Savvy Yanks head for Canada's outpost to celebrate their day

Embassy roof is the place to be for Independence Day events

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The Gazette, Wednesday, July 4, 2007

For years, one of the most prized July 4 invitations in Washington has been to the Canadian ambassador's party on the embassy's sixth-floor terrace, with its unrivalled view of the U.S. Capitol and the spectacular fireworks over the Mall.

It isn't so much about the neighbours as the neighbourhood. In other words, location, location, location. And the location of our embassy is second to none, on Pennsylvania Ave., between the White House and the Capitol.

There's no other view like it, not even from the White House. The Federal Reserve Board has a pretty good view of the Mall, but for years former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan was a regular guest at the Canadian shindig, along with his wife, Andrea Mitchell, the diplomatic correspondent for NBC News. Katharine Graham, the late chairperson of the Washington Post, was a regular and gracious guest.

One congressman from Ohio usually came with his entire family, but never wanted his presence publicized in case people in his home state learned about his spending the Glorious Fourth at the embassy of a foreign country rather than at a picnic in his home district. So in the years I was there as head of our public affairs division in the mid-1990s, we never put his name on the guest list we gave to the press. To this day, the guest list is closely held by Nina Niedzviecki, the peerless social secretary of every ambassador since the chancery opened in 1989. Yesterday, as always, she was hard at work finalizing the details of tonight's big event.

The embassy's July 4 barbecue dates from the tenure of Derek Burney, our ambassador to the U.S. in the early 1990s, who used the stunning new embassy to full effect in what he called "putting Canada on the Washington radar screen." Why celebrate their holiday? Well, precisely because it's their holiday, in their capital. Which didn't mean we didn't celebrate our own, with a Canada Day barbecue on the roof and an evening reception and concert in the park next to the chancery. In 1994, to promote the Montreal and Ottawa jazz fests as destinations, we put on a concert headlined by the great Oliver Jones and the Francois Bourassa Trio. You never heard such an ovation as the one Jones received when he closed with his fabulous Freedom anthem.

The resident Canadian press, being Canadians, were more concerned about how much it cost (nothing, it was covered by Molson and other sponsors).

Americans always came in surprising numbers to our national day, precisely because of the proximity to theirs. Together, they made very nice bookends to a four-day weekend.

There have been other occasions when Canada has made strong representational use of the embassy, notably the quadrennial inauguration of presidents. For the first such occasion in 1993, the U.S. networks used a pool shot from our roof as their main long view to the inauguration ceremonies on the West Front of the Capitol.

Their only problem was that our sixth-floor flagpole, with the maple leaf snapping smartly in the wind, was in the middle of the shot. We politely declined their request to remove it, and they were left to explain to their viewers that the image from coming from the roof of the Canadian embassy. We considered that a very good day.

We'd been having difficulty attracting some big names to our lunch during the inaugural parade, until we called over to our contact at Bill Clinton's transition committee. "Send us everyone you can't squeeze into the president's lunch at the Capitol," I told her.

"You're my new hero," she said. Suddenly, Vernon Jordan had a place to send his family, and Pamela Harriman had a place to watch the parade.

Even the prime minister of the day got involved in this, when he called and asked how preparations were going for our buffet lunch.

"Just make sure it's the best spread in town," he ordered.

For this location, and the huge comparative advantage the Canadian embassy program enjoys in Washington, we have two prime ministers to thank, Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney, and one ambassador, Allan Gotlieb, who was there from 1981 to 1989, the entire time the chancery was being argued over and, finally, built.

It was Trudeau who chose the architect, his friend Arthur Erickson, whose brilliant design both fits in with its surroundings, while making a very Canadian statement about space and water. It was Mulroney who insisted on going ahead with the project despite the recommendation of Foreign Affairs that it be cancelled because of its cost. And it was Gotlieb who saw it through Washington's Byzantine bureaucracy.

And as the July 4 crowd that annually comes to the ambassador's barbecue reminds us--if you build it, they will come.

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