Visiting Alaska, Canada’s Ambassador to the US talks border, Russia and about being the first woman in the role

A woman in a red dress sits on a red chair with the slightly unfocused background of the U.S. Capitol building
Canadian Ambassador to the United States Kirsten Hillman in Washington D.C. (Official Canadian government photo)

Among the dignitaries in Anchorage this week for the Arctic Encounters Symposium is Canada’s Ambassador to the United States, Kirsten Hillman.

Hillman is the first woman to serve in the position, and the ambassadorship is just part of her 25 years with the Canadian government. That has included working as a deputy ambassador to modernize the North American Free Trade Agreement and serving as the country’s chief negotiator on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, among other roles.

As ambassador during the pandemic, Hillman says a major focus for her and her team has been on Canada’s unique relationship with the U.S., especially with the countries’ shared border.


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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Kirsten Hillman: Canadians and Americans, especially those who live close to the border, have kind of taken for granted that we are almost the same country, which we’re not obviously. But it’s a good thing that we have felt that way. And therefore, having those restrictions in place, which were necessary for the protection of our people, were very difficult. COVID was difficult for everybody in all kinds of ways. And people suffered loss, and they weren’t able to see their families for a very long time and their friends and do the normal things that we all like to do. But I think for border communities, it was particularly difficult. Do I think it has a lasting impact? Look, I’m not seeing it. What I’m actually seeing- and there are many, like Hyder-Stewart here in Alaska, was particularly difficult. There are about a little over a dozen communities like Hyder-Stewart across the country, where people daily would go back and forth to doctors and grocery stores and schools. And what I’ve seen is, those communities have completely re-embraced each other, right? And rather than having a long-term effect, I think it’s more like an incredible, joyous family reunion, which I’m very pleased at. But we shouldn’t take it for granted. We shouldn’t take that closeness for granted. We should make sure we’re nurturing it all the time.

Casey Grove: It kind of strikes me as something that we we took for granted, and that we maybe appreciate more now that things are coming back to normal.

KH: I hope so. And I think we learned, you know, as one always does in a difficult situation, we learned about how to do things better between our two countries about certain kinds of, you know, government procedures that could be simpler and will be going forward. So that that important as well. We have to make sure that we take away from this, all of the good things, or as many good things, as we can.

CG: I imagine in your discussions with the symposium that you’re here visiting for, that maybe Russia comes up from time to time. And so maybe this is an obvious question, but as Canada’s ambassador are you concerned about Russia’s expansion in the Arctic, whether that’s with natural resource development or militarily? And what are those conversations like that you’re having?

KH: Yeah, so I mean, first, just to to state very plainly, just like the United States: Canada condemns Russia, this invasion of Ukraine, in the strongest possible terms. It is completely unjustified. And, frankly, the images we see are unimaginable, the horrors. In terms of here at the conference, you know, it’s the circumpolar nations minus Russia. Russia isn’t here. One of the things that’s very clear about the way in which our nations work together, in particular in the north and the circumpolar region, is that a lot of what we do for the benefit of our communities is through cooperative action, whether that’s data gathering, whether that’s search and rescue, whether that’s defense, we are a community of nations that are inhabiting this very special part of the globe. And the fact that now we are not able to have any real cooperation with Russia — and we’ll see, you know, if and when that will pick up again — is obviously very unfortunate. But there is also a deep commitment and recognition amongst the countries here and amongst the communities, because there are many of the Indigenous and other communities represented at the conference, to make sure that we continue the work, despite these challenges. And in fact, that probably makes it even more important for us to be, you know, countries with similar values, countries that recognize the rule of law, and have our interactions with our neighbors, completely underpinned by respecting the rule of law and territorial sovereignty of each other. We need to be making sure that we solidify those bonds in this particular moment.

CG: Could you describe the relationship between the United States and Canada in terms of defense? What is that like these days?

KH: Canada and the U.S. President Biden and Prime Minister Trudeau, back in November of 2021, and then again, recently, have sort of reconfirmed — doubled down — on our commitment to continental defense, so to defend the North American continent and to modernize NORAD, which has a very important role in the north, and to look specifically at Arctic defense. In fact, our budget came out today (Thursday), and there has been funding put toward that modernization already, but there is more emphasis on the modernization of NORAD and continental defense. So we are making some very concrete and deliberate choices, speaking for Canada, to make sure that we have the tools and resources in place to protect ourselves in the north, to make sure that we are asserting our sovereignty in the north. I mean, I don’t think anybody is of the view that there’s going to be an invasion by Russia in the north. But we do need to make sure that it’s clear that we will and can defend ourselves and we’re willing to do so.

CG: Obviously, another problem that we’re all facing in the north is climate change. Are there specific initiatives between the United States and Canada that you’ve been working on that help us deal with climate change?

KH: So yes, I would say the way in which we organize ourselves on the climate change file between Canada and the U.S. is, they’re sort of twofold. There are domestic-focused things that we are doing in our own countries in support of each other and in support of our own domestic agendas. And then we work in concert together on the international stage. So on the international stage, what we seek to do is work together to raise the ambitions of other countries, in particular, the biggest emitters, to reduce their emissions, and to bring themselves towards energy transition. In Canada, and in the United States, we have a very close alignment in the kinds of policies that we are trying to advance domestically. So for example, we are both pursuing an aggressive electrification of our transportation sector, because our transportation sector is one of the biggest emitters. Overall, in our countries, we are both putting, Canada’s just put in place, emissions controls for natural gas and oil and gas. Those are also, you know, some things that the U.S. is working on. We are trying to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources, recognizing that that’s not going to happen overnight. We are also working really hard in making the fossil fuel industry as innovative, as clean, as non-emitting as possible. And, frankly, we are doing a very good job — I speak for Canada here — I think that our our sector is deeply committed to technologies that make them the best, gold standard across the world. So we are working on it in a variety of different ways with the Americans, beside them, you know, just depending on the context.

CG: I read in your bio that you had done a lot of work, I think, as a deputy ambassador, to modernize NAFTA. And because I’m pretty naïve about all these things, I just wondered what does that mean, in the grand scheme of NAFTA, to modernize it?

KH: So the NAFTA was concluded in 1994. And it essentially led to complete, sort of, tariff-free trade between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, not completely, but largely. But because it was concluded in 1994, there are many things that were in that agreement, that were a little antiquated, procedures around customs processes that were negotiated, at a time when there was no internet. There was no ecommerce, there was no Amazon. Just the way in which we all do business together was so radically different back then, that we found that there were gaps in what that agreement talked about, or there were rules that were just too cumbersome for today’s world. So fixing those was part of the modernization. The other thing is that it didn’t include things that our citizens or societies believe are important when it comes to looking at trade today, for example, environmental protection, labor standards. It had rules around the labor standards, but they were in a side agreement. And there was no sort of binding-ness to them. We now have chapters on that that require high labor standards. We have chapters that require a certain amount of environmental stewardship that are a part of the agreement. And so you can’t get the benefits of free trade as between our three countries unless you are willing to also put in place standards that are relevant for those issues that are important to to Canadians and Americans and Mexicans. So that’s some of the ways in which we modernized it.

CG: Gotcha. Yeah. We just recently, I think within the last week, saw news that the Pope had apologized to Indigenous peoples for their treatment at church-run schools. Canada has had its Truth and Reconciliation discussions. And I don’t think that we’re quite to that point in the United States yet, but it seems like it’s coming. And so I wonder what you think about that and whether there are lessons that the United States can learn from Canada in terms of how it has treated its Indigenous peoples and going forward, how it treats its Indigenous people.

KH: Just before coming to talk to you, I was with our premier of Nunavut, who is an Indigenous Canadian, Inuit Canadian, and our premier of the Northwest Territories, Susan Matey, also Indigenous Canadian. And they both referenced this apology by the Pope, and saying that it was a really important step, it’s not the end of the path towards reconciliation. And the Pope has has said that he will come to Canada and meet with Canadian Indigenous populations, citizens and and survivors of the residential schools. And I think that that’s really impactful. So I think that just having the courage to walk that path and to keep walking, it is very important. You know, our prime minister said, before he was elected, that there is no more important relationship for Canada than its relationship with its Indigenous populations. And he’s reaffirmed that several times, I think, most recently, something that I think is really important is that the government took an approach toward developing its policy for the north, and the Indigenous population within the north in particular, developed that policy in a very new and unique way. There have been many problems. And I don’t think there’s probably a single Canadian government that hasn’t sought to develop policies to to bridge the gap between the services and the amenities and the infrastructure and the education and the health care available in the north vs. the south — right, that gap is real, and has has been with us for a while. And I think all Canadian governments come in with a sincere effort to try and address that. But it hasn’t yet proven to be as successful as it should be. And what our government did back in 2016, is they set up a process by which deciding the policies that we needed to put in place to bridge those gaps would be developed in concert with, together with, our Indigenous populations, our northern territories, and an in some of our provinces that are northern provinces. And it took a long time, it wasn’t easy. And probably what’s come out, isn’t it? You know, it’s not everyone agrees with everything in it. But it was a very significant shift, so that the decisions, the policies, the priorities, the vision is co-led by the populations of the north. And I’ve heard from many people of Canada’s Arctic and northern territories, that it was a really important change. It’s a lot of work to do, but it was a really important change.

CG: Well, so again from your bio, I noticed that you’re the first woman Canadian ambassador to the United States. And I know this is fairly broad, but what’s that like? How has that been?

KH: Well, it’s great. I love my job, I can barely express how honored and privileged I feel to be representing my country, with our closest friend, neighbor, ally, partner. I mean, the Canada-U.S. relationship is central to virtually everything that we do. And so it is a true honor and privilege. So I love that. From the perspective of being the first woman, I have been the first woman actually in a lot of jobs that I did. So I was the first woman, Canadian who led a major trade negotiation, I was the first Canadian woman to be at the head of our sort of trade agency of our government. I’ve often been the only woman at a table. So that I’m used to. But this is a much more public facing job, you know, I have a much more public role. And that has led me to think a little bit more about what me in this position might mean to other people. And that’s not something I had spent as much time thinking about before. So I take that quite seriously. And I don’t think it’s just women, actually. If me being in this job allows some people who maybe hadn’t thought that they had a chance to do certain kinds of careers, whether they’re a woman, or whether they’re, you know, coming from a visible minority population, or another marginalized population or an LGBTQ population, and they don’t see themselves in certain kinds of professions, if me being in this profession as the first person doing, allows them to think, ‘Hey, wait, if I have the skills and experience and abilities, I have a chance to that job to,’ than I will be very happy. And I do try and say that. The other thing I try and do is not just sort of, you know, lead by doing, but actually try and open the door consciously for people who maybe haven’t had opportunities in certain domains. So to consciously think about: Are we — not just me — but my whole team are we doing as much as we can, to not only open the door to those people, but like to pull out the chair and, you know, have them sit down and make sure they’re part of the conversation. And I think that takes a little bit, it takes conscious effort. You actually have to think a little bit about your biases, and then consciously try to include people who haven’t been included in certain kinds of jobs and professions and conversations before. And it’s great. And I’m honored to be able to do it. And I’m happy to be able to think about it. Because people like you asked me this question, and it makes me think about it a lot.

CG: It seems like the kind of thing that you probably have come to realize as you’ve inhabited the role, to know that that’s the role that you’re in, that you would do that kind of work. Speaking of the work, your appointment came in 2020, and of course the pandemic came shortly thereafter. And so maybe it’s hard to compare to too much before that, but did the pandemic make your job much more difficult, do you think?

KH: Before I was formally appointed, I was acting as ambassador for nine months. So I think back to those nine months with, you know, a bit of nostalgia, because that was what is actually now starting to happen again, that was the full role of ambassador, which is — I did travel around a bit, I did do a lot of in-person convening, right? Whether it’s a panel or roundtable or a dinner or whatever — bringing people together Canadians and Americans, whether it’s government or private sector, you know, that’s a big part of the job is to bring people together to reinforce the relationship. As well as doing the policy work, which is, you know, dealing with some kind of infrastructure challenge or there’s a flood or there’s something in between the two countries that you have to be thinking about and trying to solve.

And then, of course, the pandemic came. I was appointed at the end of March. So really, just as we were all shutting down. In fact, I was appointed two days after we shut our embassy to in-person work. And everything was different, right? Everything was different. And what was really different about the diplomatic role was there was a lot of work to do. We, as Alaskans well know, Canada and the U.S. restricted travel on the border significantly. And it’s the longest land border in the world, right? We have over half a million people crossing that border in normal times every single day. We have 70,000 transport vehicles every single day. And that’s an enormous feat. So that took a lot of energy. Complicated. You know, many, many people had to be involved — different regions of the country with different particular abilities, again, as Alaskans know well. And we didn’t know what was going on with COVID, remember? I mean, remember those early days, we were struggling for PPE, we didn’t know if there’d be a vaccine, we didn’t know if it’d be short lived, if it’d be long, the people were afraid. So there was a lot of work to be done with our scientists, with our regulators, with trying to procure equipment. Our militaries worked very closely together, because we had — as did you — remote hospitals or pop-up hospitals, and our militaries were involved in that. So we had military cooperation, which was really vital, and, frankly, a wonderful thing to see. So there’s all these ways in which we were all really, really busy. But there were no dinner parties. I can tell you that there were no convenings of roundtables where people were talking about the future of our relationship and how they can do more business together or what, you know, cultural cooperation, or all of these other rich parts of the job. We eventually started to do some of that online as everyone did. And that was nice. And I think we succeeded in doing some of that very, very well. But it was a different kind of time for everyone. Right? It was just a different kind of time.

CG: Yeah, I imagine like with journalism, there’s a lot of learning about the world and maybe diplomacy that goes on at like dinner parties and things like that, that you just wouldn’t be able to do. But I didn’t realize you had been an acting ambassador for nine months. So you did get a taste of that before?

KH: I did. And now it’s back. So, as I say, this is my first trip out in the region since the end of COVID. And it’s great, and there will be more. I think this is really important for me to be out and about and meeting people. You really do learn about the United States outside of Washington D.C. And I say that with the greatest respect and affection. It’s the same thing in Canada. There’s what happens in our capital, but if you really want to understand the richness of a country, you need to go to the different regions and talk to people and see what’s important to them. So I’m really thrilled. We have 12 offices across the country. They’ve been doing a terrific job, we have 12 consuls general. They’re doing a wonderful job. But it’s my responsibility to participate in that as well. And so I’m super excited about getting to start with that.

CG: It’s very cool that you’re here, I mean, to come visit our state. And I think maybe just the last thing I wanted to ask you, at the Arctic Encounters, speaking of meeting people here and being on the ground here in Alaska, what do people come up and talk to you about? I mean, I tried to imagine, you know, different subject areas to talk to you about, but what are questions that people hit you with?

KH: Okay, so without fail, whether it’s here in Alaska, or anywhere that I travel in the United States, without fail, the number one thing that people say to me is a version of this: I love Canada, and I have a fill in the blank daughter-in-law from Canada, son who studied in Canada, business partner in Canada, fishing cabin in Canada, my wife and I honeymooned in Canada, there is always a connection. So it’s a two parter. It’s always lovely to meet you. I love Canada. And then a very clear personal connection to Canada. Almost without exception, everyone I meet, which I can’t tell you how happy that makes me. Because I believe and know for a fact that the strength of the Canada-U.S. relationship. Of course, it’s enhanced by the fact that Prime Minister Trudeau and President Biden like each other, they have similar policies, trying to do stuff together. That is wonderful. You know, our premiers, and our state governors, try and do stuff together, our businesses do stuff together. That’s wonderful. But the strength of the Canada-U.S. relationship is built on that — it’s built on people who feel an affinity for each other, who interact with each other in millions of ways all the time every day, and are committed to making sure that that relationship continues in a positive, healthy, friendly, peaceful way. I would like to say to you and to everyone, in Alaska, and in the United States: My goodness, we should never take that for granted. Ever. We are so lucky to have each other as neighbors. We could not be luckier because we’re committed to each other’s success, right? And let’s be honest, we’re seeing in graphic terms these days, how that is not true for many, many countries around this world. And so, lucky us.

CG: Well, on behalf of all of Alaska, likewise! And thanks for being here.

KH: It’s a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me, Casey.

a portrait of a man outside

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him Read more about Caseyhere

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