Trudeau eyes a different kind of envoy to Washington

Trudeau eyes a different kind of envoy to Washington

For the first time in nearly two decades, a non-political public servant is in line for Canada’s top diplomatic post abroad — ambassador to the United States.

While the job is traditionally given to political appointees known to be tight with the prime minister currently in office, all indications are that Canada’s next ambassador to the U.S. will be the public servant already acting in that role: Kirsten Hillman, an expert in international trade and law.

The appointment, which could come soon, would fit well with what seems to be a depoliticization trend in Canada’s foreign affairs these past few weeks.

The biggest issues confronting Justin Trudeau’s government since the beginning of this year — from the Tehran air crash to the outbreak of coronavirus in China — have required Canada to put what’s practical over what’s political.

Despite fraught diplomatic relations with Iran and China, the federal government has been focused instead on non-political working relationships with both countries.

Appointing a public servant to be our representative in Washington would also signal that Trudeau is looking to take politics out of the Canada-U.S. relationship in what is destined to be a crazy political year in Washington.

A workmanlike approach seems eminently sensible, as the U.S. lurches toward an election between the impeached Donald Trump and yet-to-be decided Democrat contender.

Hillman has been acting ambassador since the departure last summer of David MacNaughton, a longtime Liberal with deep ties to Trudeau’s PMO.

She served ably as MacNaughton’s deputy as the Liberal government navigated the roller-coaster talks on free trade and Trump’s on-off disposition toward Trudeau.

It’s known that Hillman has earned this PMO’s trust since arriving in Washington in 2017, and especially over the past few months while she’s been acting ambassador.

She was the calm, quiet public servant who helped manage the trade negotiations behind the scenes — not just during the intense sessions when all the lead Canadian players were at the table in Washington, but also the quieter times in between those bargaining rounds.

I met Hillman briefly last summer while I was in Washington and we talked about what she had been seeing in Trump’s America as she travelled the U.S., talking up the importance of Canada-U.S. trade.

She may have earned her diplomatic reputation as a public servant, but it wasn’t just behind a desk or sitting in D.C. — Hillman knows the lay of the land in the current United States.

The ambassador’s job has usually gone to political appointees because Washington works on politics. (Canada’s last apolitical public servant in the job was Michael Kergin, from 2000 to 2005.)

The White House values people who are known to have the ear of the prime minister. So Jean Chretien unapologetically appointed his nephew Raymond Chretien to the job when he was prime minister (though Raymond Chretien was also a career public servant) and Stephen Harper installed former Conservative finance minister Michael Wilson not long after he took power in 2006.

Harper also did a neat twist on the political-appointee front when he appointed Gary Doer, a New Democrat former premier of Manitoba, to succeed Wilson. Doer may not have been a Conservative, but he was highly political, with a huge network of contacts at the state level in the U.S.

All of these examples have been fuelling speculation about who will be Canada’s next top representative to the United States.

Many bets (including mine) were placed on Katie Telford, Trudeau’s current chief of staff, who has also forged many links with Trump’s White House, notably the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, and husband Jared Kushner.

When it became clear that Telford was staying in place at the PMO, rumours started to surface about the possible appointment of Ralph Goodale, the veteran Liberal cabinet minister who unexpectedly lost his long-time seat in Saskatchewan in the election.

Bob Rae, a former interim leader of the Liberal party, former Ontario premier, was also seen as a potential ambassador.

Rona Ambrose’s name also kept showing up at the top of the list of likely appointees, for a number of reasons.

As a former Conservative interim leader, she would be a nod to the reality of Trudeau’s minority government — someone who could stay in her job if Conservatives took over in a year or two.

She also served Trudeau’s government as an adviser on an all-party trade panel throughout the NAFTA 2.0 negotiations and would have been the first woman appointed as Canada’s ambassador to the United States.

All of these potential appointees would have done Canada proud. But the safe betting is now on Hillman, who would be the first female ambassador to the U.S. and also someone who came up through the public service ranks.

Current events on the Canadian diplomatic front are showing that when things get political abroad, the non-politicians are the antidote.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.