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David Robinson: Challenging times for Canada's top diplomat in New York

For a Canadian diplomat, Phyllis Yaffe's foray into international relations couldn't have started at a more challenging time.

Yaffe, who started out as a librarian in Winnipeg and went on to become a media mogul in Toronto, took on her latest job as Canada's consul general in New York just two months before the 2016 election.

Since then, President Trump has called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau "weak" and "dishonest." The U.S. slapped new tariffs on steel and aluminum imported from Canada. And Canada retaliated with its own set of tariffs.

"Things have changed," said Yaffe, who stopped in Buffalo late last week to meet with executives and political leaders to press home the Canadian point of view. "You roll with the punches – and there are punches."

She visited the Ford Motor Co. stamping plant in Hamburg, where many of the parts it produces wind up going into vehicles that are assembled at a Ford plant in Oakville, Ont., outside Toronto.

It's an example of the cross-border flow of goods – and the intricate supply chains – that have developed since the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect three decades ago.

"We know that a car that is for sale here in the United States is likely to have parts that have crossed the border six or seven times before it's sold," she said.

It's not just the auto industry. Dottie Gallagher, the president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, estimates that the flow of Canadian tourists and shoppers into the Buffalo Niagara region helped preserve about 3,000 tourism and retail jobs during the Great Recession. The business group says nearly 700,000 New York jobs depend on trade and investment with Canada.

Yaffe, who has spent most of her adult life in Toronto, understands.

"We feel very close to this part of the world. It just is important not to let some of the rhetoric dismantle what has been an incredibly good partnership for so long," she said. "I just want to make sure we underscore how integrated our economies are. We don't even really talk about trade. We talk about making things together."

But Canada isn't rolling over, either. It levied its own set of retaliatory tariffs in response to the Trump administration's steel and aluminum duties.

"It's not a trade war. It's a skirmish," she said.

But skirmishes have a way of escalating. That's why Yaffe said the Canadian response was carefully measured - and also was crafted to send a political message.

"When we imposed the tariffs in response to the tariffs imposed on us on steel and aluminum, we were very careful to make sure that it was exactly the same value as the tariffs imposed on us, so as not to elevate or escalate the skirmish," she said.

"It was clearly in the realm of steel and aluminum, but it also was to be very political and to make a statement," she said.

So Canada imposed tariffs on bourbon from Kentucky, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell lives. It slapped tariffs on pickles from Wisconsin, where House Majority Leader Paul Ryan lives.

"There were very clear choices made that we thought would send a signal, but also very careful not to harm Canadian industry," Yaffe said.

The Trump administration's new tariffs on Canadian newsprint also baffle Yaffe, a long-time member of the board of directors for the Toronto Star's parent company.

"There does not need to be a tariff on newsprint in this country," Yaffe said.

The Commerce Department, however, imposed the preliminary tariffs of up to 22.16 percent on Canadian newsprint at the end of March at the request of North Pacific Paper Co., or NORPAC, a Washington state paper producer owned by a New York hedge fund.

The newsprint tariffs go beyond protectionism, Yaffe said.

"I just think the role of the newspaper – in any community, especially local news, local politics, City Hall – who else is going to cover that? And if you make newsprint more expensive, then you add to the already difficult life of being a newspaper today," she said. "It's really unfathomable to me that this is a useful approach."

Still, Yaffe is optimistic that the rift in the U.S.-Canada relationship will mend.

"The point we're at right now is not a great one," she said. "But we will resolve these issues and we will continue to be the best of friends."

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