At age 71, Michael Wilson can lay claim to one of the most impressive careers in Canadian public life-Bay Street executive, Conservative politician, federal finance minister and, until the middle of October, ambassador to the United States. And it's not over yet. Retirement was clearly not on his mind when we caught up to him in the waning hours of his ambassadorial tenure, as he was about to hand the job over to former Manitoba premier Gary Doer.
Did you ever win a finance-minister-of-the-year award, as Jim Flaherty did recently? I did, and I think I was named the worst finance minister the year after that.
What happened? We ran into difficulties. I forget exactly what they were, but I think the currency was very strong, and that was very hard on the manufacturing and resources sector. So I'd tell Mr. Flaherty, "Don't feel too cocky, because they can hit you hard the next year."
What will you do now? I'm going to continue to be active. I don't know quite what I'll do. I'll probably gravitate toward the financial sector, because that's what I've done in my private-sector life. I'll do some not-for-profit stuff, and have a bit more time for myself and my family.
Why don't you just sit and watch the sun set over the fields at your farm? It wouldn't work. I'm not ready for that. I enjoy being active.
So why leave Washington right now? I could have gone longer; I could have gone shorter. I wanted to be [in Washington]for the transition from the Bush administration to the Obama administration. What we've seen over the past nine months is a very active transition. When I discussed it with the Prime Minister this past spring, I said, "I think you've had a wonderful engagement with the new administration, and I think you'll want an ambassador who'll be with you to the end of the first term." I wasn't prepared to commit to that.
How do you respond to the view that you weren't a good fit with the Obama team? I think that's totally unfounded. The relationship I've had with people in the Obama administration has been just as strong as with the Bush people. We're not dealing with issues of political differences. They're more national-security-related questions that don't have any doctrine or dogma about them. In some cases, we've had a more active and productive dialogue with the Obama administration simply because of the nature of the file. I'm thinking foremost about climate change and energy.
Have you made progress on easing the Buy American policy? I think they understand our position, but more work has to be done. It's not just the Buy American issue that's troublesome. We're dealing with that one. More troubling is the general level of protectionism, which is caused by economic anxiety in the United States. If we don't keep pushing back on this as firmly as we have, we risk slipping into other elements of protection.
Is there something in your career left undone? There's always stuff left undone. That's why I want to continue to be involved in the not-for-profit field. I used to be quite active with mental illness issues. As for business, I think it's important for someone like me, who has had international exposure, to find a job that makes use of that experience.
Is the mental illness work important because your son Cameron took his life in 1995? Even before our son died, I felt this area needed more attention. There are still problems of stigma, and there are funding problems. When you look at the burden of illness in a country, you automatically think of cancer and heart disease, but rarely of mental illness. There's a very high incidence of it-higher than people realize-and there's the ongoing cost to families and community.
How do you keep your energy at 71? Exercise, a bowl of Wheaties and vitamin pills. In political life, I realized that if you aren't reasonably fit for a job like this, you'll get tired.