OTTAWA - Canada played a central part in hosting breakthrough diplomatic talks between the United States and Cuba — a role one leading historian calls part of a half-century-old tradition that includes sharing intelligence.
Canadian author and academic John English, who has written definitive biographies of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, struck up a lasting friendship with Cuba's iconic leader Fidel Castro in the 1970s.
English said he wasn't surprised that the White House thanked Canada publicly for hosting the meetings that led to Wednesday's announcement that the United States and Cuba were re-establishing diplomatic relations and opening economic and travel ties.
Senior Obama administration officials say Canada was "indispensable" in hosting the majority of the secret talks, which took place for more than a year.
While Trudeau's relationship with Castro was storied — the Cuban leader was an honorary pallbearer at his 2000 funeral — it was actually his Progressive Conservative predecessor John Diefenbaker who set the chain of historical events in motion that culminated in Wednesday's announcement, English said.
"I think it's a continuation of Canadian policy and what we've been doing for the Americans for 50 years," he said in an interview.
"We tried to facilitate contacts. We would make introductions. We knew the people."
English said he helped supervise new doctoral-level research, based on newly disclosed Canadian documents, that reveals new details in the long history of Canada's role in the acrimonious Cuba-U.S. freeze-out.
It started in 1961 when U.S. President John F. Kennedy imposed an economic embargo on the Caribbean island state 135 kilometres off the tip of Florida — one that Diefenbaker, then the prime minister, decided not to support.
"The United States had its moments when it was a bit upset with Canada, but only a bit upset with its continuing recognition and interaction with Cuba — the principal reason being, and this is relevant to events of today, that Canada was a reliable listening point," English said.
"We shared with them information about Cuba which was of great interest to American foreign service officers, political officers and not least, intelligence officers."
Harper tried to play down Canada's contribution, telling the CBC in an interview Wednesday that Canada did not mediate or direct the talks. But he called the news an "overdue development."
"We facilitated places where the two countries could have a dialogue and explore ways of normalizing the relationship," Harper said. "I personally believe changes are coming in Cuba, and this will facilitate those."
Harper told another interviewer in 2009 that the long U.S. embargo had simply "not worked."
U.S. officials say the first face-to-face talks with the Cubans took place in Canada in June of last year, with several other discussions taking place since then.
A senior Canadian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said seven meetings took place over the course of the next year and half at locations in Toronto and Ottawa.
Canadians didn't take part in of the discussions, none of which took place at the prime minister's official residence or his summer retreat at Harrington Lake, Que.
The official, who wasn't authorized to discuss the matter publicly, would not say specifically where the talks took place, but said they involved a small group of people who were determined to keep them secret.
Harper issued a statement congratulating the two countries on reaching their agreement, which marks a historic shift in U.S. policy after a half-century of enmity towards Cuba dating back to the Cold War.
The announcement coincided with the release of American prisoner Alan Gross, as well as a swap for a U.S. intelligence asset held in Cuba and the freeing of three Cubans jailed in the U.S.
Pope Francis was also personally engaged in the process and sent separate letters to Obama and Castro this summer urging them to restart relations.
"Canada supports a future for Cuba that fully embraces the fundamental values of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law," Harper said in his statement.
"Canada was pleased to host the senior officials from the United States and Cuba, which permitted them the discretion required to carry out these important talks."
Another Canadian author who has chronicled Canada's relations with Cuba said Harper was simply carrying on a tradition that started with Diefenbaker in 1961.
"It's always been very useful to Washington to have Canadians in Havana, or as Henry Kissinger put it once, to have a Canadian at Fidel Castro's picnic table," said Robert Wright, whose book "Three Nights in Havana" chronicled Trudeau's 1976 trip to the Cuban capital.
"Trudeau always congratulated Diefenbaker for being the guy that set in motion that unique Cuban-Canadian relationship.
"Every Canadian prime minister's policy has always been not to imagine that we could somehow put Havana and Washington together to broker a deal. We are not in the brokering business."
White House spokesman John Earnest said it was the U.S. that took the lead in seeking Canada's assistance. "As the president's team sought to find a place to meet with the Cubans, we turned to our friends to the north, in Canada."
During a stop Wednesday in Vancouver, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau recalled Castro, while attending his father's funeral at Montreal's Notre Dame Basilica in 2000, speaking with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Carter later became the first U.S. president — in or out of office — to visit Cuba since its 1959 communist revolution.
"I think Canada has played, historically, an important role as being a buffer, a go-between," Trudeau said.
NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said Canadian diplomats deserve thanks for their hard work on the file.
"This is an example of constructive diplomacy, something that Canada is very good at," Dewar said in a statement.
"Today is a great day for those who believe in engagement as the most effective tool of diplomacy. We should see more of this constructive approach in Canadian foreign policy."
— With files from Alexander Panetta in Washington