Canada's woman in Washington

Canada's woman in Washington
© Greg Nash

Within two hours of President BidenJoe BidenBiden nominates Mark Brzezinski to be U.S. ambassador to Poland 10 dead after overloaded van crashes in south Texas Majority of New York state Assembly support beginning process to impeach Cuomo: AP MORE’s inauguration, Canadian Ambassador to the U.S. Kirsten Hillman says she was receiving calls from White House officials ready to work on the next steps for the U.S. and Canada relationship.

Biden has prioritized relations with Canada since taking office. His first foreign call was with Prime Minister Justin TrudeauJustin Pierre James TrudeauBiden discusses Canadian citizens detained in China with Trudeau Biden administration stokes frustration over Canada The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Schumer moves ahead with likely-to-fail infrastructure vote MORE, and the White House’s first bilateral summit — held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic — was with the neighbor to the north.

“The president’s message was, ‘There’s a lot of very challenging things facing our world, facing our country, the United States, but we can do it, we’re just going to roll up our sleeves and we’re going to get it done.’ And that was demonstrated through the fact that they were literally, within less than two hours, calling us and trying to get things done,” Hillman said in an interview with The Hill at the Canadian Embassy last week.

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“And I just thought, ‘Well let’s go, let’s go.’ And it’s been that way ever since.”

It’s a dramatic change of pace from diplomacy under former President TrumpDonald TrumpMajority of Americans in new poll say it would be bad for the country if Trump ran in 2024 ,800 bottle of whiskey given to Pompeo by Japan is missing Liz Cheney says her father is 'deeply troubled' about the state of the Republican Party MORE, who had publicly called Trudeau “two-faced” and “meek and mild” amid disputes over trade and membership in the Group of Seven.

And that was before the pandemic upended global commerce and closed the U.S.-Canadian border.

Hillman, as Ottawa’s top diplomat in Washington, holds the most crucial foreign posting for her country, and she says the calls with administration officials, so shortly after the swearing-in and following months of a transition where radio silence with foreign allies was strictly enforced, signaled the Biden team’s resolve to get to work.

“This is the most important relationship we have in the world with another country. ... Clearly, it goes without saying, for Canada, the U.S. is our closest and dearest ally and partner.”

Hillman has served at the head of the Canadian Embassy since August 2019, when she took over in an acting capacity when her predecessor, David MacNaughton, left Washington to assist Trudeau in his reelection bid.

While Trudeau committed to naming, for the first time, a woman to fill the position, Hillman was not the obvious choice.

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As a trade lawyer and negotiator by training, she did not fit the typical profile for a position that is largely viewed as needing a political personality or someone from the foreign service.

Christopher Sands, director of the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute, said that Hillman’s credentials were forged in the “harrowing” renegotiations during the Trump administration of what became the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a reworking of the almost three-decade-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

“As Trudeau began looking for what he told the press was ‘the first female ambassador of Canada to the United States’ ... he looked high and low, there were lots of names that were floated around — but many of us said at the time, ‘Well you have a pretty good one right there. Just make her permanent,’” Sands said. 

“I was a huge fan just because she was substantive.”

A critical turning point for Hillman was when she agreed to come to Washington as a deputy ambassador with a primary focus on reworking NAFTA.

“That was a conscious choice,” she said.

Trade relations were going to be her top priority, but Hillman also jumped at the chance to expand her skills and manage a team of people at the embassy in the role.

She describes Canada’s mission to the U.S. as a “mini-government,” with 15 different agencies represented and more than 300 staff overseeing a trade relationship of nearly $2.4 billion a day. 

“I thought, ‘Well, that’ll be something very satisfying,’ ” Hillman said of her decision to pursue diplomacy. “It’s a very, very diverse place, and that really appealed to me.”

Trudeau made Hillman’s appointment official in March 2020, coinciding with the outbreak of the pandemic, which posed another extraordinary challenge in the U.S.-Canada relationship.

Within a week, Hillman said the decision was made for the U.S. and Canada to close to nonessential travel their 5,600-mile border, which saw more than 400,000 crossings a day before the pandemic.

“The magnitude of that decision, the number of crossings on that border, the sheer size of that border, that was, I think, probably the most consequential public policy decision I had seen being made in such a quick time frame,” Hillman said.

The U.S.-Canadian border remains closed to nonessential travel until July 21 as Ottawa aims to increase the country’s vaccination rates before easing restrictions.

Hillman urged ongoing, close cooperation with the U.S. over the border restrictions.

“Approaching this in a coordinated manner is better for clarity for predictability and just for, frankly, operational management of our border,” she said.

Beyond the bilateral relationship, Canada is a key international partner for the U.S. amid Biden’s push to promote democratic norms globally in the face of rising authoritarianism and to counter China’s ambitions.

Hillman said that Canada is equally concerned about China’s actions. 

“There’s no doubt in my mind that one of the objectives that they have is to separate allies from each other,” she said of Beijing.

The U.S. and Canada are in close coordination over the push to release the “two Michaels” — China’s detention of Canadian citizens Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.

Their arrests are criticized as retaliation for Canada’s carrying out a U.S. extradition request and arresting Huawei telecoms executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver in December 2018. A trial in Canada is ongoing over whether to extradite Meng to the United States to face allegations, as a Huawei executive, of violating American sanctions on Iran.

Hillman said that China’s “hostage diplomacy” has drawn the U.S. and Canada closer together — “in defense of human rights and in defense of rule of law, not just with the United States but with numerous allies around the world,” she said.

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While Hillman has dealt with extraordinary challenges over the past few years, she’s hoping to get back to traveling the U.S. with her husband as COVID-19 restrictions ease.

The two have a bucket list of cities and U.S. national parks to visit — including a possible barbecue road trip and exploring the desert in Utah.

“We’re going to get that bucket list out again,” she said.