Six weeks ago, the CBC’s Katie Simpson reported that Canada’s former ambassador, David McNaughton, was “urging” the government to choose the acting ambassador, Kirsten Hillman. Hillman, a lawyer and trade expert by training and a long-time public servant, would be the first woman ever to hold the position.
A few days later, the Toronto Star’s Susan Delacourt framed the story differently. Hillman’s selection, she noted, “would fit well with what seems to be a depoliticization trend in Canada’s foreign affairs these past few weeks.” The last time a career public servant had served as Canada’s leading representative in Washington was 2005. Prior to that, it was 1989.
Both articles were products of sound reporting and analysis.
Canada has had 20 ambassadors to the United States since the position was created in 1943. That all 20 have been men is symptomatic of a still-strong old-boys club that continues to dominate political appointments processes across the country.
And in a minority Parliament, it makes sense to try to take the politics out of Canada’s most significant bilateral relationship.
Moreover, Hillman is impressive: smart, articulate, open, and fearless. She’s briefed my students a number of times and is on a short list of speakers who have left a lasting and overwhelmingly positive impression with me.
But the last line of Simpson’s piece hints at a different story: In his pitch, McNaughton was apparently planning “to point out that appointing a career diplomat to such an important role would send a positive signal to all of the foreign service.” (my italics)
That signal, for those unfamiliar with the politics of Canadian diplomacy, is that it will no longer be impossible to rise through the ranks of Global Affairs Canada (GAC) to a top position.
When the Trudeau government arrived in 2015, it announced that it would end its predecessor’s habit of parachuting partisan loyalists into major postings.
The Harper government’s approach had demoralized GAC officials. No matter how well they served their country, under the Conservatives, they would never rise to a position of serious influence. (Sure, they could become deputy minister of the department, but most diplomats join the foreign service to work abroad; they don’t aspire to a high-level bureaucratic position in Ottawa.)
At first, the Liberals seemed serious. When Ottawa announced 26 new foreign service appointments in July 2016, Maclean’s’ Shannon Proudfoot wrote: “The list is heavy on foreign service experience, short on overtly political appointments and pristinely gender balanced.”
Admittedly, the government has chosen its own (older, white, male) ambassadors to the United States and the United Nations. Those two files were top prime ministerial priorities and needed representatives who had already earned the personal trust of Mr. Trudeau.
But for the most part, the Liberals seemed to acknowledge that diplomacy was a learned skill. There was value in having experts representing Canadian interests abroad.
Less than a year later, two older, white, male former ministers, Stéphane Dion and John McCallum, were dispatched to Germany and China. Pretty soon, the Trudeau government faced the same criticisms that had been leveled at the Conservatives.
Today, to the best of my understanding, morale in the foreign service is hardly better than it was during the Harper years. Some might even call it worse, because of the disappointment caused by the Liberals’ broken promises.
Making Kirsten Hillman ambassador to the United States wouldn’t solve the morale problem overnight. But if her appointment came with explicit recognition that patronage diplomacy is hit-and-miss, while the best of Canada’s career diplomats rarely disappoint, it would be a move in the right direction.
And I can imagine few more deserving of being the face of such a move than Ambassador Hillman.
To learn more about the diplomatic process, take a look at the latest volume of the history of Canada’s Department of External Affairs by John Hilliker, Mary Halloran, and Greg Donaghy.
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