POLITICS
07/05/2018 09:42 EDT | Updated 07/05/2018 10:05 EDT

Kelly Craft: U.S.-Canada Relationship Will Get Through 'Testing Time'

She made the remarks at a Fourth of July party in Ottawa.

U.S. Ambassador to Canada Kelly Craft speaks during the Fourth of July Independence Day celebration at Lornado, the ambassador's official residence, in Ottawa on July 4, 2018.
Justin Tang/CP
U.S. Ambassador to Canada Kelly Craft speaks during the Fourth of July Independence Day celebration at Lornado, the ambassador's official residence, in Ottawa on July 4, 2018.

OTTAWA — U.S. President Donald Trump's envoy to Canada told guests at her cosier-than-usual Fourth of July party in Ottawa on Wednesday night that the countries' strained relationship will overcome the tough times.

Ambassador Kelly Craft delivered the message with the U.S. and Canada locked in an unprecedented trade dispute.

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She made the acknowledgment to hundreds of partygoers, who listened as they sipped cocktails and ate shrimp on the sweeping front lawn of her official residence.

"Canada and the United States have an enduring partnership that I am confident will stand the test of time — and believe me, these are testing times," Craft told the crowd, which experienced attendees of the annual gathering described as far smaller than past years.

Craft, who was hosting her first Fourth of July party as ambassador, also quoted former U.S. president Thomas Jefferson in her remarks to drive home her message.

"I have never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy as a cause for withdrawing from a friend," she said.

Then she added: "By your presence here tonight, I would assert that we all agree with Jefferson on that fundamental point of friendship."

With the relationship at a low point, some notable Canadians publicly announced before the event that they would steer clear of the Fourth of July party out of principle.

In past years, the annual Independence Day bash has been the talk of the town, with a guest list that grew to include more than 4,000 people under former ambassador and Barack Obama appointee Bruce Heyman.

Under successor Craft, however — named to the post by Trump — the guest list has been trimmed to an estimated 1,000 people.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and interim Ontario Liberal leader John Fraser were among those who gave the event a pass, citing trade tensions and ongoing concerns with the Trump administration.

Watson, who usually attends the party, sent his regrets this year, saying he's unhappy about the "constant attacks on our country."

A spokesman for Singh said the NDP leader was invited, but won't be attending as a show of protest against U.S. policies on trade and immigration.

"While he will not be attending the July 4th celebrations, Mr. Singh knows that it will take more than symbolic gestures to successfully pressure the Trump administration," James Smith said in an email.

Still, the ongoing trade fight — which has already seen the countries exchange tit-for-tat tariffs — didn't stop some Canadian politicians from attending the event.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau and Ottawa-area MP Andrew Leslie, the government's parliamentary secretary for U.S.-Canada relations, were present.

"There are tensions, of course," Leslie said before Craft's short speech.

"The important thing is to lower the temperature, engage in dialogue. It's always better to talk than not."

CP
U.S. Ambassador to Canada Kelly Craft and her husband Joe Craft look on before her speech at the Fourth of July Independence Day celebration at Lornado, the ambassador's official residence, in Ottawa on July 4, 2018.

Leslie also referred to another problem area in the relationship — the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

He said he hoped the Americans would resume NAFTA talks because Canada is ready to get back to the table.

Leslie also expressed his respect for Craft, whom he added has a "really tough job."

Asked about the high-profile people who declined to attend, Leslie said: "The great news is that we can live in a country where people can make such choices to either or not attend a social function."

A former Canadian ambassador to the U.S., who was directly involved in negotiations for the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and NAFTA, said he doesn't go to many functions anymore — but he decided to make a point of attending this year's party after he heard that some people planned to avoid it.

"I'm not here with a Make America Great hat on my head, I'm just here because we're celebrating the anniversary of our neighbour in a neighbourly way," Derek Burney said at the event as he raised his voice to be heard over the sound of country music from a nearby speaker.

"For people to get an invitation and make a spectacle out of not coming, to me that's a cheap shot. That's a schoolyard tactic for elementary school."

Justin Tang/CP
Tins of M&Ms marked with the event's theme of "Red, White & Bourbon" are seen as U.S. Ambassador to Canada Kelly Craft hosts the Fourth of July Independence Day celebration at Lornado, the ambassador's official residence, in Ottawa on July 4, 2018.

The event's start time was also pushed back to make it more cocktail party than picnic, said Sarah Goldfeder, a principal at Earnscliffe in Ottawa and former special assistant to two U.S. ambassadors.

Before the event, Goldfeder said she didn't think the boycotts would affect the feel of the party at all.

"There are a handful of people who have decided to make this a comment on the Canada-U.S. relationship and that's fair," she said.

"They're all in good, safe places to make that comment, but it's for their purposes. I don't think anyone realistically has an expectation that that's something the U.S. administration — especially this one — would be all that impressed by."

Communications staff at the U.S. embassy did not respond to a request for comment about the party or the boycott.

In Ireland, where several Irish MPs have made a show of boycotting the Fourth of July party in Dublin, the senior U.S. official at the embassy there suggested such a move was counterproductive.

'Good ol' Kentucky bourbon'

"Everybody has the right to express themselves and how they do it, but I'm a firm believer in dialogue," said Reece Smyth, the deputy chief of the U.S. mission in Dublin, which hasn't had an ambassador since Trump took office in January 2017.

"Even when we disagree, I think the dialogue needs to continue as that is the only way we can come to an agreement," Smyth told the Irish Times newspaper.

Back in Ottawa, as festivities were underway, Craft recommended a remedy for the bilateral differences between Canada and the U.S.

"I'm going to let you in on a little bit of a secret, however, that this is one test that gets a lot easier with a sip of some good ol' Kentucky bourbon," she joked to the crowd.

"So let's raise a glass to what is genuinely a wonderful relationship."

Kentucky bourbon is among the dozens of consumer products that have been slapped with tariffs by Ottawa as part of its retaliation for U.S. duties on Canadian steel and aluminum.