OTTAWA (AFP) — US presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton's campaign, while rapping rival Barack Obama for telling US voters he is anti-NAFTA and saying otherwise to Canada, tried to reassure Canada too, local media said Thursday.
A top aide of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper meanwhile was identified as the likely source of an alleged leak that provoked a diplomatic fiasco involving both US Democratic presidential contenders.
Last month, Harper's chief of staff, Ian Brodie, purportedly made impromptu remarks to journalists about Clinton's US presidential bid, said Canadian reports.
The offhand comments apparently sought to downplay the potential impact on Canada of Clinton and Obama's attacks on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) during stops in the US state of Ohio.
Brodie told reporters that the Clinton campaign had called the Canadian embassy in Washington to tell officials to take her anti-NAFTA rhetoric "with a grain of salt," said local media.
Around the same time, a news agency reported that a Canadian government memo detailed a meeting between Obama's chief economic advisor Austan Goolsbee and officials from the Canadian consulate in Chicago.
The memo reportedly said Goolsbee noted Obama's attacks on NAFTA should not be taken out of context, citing fiercely protectionist sentiment in Ohio about the pact and political positioning as a motivation.
Thursday, US Ambassador David Wilkins told public broadcaster CBC this amounted to Canadian political interference in the US political process. "It certainly shouldn't have happened; it was interference," he said.
The affair has certainly embarrassed Canada's diplomatic corps and may have cost Obama votes in the crucial Ohio primaries earlier this week.
The 1994 trade pact created the largest trading bloc in the world by eliminating import tariffs on goods circulating among partners Canada, the United States and Mexico.
In a televised debate last month in Ohio, both Obama and Clinton said if the next US president is a Democrat, Mexico and Canada would be pressured to renegotiate NAFTA.
But free trade and NAFTA in particular is a fiercely contentious issue in Ohio, which has been badly hit by the flight of blue collar jobs abroad, and increased global economic competition.
As the scandal unfolded, Clinton accused Obama's campaign of giving the Canadian government "the old wink-wink" while Republican nominee John McCain said it showed Obama was not a straight shooter.
Obama countered: "Nobody reached out to the Canadians to try to assure them of anything."
Goolsbee's meeting with Canadian Consul General Georges Rioux was later confirmed, but Goolsbee said his remarks were misrepresented.
The Clinton camp has not yet commented on the latest allegations, but acknowledged Canada's Obama smudge gave her campaign a "significant" boost during the recent US primaries.
The Canadian prime minister's office has said Brodie "does not recall" making the statements to reporters said to have set off the scandal, and Harper himself denied that Brodie leaked any information.
On Wednesday, Harper announced a probe into the "blatantly unfair" and possibly "illegal" leaking of the government memo assailing Obama.
But Canada's opposition New Democrats urged Harper to fire Brodie for his alleged Clinton slip and called for a federal police investigation of the whole case.
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