The United States and Canada share not only a long border but their histories,
economies, societies and interests are intertwined. At the centre of the
relationship are the Ambassadors of the two countries, David H. Wilkins
and Michael Wilson. They were interviewed separately in January 2008. Their
thoughts on the various issues have been combined into a single interview.
What previous experiences were most useful in preparing for your present
Ambassador Wilkins: I served 25 years in the South Carolina House of Representatives
as an elected member 11 of those years as speaker of the House. I was
on the ballot 13 times and know what it is like to get out and ask people
for their vote. I also know what it is like to manage a budget as I was
in charge of both the Houses multi-million dollar budget as well as shepherding
the states multi-billion dollar budget through the House. At the same
time, for more than three decades, I ran a very successful law firm begun
by my father. So I was managing that business and employees as well, ultimately
responsible for the firms fiscal health and the success of our clients.
All this experience helped me immensely in becoming U.S. Ambassador to
Canada. Diplomacy is ultimately all about relationship-building. I had
decades of experience in the House building key alliances and working with
members in both parties to pass legislation important to our state and
constituents. I also had tremendous experience dealing with the media which
is invaluable in this critical post.
Ambassador Wilson: I was born and educated in Toronto. Following graduation,
I worked for two years in banking in London, England and New York City.
I then joined a Toronto-based investment bank before being elected to the
House of Commons as a Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament in
the 1979 general election. I served as Minister of State for International
Trade in the nine-month minority government of Joe Clark. I was also a
candidate at the1983 Progressive Conservative leadership convention. After
the 1984 election, when the party formed government, I became Minister
After seven years of Finance, I became Minister of Industry, Science and
Technology and Minister of International Trade. In that role, I participated
in negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which remains
one of the key achievements of my career. In 1993, after deciding not to
seek another term, I returned to Bay Street to head my own consulting and
financial services firm. I later rejoined Royal Bank of Canada and was
Chairman and CEO of RT Capital when that business was sold to UBS AG, after
which I became Chairman of UBS Canada. In early 2006, Prime Minister Harper
called, asking me to return to public service as the 22nd Canadian Ambassador
to the United States.
I feel that my past experience as a Minister, which also brought me to
the U.S. regularly, has provided me with the best possible preparation
for my current assignment. In many ways, because of its size and importance,
the Canadian Embassy in Washington is very similar to the operation of
a department of government. As Ambassador, you are called to deal with
all aspects of management, from policy development to human resources.
As a Minister, many of the issues I was dealing with involved the U.S.
Describe the main accomplishments in Canada-United States relations during
Ambassador Wilkins: When I first arrived in Canada in the summer of 2005
I vowed I would set a new tone in the US-Canada relationship, accentuating
the positive and looking to strengthen the already-strong bond that exists
between our two great democracies. As I tell folks when I travel this great
nation, for some reason both Canadians and Americans tend to focus on the
clouds instead of the many silver linings in our partnership and actively
seek controversies where so few exist. I am an optimistic person by nature
and when you have the single best, most peaceful and productive relationship
the world has ever known to brag on- you have a lot of material to work
with. Over these last two years I think that feeling of optimism has been
contagious at the highest levels of our government and I give much of the
credit to President Bush and Prime Minister Harper. The two of them became
actively engaged in the softwood lumber file at the leaders summit in
Cancun, Mexico which led to a swift resolution of this very contentious
issue. BSE (mad cow) has been effectively dealt with and our borders are
open to Canadian beef. This year, as we continue to actively deal with
the passport issue, known as the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative
or WHTI, it will be with that same spirit of cooperation. We have already
listened to Canadian concerns delaying the implementation of the passport
requirements at the land and sea borders until June 2009 and exempting
minors under 16 years of age.
We are working with various states to create an enhanced drivers license
to be used at the border in lieu of passports. Well continue to work with
and address Canadian concerns every step of the way as we implement the
Congress-mandated WHTI provisions along our northern border.
Ambassador Wilson: Reaching an agreement with the United States, effectively
ending our long-standing dispute over softwood lumber in April 2006, was
one of our key accomplishments. The Agreement outlines the terms for a
fair and durable resolution and reflects Canadas objectives and interests,
and it paved the way for a stronger bilateral trade relationshipa relationship
upon which so many Canadians depend for jobs and prosperity. It also set
a positive tone that allowed our countries to move forward in collaborating
in other ways to make North America more competitive on a global scale.
More recently, management of the Canada-U.S. border, including security,
trade and tourism issues, has been my greatest preoccupation. The Western
Hemisphere Travel Initiative is the most pressing immediate issue. While
there are still matters of concern to be addressed, it must be said that
considerable progress has been made as Americans, particularly Members
of Congress, have become sensitized to the risks of implementing this new
requirement before travellers on have obtained acceptable documents.
For 2008, I hope that we will continue to solve problems proactively before
they become actual issues for our two governments. Former Secretary of
State George Shultz used to equate diplomacy with tending the garden
meaning vigilantly addressing the small problems that arise between partners
and friends. Thus, as Ambassador, I make it a priority to ensure that we
keep excellent lines of communication between all partners involved in
the good health of the relationship and that we fully understand each others
perspectives on key issues.
In terms of your time and energy which areas of Canada-United States relationship
are most demanding?
Ambassador Wilkins: We have a saying at the U.S. Mission in Ottawa: Its
all about the border. Nearly everything we do as a diplomatic mission
is focused on what happens along the border in terms of facilitating trade,
travel and making sure always our borders are safe for the passage of goods
and people. When you enjoy the worlds best, most peaceful and productive
trade relationship in the world ($1.5 billion a day) that is something
you do not ever take for granted. We are working hard every day, not only
to protect this relationship that puts food on the table for families on
both sides of the border, but to grow it. In this post 9-11 world, we also
work to make sure that every citizen be it Canadian or otherwise who
travels within the United States is safe. That means implementing smart
security at our borders and working with our neighbors on pro-active measures
that prevent terrorist activities and other incidents and accidents.
Ambassador Wilson: The links between Canada and the United States are deep,
diverse and complex. Some 300 agreements and treaties cement our mutual
co-operation. Both countries understand each others policies on a multitude
of issues. While we do not always agree, we are each determined to maintain
the vital partnerships that have served us so well.
Maintaining a secure border without jeopardizing two-way trade and tourism
between Canada and the U.S. is a key priority for me. Trade volumes between
Canada and the U.S. are huge. Two-way trade crosses the CanadaU.S. border
at the rate of more than a million dollars a minute. And more than 400,000
people a day, on average, travel across the border. It follows that a smart
and efficient border is essential for our highly integrated industries.
We must make sure that the border provides gateways to prosperity not
cumbersome checkpoints that stifle our competitiveness. At the same time,
both countries are rightly concerned about border security. Canadians and
Americans once spoke of sharing the longest undefended border in the world.
That should now be referred to as the longest secure border in the world.
But problems remain, and I regret to say that the border is thickening.
In the case of WHTI, the new U.S. travel document requirements for Canadians
to enter and Americans to return to the U.S., the pressure of speedy implementation
could well overwhelm our abilities to issue secure travel documents. Several
provinces and states including British Columbia and Washington State,
are working on plans for enhanced drivers licenses to be used as alternative
travel documents to a passport. However, the most advanced of these plans
are still in the pilot project stage.
Canada agrees with the security aim underlying documents to validate a
persons nationality and identity. My concern is that we must prevent gridlock
at the border, during the critical implementation period of WHTI.
Shifting the focus from the border to international security, the Embassy
also plays a key role in ensuring Canadas commitment to Afghanistan is
well understood. We highlight our contribution on Capitol Hill, among think
tanks and with the media to show how Canada is playing a real, tangible
and substantive role on international security issues. It also means intervening
regularly in the policy-making process for example, during the ongoing
Iraq debate, we have consistently worked to ensure that decisions on Iraq
would not compromise the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan.
Do you foresee even closer integration between Canada and the United States
than is presently the case under NAFTA?
Ambassador Wilkins: In the sense that communication and travel keep getting
cheaper, making the whole world smaller then yes, we will likely keep
getting more integrated with each other, just as we will keep getting more
integrated with the rest of the world.
The question would seem to be, is there something beyond this that wed
choose to do as a matter of policy? A look at our shared history would
suggest that we have tended to make those choices positively in the past.
Less than 200 years ago we fought a war against each other. Until about
100 years ago, the United States was not Canadas top economic partner;
Britain was. Less than 70 years ago, before World War II, we were not allies
in any formal collective security arrangement. It has been less than 45
years since we agreed to trade autos and parts back and forth without restrictions.
We no longer argue about whether those past decisions to grow closer together
were good or bad. I think most agree that theyve had tremendously positive
effects on both our economies as has NAFTA. I spend the majority of my
time working to strengthen the bonds between our two great nations and
this includes working with both Canadians and Americans who are committed
to improving our trade relationship by reducing redundant restrictions
and the bureaucratic red tape that impedes our efficiency and thereby reduces
our bottom line. Were always striving to ease the flow of goods and services
across the border by providing a secure, productive environment that benefits
both countries. Having said this, I would caution against any thinking
that either the U.S. or Canadian government is striving in any form toward
an EU-type arrangement.
The United States and Canada are two distinct democracies and we both cherish
and protect our sovereignty. We will remain two separate nations blessed
to share a prosperous partnership made better by the efforts of agreements
like NAFTA but separate and sovereign nonetheless.
Ambassador Wilson: There is no doubt that NAFTA has been the key to the
growth of bilateral exchanges between Canada, the United States, and Mexico.
I say that, not because I signed NAFTA on behalf of Canada in a previous
life, but because, objectively, NAFTA has been a remarkable success. During
NAFTAs first 13 years, trade among the NAFTA partners almost tripled.
Investment flows have also increased substantially. Trade means jobs
in all three countries.
Moreover, as trade has expanded freely across the border, more and more
industries, companies and their suppliers operate on either side of the
border. Assembling the parts into a single car, for example, can involve
seven border crossings one companys North American supply chain, made
stronger by NAFTA. What has developed in many sectors is an integrated
North American economy, using North American supply chains. Canadians,
Americans and Mexicans will not be competing so much with each other, as
much as they will be joining forces as North Americans to compete with
the world. I believe that this is a trend that will continue to grow in
the upcoming years.
How do you make sure you are on top of every aspect of this diverse and
Ambassador Wilkins: I think to be on top of the relationship you have
to be out there- actively participating as much as you can. I am not here
in Canada to mark time, I am here to make my time count. So I want to be
out on the road, meeting Canadians, telling them about my country, and
just as importantly, listening and learning from them. I have traveled
extensively across Canada visiting every province and territory many
of them numerous times. There are often occasions where I may speak 4-5
times a day to various groups, especially when I am out traveling. I do
not think I am being an effective representative for my country when I
sit behind my desk in Ottawa, so you will most often find me out meeting
with Canadians, giving speeches and touring different facilities. I likewise
think its vital that the folks back in Washington know whats on the minds
of Canadians. I make it a point to get back to Washington and meet with
officials there, be it Secretary Rice or Secretary Chertoff, officials
at the Commerce Department or representatives in Congress, so they understand
what is important to Canadians.
It is a complex relationship, and sometimes I am concerned that we fail
to appreciate what we have in each other a truly indispensable and irreplaceable
partnership based on common values. I do take great exception to those
people who do not know President Bush as I do, who have no clue of the
terror assessments he reads each morning and the major attacks he and his
administration have thwarted since 9-11, who fail to recognize that it
is because of this administrations diligence that North America has not
been attacked since September 11, and are so very critical of this president.
That is bothersome. On the other hand, I think history will very much vindicate
this president and the next U.S. president will soon discover he or she
has much to contend with and big shoes to fill when confronted with these
Ambassador Wilson: Canadas priority relationship with the United States
is reflected in the twenty three offices (including the Embassy) that we
have throughout the United States. To complement the work of these offices,
we have 16 Honorary Consuls local champions of the Canada-U.S. relationship
who are keeping an ear to the ground on the local scene as well as sharing
Since May 2006, I have had the opportunity to travel to more than 15 states
(more than once in some cases), from Blaine, WA to San Antonio, TX to Plattsburgh,
NY. And during each trip, I meet with the local academic, business, cultural
and media communities to learn about the issues that are important to Americans.
These trips, which always involve a public speech, allow me to share Canadas
importance with that specific state or region. The Embassy also has a number
of advocacy tools that allow us to drill down and capture the economic
and social relationships between Canada and the states.
Your Embassy is a large operation. Can you give us an idea of how the Embassy
is organized and what are its key responsibilities?
Ambassador Wilkins: We do have a large operation that is appropriate to
the size and scope of the bilateral relationship. State Department offices
within the Embassy focus on political, economic, consular, public affairs
and management functions. Personnel from fifteen other U.S. Government
agencies manage commercial, agricultural, customs, immigration, law enforcement,
and military relations all of which fall under my authority as Ambassador.
Although we have many responsibilities we all have one chief mission: to
strengthen the already robust relationship between the United States and
Ambassador Wilson: The Embassy in Washington, is Canadas main diplomatic
mission to the United States.
I oversee the work of staff at the Embassy and work in close collaboration
with employees at 13 Consulates General, eight Consulates and one Trade
Office across the United States and in Puerto Rico. The Embassy is divided
into five functional areas of operation:
The Political Section embraces a number of policy and operational programs:
Foreign Policy, Energy and Environment, Intelligence Liaison, Border and
National Security, Immigration and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP)
and Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) offices.
The Economic Section promotes Canadas economic interests, in a full range
of economic, commercial, trade and investment areas.
The Washington Advocacy Secretariat, which houses the Public Affairs section,
Congressional and Legal Affairs section, and the Parliamentary and Provincial/Territorial
Affairs section, reaches out to the groups that play a role in policy-making
in the U.S., including members of Congress, U.S. states and their organizations,
the media, academics and think tanks, and cultural and civic leaders.
The Canadian Defence Liaison Staff, with representatives from land, sea
and air branches of the Canadian Forces, advises the Ambassador on military
matters, serves as a vital link between Canadas Defence Department and
the Pentagon and handles the support needs of the 600 Canadian defence
personnel serving in the United States.
Finally, the Management and Consular section provides administrative and
technical support services for the Embassy, as well as assistance to Canadians
visiting or resident in Washington, D.C., and the states of Delaware, Maryland
Several Canadian government departments and agencies place full-time representatives
in the Embassy.
Are there any particular considerations that come into play when you deal
with the Premiers or Governors?
Ambassador Wilkins: We are fortunate at the U.S. Mission Canada to have
six Consulates General and one American Presence post to expand our connections
across this vast country. We therefore have representatives to meet directly
with provincial and local officials in their neighborhoods. They do a great
job at this, but I also know it is important to travel myself, and I am
frequently on the road in this beautiful nation.
It is often said, the business of America is business, and another important
part of our work is facilitating visits from state governors and their
trade delegations and American companies. The links between our two nations
are close on every level: at the national, regional, private sector, community,
and individual level.
Ambassador Wilson: We recognize that legislation, and other policy developments
in the U.S. often have a direct impact on one or more provinces. Because
of this and the important role provinces and states play in Canada-U.S.
relations, the Embassys Provincial, Territorial and Parliamentary Affairs
section, supports my efforts to act both as a channel and facilitator for
provinces and territories, particularly to help deepen their engagement
in the U.S.
We are pleased that the province of Alberta operates an office within the
Embassy an arrangement which has proven to offer many advantages for
cooperation. We also enjoy a solid working relationship with the Government
of Quebecs stand-alone office in Washington. In addition to bringing the
provinces and territories into the Embassys advocacy strategy, we partner
with them in the planning and execution of their incoming missions to Washington.
Are there any particular services of the Embassy intended to help legislators
deal with political or trade issues involving the other country?
Ambassador Wilkins: Our Embassys Information Resource Center (IRC) provides
outreach, website (http://ottawa.usembassy .gov) and research services
to MPs and other government officials. The public can contact research
specialists by e-mail or website for assistance in locating accurate information
about the United States government, history, and culture. Likewise, our
E-alerts provide recent government statements, think-tank studies, or
important academic articles on issues such as the economy, culture and
the arts and U.S.-Canadian relations. In addition, the exchanges office
of our Public Affairs section facilitates a variety of exchanges each year
designed to bring Canadian legislators and other professionals into direct
contact with their American counterparts.
Ambassador Wilson: Much like our on-going collaboration with provinces
and territories, my team also provides support to individual Canadian parliamentarians
and affiliated groups and committees in the execution of their parliamentary
duties. This support varies from simply ensuring they are kept aware of
developments in the U.S. to the more substantive task of helping organize
and execute a visit to Washington to meet policy-makers.
A primary example of this is the Embassys support to the Canadian members
of the Canada-United States Inter-Parliamentary Group (IPG). The IPG exists
to exchange information and promote better understanding between Canadian
parliamentarians and U.S. legislators on common problems and concerns,
in the relations between the two countries. The IPG meets annually and
the Canadian members travel to the U.S. fairly regularly. I have had the
privilege to host the group at the Embassy, as well as travel with them
to their annual meeting, last held in Windsor, Ontario, where both Canadian
and U.S. members had an opportunity to have a hands-on view of operations
at the Canada-U.S. border crossing.
How has modern information technology changed the traditional role of an
embassy and an ambassador?
Ambassador Wilkins: Technology has helped me do my job. I can reach out
to Canadian audiences via our websites. I have participated in webchats
which allow me to interact on-line in real time with people from throughout
Canada. We have also made great efforts to engage with communities North
of 60 through the innovation of Virtual Presence Posts, a coordinated
outreach effort between the Embassy and the Consulates responsible for
those three territories. Obviously the media allows Canadians to hear directly
from me about U.S. government polices. With Digital Video Conferences (DVCs),
I can directly communicate with my staff in Consulates throughout Canada,
as well as with Canadian audiences. Thanks to modern information technology,
the traditional role of an embassy and an ambassador has been expanded
and enhanced at the same time that it has provided new challenges in the
many new platforms competing for peoples attention.
But even with the benefits of technology, there is no substitute for personal
experiences and relationships. The best part of being ambassador is meeting
with the thousands of Canadians across the country whove made Canada feel
like home for Susan and me these past two-and-a-half years. It is an honor
to meet so many wonderful people who have such a high opinion of my country
the folks whose opinions dont make it into the newspapers. It makes
me realize every single day how blessed my country is to have Canada as
our closest friend and ally and what a tremendous privilege it is for me
to represent my country in this great democracy.
Ambassador Wilson: The Embassy and Consulates are using Internet and social
networking technology to promote Canadian government interests in the United
States and further our advocacy, trade, and consular goals. (Yes, I always
carry my Blackberry!)
The best example is our Connect2Canada initiative (www.connect2canada.com),
which is a web-based network of nearly 35,000 people, including Americans
doing business with Canada or whose work otherwise involves Canada, as
well as the Canadian expatriate community. Through these groups we are
reaching opinion-shapers and decision-makers in business, media, academe,
NGOs, and federal, state, and local government.
Connect2Canada is now our principal communication tool in the U.S. and
we use it to convey key messages on Canadian interests in the U.S. to targeted
audiences in a timely manner with measurable results. In January, for example,
we launched a Border Travel Update message to the entire Connect2 Canada
network. The message described the new document requirements for border
crossings beginning January 31, 2008. A very high proportion opened our
message, and we know that many of them forwarded the message to others.
The information quickly spread to various electronic mailing lists and
websites that are read by people interested in traveling to Canada.
We use this technology to reach very targeted audiences with timely information.
We have sent, for example, messages to Canadians located in areas affected
by emergency situations, such as the recent wild fires in southern California,
Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf states, or deadly tornadoes in the Midwest.
We also send regular electronic newsletters that focus on trade and economics,
Canadian news, and research at Canadian think tanks and universities to
Connect2Canada members who specifically subscribe to these information
Through this technology, we are developing a motivated base of individuals
in the U.S. who: 1) are, in some cases, willing to act to further our advocacy
goals; 2) are knowledgeable about Canada and Canada-U.S. relations; 3)
can help promote Canadas interests in the U.S.; and, 4) can recruit additional