While there’s no fast rule, the job of Canada’s ambassador to Washington often goes to a former politician or a high-profile Canadian who comes from outside of the ranks of career diplomats.
But Kirsten Hillman, who took the post just over a year ago after serving as deputy ambassador, is very much from the public service side of Global Affairs Canada. A lawyer who grew up in southern Winnipeg and Calgary, she’s held various senior trade positions within the department.
I spoke with her this week about the changes in the relationship between Canada and the United States now with Joseph R. Biden as president. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Since Joseph R. Biden Jr. became president of the United States, the rhetoric from the White House about Canada has changed. Have you seen similar changes in your working relationship with the administration?
The new administration is really prioritizing its relationship with Canada.
So we saw, you know, that the president’s first call to a foreign leader was to the prime minister. His first detailed bilateral meeting, albeit virtual, was with the prime minister and some members of his cabinet. I myself was receiving calls from high-level White House executives literally hours after the inauguration, like two hours after they actually took over the administration.
The prime minister and the president, they know each other well, they have a strong relationship. But also really important, they share a lot of crucial policy objectives. It’s a really good moment in time for Canada-U.S. relations.
The new administration in Washington has a lot of big domestic priorities right now, particularly the post-pandemic economic recovery. Does it have the bandwidth to deal with issues of importance to Canada?
At the meeting between the president and the prime minister, we set up with the Americans what we are calling a road map. Often, statements at the leaders’ level are quite aspirational. They’re “we really believe in this, and we’re hoping to go that direction” — that kind of thing.
This is very different. This is very action oriented. It’s “we’re going to set up this group of people, and they are going to achieve this.”
The president and his National Security Council are now getting biweekly updates on what we are doing to advance the 30-some objectives that we’ve made, and our government is doing the same.
How are the Biden administration and the new Congress going to approach trade? Will they be protectionist?
This administration has given some very clear signals with respect to its trade policy, and those signals are that it’s going to approach trade policy as a tool for achieving its overall economic policy, which is recovery.
So, this is a jobs plan and that’s not particularly different than what Canada is doing, right?
What’s really important to keep a close eye on is that as these policies are translated into concrete action, they achieve those goals and don’t unintentionally do what they’re not designed to do.
Like buy America provisions?
There’s a clear desire in the United States to use government procurement to support American workers and jobs.
We know from past experience that imposing these restrictions on the Canada-U. S. supply chain has the opposite effect. It actually harms U.S. companies and it harms U.S. workers.
The majority of trade in Canada is not a finished product or commodity. It’s intermediate goods that go into final products, either that sell to each other or that we sell to the world.
In terms of what is going to be done in the future, we have to make sure that we here at the embassy — our entire U.S. network, our federal government and our provincial governments — take an all-of-Canada approach to make sure that as the details are being worked out, we bring the facts to the table. The stage that we’re at right now is making sure that everybody understands how these programs can impact American workers and American jobs.
Now that vaccines are rolling out, particularly in the United States, is an expanded opening of the border on the horizon?
There is good news with respect to vaccination on both sides of the border. But we’re also seeing a resurgence of variants right now. And in Ontario, and down here in the United States, there are places where there is more transmission than ever.
So we’re constantly assessing the situation. Hopefully, we will be able to move forward with some reopenings. But it’s all going to depend on the facts on the ground.
Canadians have a long list of things they’d like to see from the United States. What does the Biden administration want to see from Canada?
I think the administration is very keen to make sure that we are amplifying each other’s efforts on the economic front, as well as health, human security and obviously the environment.
But I also think the administration looks to us as the key partner on the international stage. You know, this is an administration that is very intent on rebuilding alliances with like-minded countries.
Both countries agree that the government of China jailed two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Meng Wanzhou, a telecommunications executive from China, at the request of the U.S. government. How has this affected our relationship with the American government?
I believe the U.S. administration understands this, but I’m not sure Americans understand this: The arbitrary detention is at its core retaliation, it’s an intimidation tactic. It’s designed to pressure Canada into walking away from our legal commitments to the United States under our extradition treaty.
Is it working?
Rather than weakening the Canada-U.S. partnership, I think that this hostage diplomacy tactic has drawn us closer together in defense of human rights and in defense of the rule of law. These tactics aren’t just about two people. There’s a broader objective at play that requires all similarly minded democracies to stand together.
A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.
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