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David MacNaughton has praised Kirsten Hillman, seen here on Nov. 6, 2019 with then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland, for her abilities as a negotiator and for helping to shape the Canadian strategy for the trade talks.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Canada’s interim ambassador to the United States is the leading candidate to take over at this country’s most important diplomatic mission, a senior government official says.

Kirsten Hillman, a career diplomat, was deputy envoy alongside ambassador David MacNaughton during the difficult trade negotiations that led to the conclusion of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

Mr. MacNaughton stepped down as Canada’s envoy to Washington in September, and Ms. Hillman has carried out the official duties as acting ambassador while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau chooses a permanent replacement.

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A senior official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the next ambassador said Mr. Trudeau has been impressed with Ms. Hillman and is leaning toward appointing her as envoy to Washington in February.

Mr. MacNaughton, a confidante of Mr. Trudeau, has praised Ms. Hillman for her abilities as a negotiator and for helping to shape the Canadian strategy for the trade talks, including outreach efforts to the U.S. business community, Congress and governors in 35 northern states for which Canada is the largest foreign market for U.S.-made goods and services.

Kelly Craft, the former U.S. ambassador to Canada and now the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, has also spoken highly of Ms. Hillman for her negotiating skills during the often contentious trade talks.

Former Canadian ambassador to Washington Michael Kergin, who was also a career diplomat, said the most important issue is the outcome of the presidential election.

“Whomever the ambassador will be, job one will be working the presidential election and seeing how that plays out. If the Democrats were to win, which is a big question mark, you have to get to know the new team and brief them up on Canadian issues,” he said. “If it is the Trump team coming back – or what passes for a Trump team – that obviously is getting to know them and maintaining relations with them.”

Mr. Kergin said the new ambassador will also have to manage the Trudeau government’s decision on whether to allow Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. to participate in Canada’s 5G cellular networks. The United States has threatened to curb intelligence sharing with Western countries that allow Huawei technology in their next-generation networks.

The key role of a Canadian ambassador is to develop relationships with the White House National Security Council, State Department, Pentagon, Congress and U.S. governors, while relations with the U.S. president are left to the prime minister, he said.

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“It is basically the head of government that manages the relations with their counterpart, and Trudeau, despite the little contretemps in Europe at the NATO meeting, I think has maintained a fairly good relationship with Trump, so the phone calls get answered when necessary,” Mr. Kergin said.

At the NATO summit in London in December, Mr. Trudeau was caught on camera making fun of Mr. Trump during cocktails with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and Princess Anne.

Mr. Trump reacted on Twitter, calling Mr. Trudeau “two-faced.”

Ms. Hillman has represented Canada as lead counsel before panels and the Appellate Body of the World Trade Organization, and managed Canada’s international investor-state arbitration under the North American free-trade agreement.

Before joining Global Affairs Canada, Ms. Hillman practiced law in Montreal and in Ottawa at the Federal Department of Justice.

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