Kirsten Hillman on U.S. protectionism and the possible return of Donald Trump

Canada’s first female ambassador to the U.S. talks Canada’s relationship with its neighbour to the south and why things aren’t as tense as they seem

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(Photograph by Kirth Bobb)

Kirsten Hillman was appointed Canada’s ambassador to the United States during a strikingly different time. It was March 2020. Donald Trump was still the U.S. president, and we were only two weeks into the coronavirus pandemic as declared by the World Health Organization. Two years later, Hillman is cultivating relationships with a very different administration under Joe Biden, and though a path out of the pandemic is still top of mind, new cross-border trade irritants and global threats have emerged. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Marie-Danielle Smith: You’ve been in Washington for a long time, including pre-pandemic, under the Trump administration. How have things changed since Biden became president?

Kirsten Hillman: I think the first thing to say is that President Biden and his administration and our Prime Minister and his government have a deep alignment from a policy perspective . . . whether it’s climate change, whether it’s how they wanted to manage COVID in terms of vaccinations and listening to and promoting the advice of scientists, whether it’s economic recovery that focuses on those who have been hardest hit by the pandemic. That is a significant change [from] the last administration.

MDS: It seems like a friendlier relationship.

KH: The Prime Minister and the president have a very close relationship. They get along very well. The fact that they have similar policies, I think, contributes to that.

MDS: We recently passed the first anniversary of the events of Jan. 6 and the storming of the U.S. Capitol. What was that day like for you and the embassy staff?

KH: At the time, we were in a work-from-home posture. But we always had about 20 per cent of our staff who had to come in, because they work on systems that only exist here in the embassy. We knew the night before that the crowd that was going to gather was going to be really quite large. So our security officers advised, and I agreed, that we should ask those who normally would come in to work from home. I believe there were three people in the embassy, and there was security. I watched those events unfold from my residence.

MDS: The embassy has a view on the U.S. Capitol building. What was it like for you to watch it being overrun on TV?

KH: It was very disturbing, and very upsetting. And I think probably for many people here in the U.S. and in Canada, almost unreal. Hard to believe it was real. As I was watching it—and reporting back to Ottawa on what I was seeing, what we were hearing from our contacts within the U.S. system—I was also working with my security staff to make sure that all our staff were safe and accounted for. It took a little while to confirm that. And that was also very difficult.

MDS: There has been a lot of discussion about the idea that American democracy is fracturing, and that its institutions are under a lot of pressure. People wonder what that devolution could mean for Canada and our relationship. Is that something you worry about?

KH: Clearly, this is a challenging time here in the United States. As you say, the divisions in U.S. society are not new. I think that they have been exacerbated by COVID, by economic instability, by certain political agendas. But what I see here is a recognition that U.S. citizens and U.S. lawmakers can’t take their democracy for granted. If we want a vibrant democracy, we have to work at it, we have to fight for it. And that’s happening here in the U.S. They are fighting for their democracy. That is the reason why Americans are feeling anxious. It is precisely because they take their democracy very, very seriously.

MDS: So when you see the doom-and-gloom interpretations of Jan. 6 and of the discourse around the last election, do I take it that you’re a bit more optimistic?

KH: Well, I think that it’s important to think about what happened. In the last election, there was a challenge to that election, but 50 states and the District of Columbia certified the results. There were a number of court challenges, but the election results were validated across the board by more than 60 federal and state courts. They all rejected every claim of fraud and corruption. So I think we can’t lose sight of that. These institutions are strong. Does it mean that it’s not important to continue to ensure that they remain strong? Of course not. But the institutions that underpinned the last presidential election did what they were meant to do. Those who feel that those institutions are under threat, they’re fighting hard for them.

MDS: As much as the Canada-U.S. relationship is under scrutiny right now, it’s easy to forget how fraught things felt not so long ago when NAFTA was getting renegotiated. You were in the room for those talks. Were there times when it felt like it wasn’t going to come together?

KH: For me, yes, probably. Is that unusual? I can’t think of a single negotiation I’ve been in where I didn’t think at one point or another, and sometimes several times, “I don’t think this thing’s going to make it over.” The one difference with the USMCA negotiation, though, is it was, in some respects, a no-fail operation. By the time we were deep into those negotiations, Canadians and Americans—and I’m sure this is also true in Mexico—realized that this arrangement that underpinned our economic success was vital to all three countries.

MDS: Given some of the rhetoric around trade in the Democratic Party, do you think it would have been even harder to negotiate an agreement with a Democratic administration?

KH: Well, the Democrats were deeply involved in the final agreement. Here in the United States, an international trade agreement must then pass through Congress. It was an agreement that benefited from more bipartisan support in this country than the original, or almost any other trade agreement they’ve ever passed.

MDS: But there are major areas of disagreement that are being litigated now under the rules of the treaty. The U.S. recently won a dispute against Canadian dairy measures, and Canada and Mexico are disputing the U.S. interpretation of auto rules. Why does it seem like these irritants are happening with more frequency?

KH: Dairy and autos are both processes under the new NAFTA. And there’s another one on solar panels that has taken place. This, from my perspective, is a good thing. I mean, ideally, it would be better not to have trade disagreements.

MDS: So it’s evidence of a functioning system?

KH: Right. What is important is that we follow the rules and processes that we have put in place to solve those disagreements. The reason that we negotiate trade agreements is to open up our economies to each other, but also to provide predictability and stability.

MDS: One issue that has maybe been put to bed for now is the electric vehicle tax credit that was in the Build Back Better bill. It was blocked by Democratic Senator Joe Manchin and talks have stalled. Do you think that Canada’s efforts to lobby against the provision have factored in?

KH: We certainly talked to Senator Manchin about our concerns. I’d spoken to him myself a few times about it. And he was pretty much of the view that it was important to maintain a strong and vibrant auto sector and auto trade with Canada. So I assume that he was bringing those views forward. But there are also many other components of that agreement that he had problems with.

MDS: Some U.S. lawmakers literally tell reporters that they “don’t care” what Canada thinks about any given issue. In practice, is it difficult to get legislators to listen to Canadian priorities?

KH: Almost without exception, I reach any lawmaker that I need to. Even if they don’t agree with us, they will take the call, because they value that Canadian relationship. When the Prime Minister was here in D.C. recently, I hosted a small get-together at my residence where the Prime Minister was able to have in-depth conversations with all the key and most senior White House decision-makers who worked with the president, as well as cabinet ministers and some of our closest Senate allies. The president had been out of town that evening. He said, more than once, that he was sorry to admit that he felt somewhat left out.

MDS: Do those sorts of gatherings come more easily in the Biden era than they would’ve under Trump?

KH: You know, I have to say no. We had very close access to [Trump’s] team. I met with their national security adviser several times. When we were working on the USMCA, I had the cellphone numbers of several senior advisers in the White House, and we talked regularly. This isn’t something that is personal, you know. It’s my job to build those contacts and relationships and networks. But it’s also indicative of the importance of the Canada-U.S. relationship.

MDS: Nonetheless, you have opposition politicians in Canada right now who are claiming that we are at a low point in the Canada-U.S. relationship. How do you respond to that accusation?

KH: I disagree with that. I believe I have experienced other points in the Canada-U.S. relationship that were lower than this one.

MDS: What’s an example of a time when things were worse?

KH: Maybe the better way to respond to that question is this: we have this enormous relationship with the Americans. And we are privileged to have them as neighbours, and as trading partners, and as defence allies and as friends. But sometimes they make decisions that are really challenging for us. This is a particular moment in time with COVID and economic challenges. We are facing a protectionist trend here in the United States.

But I think that what’s really important is that we can have these frank and respectful conversations that allow us to work through the issues. And with this administration, that is possible.

MDS: That instinct toward protectionism can be really tempting for American politicians. What’s the best argument against it?

KH: We see time and time again, when those relationships are disrupted, when those supply chains are disrupted, when the efficiencies that we have created over generations are affected, then American jobs are lost. American businesses suffer. We get very granular [in our response]. We’ll go to specific communities. And we describe what will happen in specific communities to specific industries to specific regions of the country.

MDS: Does it feel like the question of what to do about China hangs over the Canada-U.S. relationship?

KH: We talk with the Americans about the Indo-Pacific and China on a regular basis. We talk with their experts, and then when members of the Canadian government come to town, we also have opportunities to try and work with the Americans on how we can best manage our relationship with China, which is such a complex and significant country. I think that our approach toward China has to recognize that complexity, and has to recognize the significance of China. We want to be informed in the choices that we make by how our key allies are thinking about these things as well, and the U.S. is of course chief among our key allies.

Hillman’s library

The ambassador’s book recommendations, from comedy to authoritarian history. (Click through this gallery. Interview continues below.)

MDS: What would you say is your biggest priority as ambassador over the coming year?

KH: The number one priority is keeping the [Canada-U.S.] relationship strong so that we can be effective in rising to whatever challenge a particular moment in time will bring to us. In the last week and a bit, the moment in time has been about these protests across the border and the binational implications. Three weeks ago, I might’ve said to you it’s demonstrating the vitality and the importance of cross-border investment and supply chains, and making sure that we can come out of the pandemic in a way that makes our two nations stronger. It is also sometimes going to be a defence or a security question.

MDS: Things can change quickly. What kinds of things are you doing to prepare for the possibility that Trump will be the Republican nominee and could be president again?

KH: We are always maintaining our relationships on both sides of the aisle. I’ll be honest with you, sometimes it’s bipartisan. I had dinner here with about 20 senators and it was a bipartisan dinner. I spend time consciously making sure that ties with the Republican leadership and influencers who were important to us during the Trump administration . . . remain, [that] the lines of communication remain open. That’s the number one thing that we do.

This interview appears in print in the April 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.