Despite the coronavirus upheaval, Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s new ambassador to Washington, sounded pumped.
“We took unprecedented steps just last week,” she said, referring to the shutdown of the Canada-U.S. border to all but essential traffic, “and I don’t think people thought we were ever going to do anything like that.”
And now, with the United States having become the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic? “Nothing’s off the table,” Ms. Hillman said in an interview. “We’ll make our decisions based on facts and on science and adopt whatever measures we need to adopt to protect the health and safety of Canadians.”
She put emphasis on the words “facts" and "science,” terms not enjoying much currency in the Oval Office.
Breaking another male bastion of power, Ms. Hillman follows the 26 men who’ve been in the Washington envoy’s post dating back to 1926.
But what a fraught moment it is for her to arrive in the job. She took it just as the news arrived that the Trump administration planned on stationing troops near the Canadian border, just as the border has been shut down for the first time ever, just as President Donald Trump is vowing to end the coronavirus lockdown in his country much earlier than Canada.
But she’s optimistic that a state of normalcy will return to the continent. At root, Canadian-American relations are strong, she said, “exceedingly successful.”
That good? Even with His Recklessness at the helm? Even with Mr. Trump, who holds Canada in no special regard, going off half-cocked again?
The President didn’t seem to know much about the planned troop deployment, saying remarkably that maybe it was because Canadians were sneaking in steel or because, since U.S. troops were stationed near the Mexican border, maybe it’s just a matter of equivalence.
Ms. Hillman said she has made clear to U.S. officials the Canadian government’s strong opposition to troops near the border. Their response? “They heard what we had to say," she said.
She has seen this movie before – impetuous leaps of logic from this White House. She’s been acting ambassador for the past seven months, was a negotiator for the USMCA – the new NAFTA – and is an expert on trade. Most importantly, she knows the key White House players and has earned their trust.
In a period of upheaval like this, it was not the time for Ottawa to bring in a new face as ambassador, someone who would have to start from scratch in building relationships with an administration nearing the end of its first term and facing an election. Continuity was needed. Ms. Hillman served at the side of David MacNaughton, the savvy former ambassador, for 2½ years.
Though Mr. Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were sometimes at loggerheads, their lieutenants worked well enough with one another to stave off lasting ruptures.
Chrystia Freeland, now Deputy Prime Minister, Mr. MacNaughton and Ms. Hillman forged relations with Jared Kushner, the President’s all-powerful son-in-law, and trade negotiator Bob Lighthizer that, while difficult at times, led to co-operation. The American players would go to the Oval Office and talk Mr. Trump down from his latest bout of irrationality.
“I think the relationships that I have been able to build over the last 2½ years, and in particular through the negotiations for the USMCA, will serve me very well,” said Ms. Hillman, who also served as Canada’s chief negotiator for the ill-fated Trans-Pacific Partnership.
At the USMCA signing ceremony on the White House south lawn last month, I watched her mingle with the powers that be with warmth and ease.
The agreement to close the border, so quickly put in place, was a great stroke in her view. Given how the number of COVID-19 cases is surging in the U.S. compared to Canada, one can see why.
Mr. Trump, she noted, will be hampered in his bid to precipitously reopen his country for business by state governments. “In the United States, the shelter requirements are administered at the state level, so there are like 32 or 33 states that have some sort of restrictions in place, and they are changing every day.”
But while Ottawa is hoping the restrictions south of the border will be kept in place, it faces the grim reality that, if they are extended too long, the U.S. economy could plunge into a deep recession or depression that would have severe repercussions on a Canadian economy that is also being pounded by the coronavirus pandemic.
The new ambassador’s optimism, born of so many years of working closely with the Americans on bilateral files, will be sorely tested. She faces challenges sterner than those of her male predecessors in the post, especially should Mr. Trump recapture the seals of office in November.
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