected to include key players in government, along with diplomats, lobbyists and policy experts. Among the expected guests will be a contingent of Canadian officials led by Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s new Foreign Minister, along with MP and retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie, slated to become parliamentary secretary to Ms. Freeland with special responsibilities for Canada-U.S. relations.

“Hosting an event at our embassy gives Canada an excellent opportunity to welcome important guests, further build on our relationships and continue to advance Canada’s interests in the United States,” embassy spokeswoman Christine Constantin said.

The embassy’s sixth-floor terrace offers sweeping views of the Capitol and the parade route, making it one of the most sought-after spots for Washington A-listers to catch the pomp, circumstance and a glimpse of the new president – with the possible exception of Mr. Trump’s newest hotel, also located on Pennsylvania Ave.

Michael Wilson, who was ambassador in 2009, recalls standing on the embassy steps, surrounded by saluting Mounties in their iconic red serge jackets, as Mr. Obama’s motorcade passed by.

“We have pictures … and inside the darkened windows, you can see the President with a big smile on his face, waving at us,” Mr. Wilson said. “It was quite a fun day.”

Mr. Wilson acknowledged that Mr. Trump’s presidency will be uniquely challenging for Canada, but he insisted that the inauguration is primarily a day of celebration. And the embassy remains a powerful draw on inauguration day. Now, more than ever, it’s important to be telling “the Canadian story” to Americans, he said.

The vantage point to watch the presidential inauguration from the Canadian embassy “is just terrific,” said Maryscott Greenwood, head of the Canadian American Business Council, which represents about 100 companies with business in both countries.

“If you’re going to be in D.C., there isn’t a better place to be,” said Ms. Greenwood, who will be attending the party on Friday.

“It’s a hotly coveted invitation, because it’s a great location, it’s beautiful, it’s convenient. It’s kind of like being in the VIP box at a hockey game or something. You have a bathroom, you have food, interesting people, great view, TVs.”

As with previous inaugurations, the embassy will use the event to promote all things Canadian, including trade, tourism and Canadian fare. This year’s offerings will include Canadian beer, B.C. salmon, tourtière and poutine. The pillars of the embassy’s rotunda facing the parade route will be adorned with words of hope and optimism – “friends, neighbours, partners, allies” – in giant letters.

The party is typically a well-attended, bipartisan event, which represents the celebration of American democracy – not just a particular president.

But of course, Mr. Trump isn’t an ordinary president.

“This is a president who campaigned on, among other things, tearing up NAFTA and questioning NATO. Everything about Donald J. Trump is different. So, yes I think it will different,” Ms. Greenwood said.

Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat who helped organize the 2005 inauguration party for George W. Bush at the embassy, acknowledged this event could be a little trickier than previous ones for Canadian officials.

“The politics are always particular,” he said. “But for us, it’s an opportunity to meet people we haven’t met and connect with them. Because it’s such a great viewing spot, you just never know who’s going to show up.”

The embassy usually posts spotters at the door to identify important guests in the crowd, Mr. Robertson said. In 2009, Arizona Senator John McCain and former House speaker Newt Gingrich rubbed shoulders with actor Michael J. Fox and Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield.

The all-day event starts at 10.30 a.m. Guests will be able to watch the swearing-in and inaugural address from the Capitol building on big-screen TVs. Most of the thousand-plus guests will get to party in the embassy courtyard and the large Canada Room reception area. A more limited number of VIPs are invited to share brunch in the ambassador’s sixth-floor suite, taking in views of the parade as well as the embassy’s art collection, which includes works by the Group of Seven.


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