OTTAWA — American ambassador David MacNaughton, who became the fulcrum of the Liberal government's strategy for managing relations with an impetuous and unpredictable White House, says he plans to step down from the post at the end of the summer.
MacNaughton, who is vacating the job just weeks before Canadians go to the polls Oct. 21, announced Thursday that he intends to return to the private sector in Toronto. He'll be replaced on an acting basis by Kirsten Hillman, his deputy since 2017.
"Serving as Canada's ambassador in Washington, at this pivotal time in our country's history, has been the greatest honour of my life," he said in a statement that described his decision as "bittersweet."
When MacNaughton was appointed top envoy to the U.S. in March 2016, Barack Obama was president and the relationship between Ottawa and Washington appeared a cosy one — Justin Trudeau and his family found themselves at the White House barely a week later as the guests of honour during a lavish state dinner, the first of its kind in 20 years.
Before the year was out, however, Donald Trump had surged into the presidency, in part on a promise to scrap or renegotiate unpopular trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement, presaging a dramatic turn in Canada's relationship with its next-door neighbour and largest trading partner.
MacNaughton was a central player in the ensuing 13 months of talks to renegotiate the outdated trade pact, talks that culminated in a slightly retooled "new NAFTA" christened by Trump as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. That deal has been approved in Mexico, but still awaits ratification in the U.S. Congress and on Parliament Hill.
"Challenges of course remain," MacNaughton said. "But the overwhelming sense of uncertainty overhanging NAFTA — our farm exports, our resource industries, our manufacturing sector, our auto sector, and so many others — is gone. That is a source of great personal satisfaction to me."
In a statement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described MacNaughton as a "Canadian patriot" who played a pivotal role in those negotiations, as well as in finally securing relief from Trump's punishing tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum, which lingered for months after the trade deal was signed.
"David's skill in bridging partisan and ideological divides — always putting Canadians' interests first, never deviating from objectives he knew to be both possible and desirable — has been unparalleled," Trudeau said.
"Working alongside our foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, and Canada's team of expert negotiators, David has been our point person with Congress and with the U.S. administration, in the most difficult and uncertain trade negotiations this country has ever faced.
"It's no exaggeration to say his contribution has been historic."
The Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives started its five-week summer break in late July without ratifying the deal, and both Trudeau and Freeland have repeatedly signalled that Canada won't proceed until after Congress does.
The Democrats have pushed hard for changes to the deal's provisions on labour, the environment, patent protection for drugs and enforcement. U.S. lawmakers, meanwhile, won't be in a position to take even the smallest steps towards ratification before the start of Canada's federal election campaign, which is set to begin by mid-September at the latest.
MacNaughton said he was proud of the agreement, and that he expected the deal to get congressional approval in "due course."
He added he had long planned to leave his job before the October election, and particularly after the Trump administration lifted the steel and aluminum tariffs.
MacNaughton also outlined two key lessons learned over the last two years since Trump upended the cross-border relationship.
"First, that we absolutely must never rest on our laurels — but rather always seek to push further into new markets and new opportunities, around the world, while ensuring we retain our access to our most important market, the United States," he said.
"Secondly, the preservation of our most important relationship, with our neighbour, friend and ally, the United States, whether commercial, cultural, or political — will always depend, as they did in the NAFTA talks, on personal contact and relationships."