On his death at 81, reflections on the public life of Michael Wilson might have been expected to focus almost entirely on his time as a pillar of former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s cabinet, where he was the architect of the Goods and Service Tax as finance minister, and later, as international trade minister, a key figure in the creation of North American Free Trade Agreement.
But it is a tribute to Wilson’s range and depth that he is also being remembered for his notable service in Washington, where former prime minister Stephen Harper sent him as Canadian ambassador to the United States, and as a prominent mental health advocate, a cause he took up after losing a son to suicide. He was also, from 2012 to last year, an admired chancellor of University of Toronto.
When I interviewed Wilson in 2009, just after his 3 1/2 year stint as as ambassador to the U.S. wrapped up, he spoke in the same stolid, studiously un-flamboyant voice I had grown accustomed to hearing while covering him as a Conservative cabinet minister on Parliament Hill.
So I couldn’t get him to open up about Washington’s social life, or even, after he’d seen a lot of Capitals’ games, to wade in on the Alexander Ovechkin vs Sydney Crosby argument. Still, if he was rarely what you’d call entertaining, Wilson was always worth listening to—especially here on making Canada’s interests matter in major capitals. The interview:
Q: When you became ambassador in 2006, you already had long experience at the top level in Canadian politics and business. But Washington is on a whole other level. How did you find your feet there?
A: I had a number of people who I had dealt with during the ’80s and early ’90s when I was in government, so I had those contacts to start with. But the importance of the relationship between the two countries—we’re neighbours, largest trading partners, very close on foreign policy issues—means as Canadian ambassador you get exposed pretty quickly to a lot of people as you get into the job.
Q: Don’t you need to get all the right party invitations to fit into the Washington social swirl?
A: The social swirl, as you describe it, is not what I think some people think, that we go down there and we spend a lot of time with cocktails and canapés. Yes, there were parties, there were dinners and receptions that you would call social affairs, but they certainly did not dominate my time after hours, by any means.
Q: Who made a big impression on you?
A: There was a range of people there, and people that I very much enjoyed talking to and getting their views on things. Brent Scowcroft is one of the early ones that I went to, and he’s been around for a long time. Colin Powell is a very interesting fellow. Jim Jones, I got to know him before he became the national security adviser, so he was a very interesting fellow to talk to with his background. Some of the journalists in Washington are outstanding. David Ignatius of the Washington Post is one who I always thought was terrific. Martin Wolf from the Financial Times was always very good. Paul Volcker, I knew him back when he was the Federal Reserve chairman, so I enjoyed talking to him.
Q: What was your first day on the job like?
A: I arrived on the night of March 12, 2006. I got into the office at 8:30 in the morning. I was told I had a meeting with the number three person in the state department, Nick Burns, and he took me through the credentials process and said, “You should be at the White House at two o’clock.” I went through the credentials process with President Bush. At that time he said, “Look, we got some things we gotta do to improve the relationship between the two countries. The first of these is softwood lumber. Let’s get that one behind us right away.”
Q: And you hammered out a softwood lumber deal. But what about the other irritants, especially the border?
A: The relationship, as it has evolved on the management of the border, it’s awkward, it’s complex, but it is better. The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative had been announced prior to my arriving there, and we were very concerned that there would be a lot of disruption and congestion at the border because we could see that the U.S. weren’t going to be ready and neither were we. We worked with the Bush administration to stretch out the time for implementation, and again worked closely with the Obama administration for the actual transition. Now, is it perfect? No, it’s not perfect, because there has been a decline in traffic. It’s hard to tell what’s related to the passport issue, what’s related to economy and what’s related to the strength of the Canadian dollar. But behind that the tone of the relationship is clearly better.
Q: How has having Canadian troops fighting in Kandahar coloured the relationship?
A: I’d have to say that the most important thing in the time that I was in Washington is our presence—both on the military side as well as on the development side—in Afghanistan. That is clearly the best calling card that I had, whether I was meeting with people in the administration or people in Congress on either side of the aisle, and I’d hear it when I travelled around the country. It was highly appreciated and highly admired.
Q: Are you worried the Canadian government’s decision to withdraw from combat in Afghanistan in 2011 will cost Canada that cachet?
A: It is something that the incoming ambassador, Gary Doer, will have to address. I think the government—I think Parliament—will have to address this, because there are implications for us. Obviously, there are implications for the relationship with the United States, there are implications for the relationship with NATO. So this is an issue that’s going to be front and centre for the government, for Parliament, for some time, as to how we handle this in a way that doesn’t undermine the terrific goodwill that we have.
Q: Should the government revisit the 2011 withdrawal date?
A: The indication is clear that the military presence is going to diminish significantly in 2011, but we will have people there. We have people from development agencies and we have to provide some form of protection for them.
Q: But do you think the decision to pull out of a combat mission is irreversible?
A: Well, that’s clearly the position that the government has stated. Now, I think that it is an issue that the government will have to address. We have built this strong position on the national security side as it relates to Afghanistan. Are there other things we can be doing in the world out there that will replace this, and do it in a way that maintains that strong position that we have built up? And that debate certainly has not taken place.
Q: As a veteran now of both capitals, how would you describe the difference between the cultures of power in Ottawa and Washington?
A: It’s night and day. Every country recognizes that the United States is their most important relationship. Well, if you’re sitting in Washington as a senior official in the administration, you’ve got all those countries there looking to you as their most important relationship. It’s one of the most interesting parts of being in Washington, how we fit Canadian national interests into that environment.
Q: So what’s the answer? How does Canada make its interests matter to American politicians?
A: One of the pieces of advice that I pass on to Mr. Doer—I got this from members of the administration—they told me, “The best way you can get to us is to talk to us on a multilateral basis, talk about the global issues. Help us get a better understanding. What are your observations on this issue from the Canadian standpoint, because that is helpful to us in understanding where we fit as the superpower.” And once you get talking to them on that global basis, then when you get around to dealing with the bilateral issues, the discussion moves more quickly.
Q: How frustrating has it been for you to have to deal over and over with the myth that some of the 9/11 terrorists entered the U.S. from Canada?
A: It started back shortly after 9/11 where some of the agencies who have national security responsibilities were trying to deflect the blame, and some of them put out the story that, well, these people slipped in from Canada. But very shortly after, the attorney general at the time said it is absolutely clear that none of the terrorists came through Canada, they came from third countries getting through the normal immigration system that the U.S. had at the time. So it is a frustration, but it’s easy for those sorts of ideas to get embedded in the general thinking of people.
Q: How can Canada fight back against initiatives that come out of Congress, rather than the White House, like the recent Buy America rules?
A: The Buy American thing, that was slipped in a by a couple of senators at the last minute. It wasn’t planned. We were watching because we felt that this was a real risk, and then suddenly it appeared in the final bill and we really had no warning about it except our own intuition. And these sorts of things can happen.
Q: You’ll be leaving Washington early in the Barack Obama era. How do you see his first term shaping up?
A: President Obama has really hit the ground running and has taken on an extraordinary range of issues, to the extent that there is a sense of overload of the system in Washington. The health care debate, the climate change debate, the financial regulation debate—these are very, very weighty issues. And you have these domestic issues at the same time as you have all the challenges that a superpower has internationally.
Q: What impressions of Americans as a people will you be bringing home?
A: The population is quite diverse. That wasn’t a surprise, but it was very interesting to see it and to feel it as you went to talk to people in different parts of the country. The Americans, though—they’re very easy to talk to.
Q: More so than Canadians?
A: I think so, I think so. Their patriotism, their nationalism, their love of politics, their love of sports, their feeling about their religion, their attitudes toward the military, their perception of themselves within the world—some of that is very admirable, some of it’s a little frustrating.
Q: As Canada’s representative in Washington, what are you most often asked about?
A: I guess there’s three things right now. One is health care, and you have people who are scandalized by the Canadian health care system, governments telling us how we should do our health care and so on, but you have other people saying, “Boy, there’s a lot of good things about the Canadian health care system.” The second area is, “How did your banks come through [last fall’s financial crisis] in such a strong position?” And the third area is in the different aspects of the housing markets in the two countries, because they see in Canada less boom and bust.
Q: How does Gary Doer’s background in provincial politics fit him for the transition to Washington?
A: In my experience, he has been in the United States more than any other of the Canadian premiers. There are four former governors in the Obama administration and he knows them all. So I don’t think we should have any worry; Canada’s voice will continue to be heard in many circles both within Washington but also in other parts of the United States.
Q: You’ve had plenty of chances to watch Alex Ovechkin play for the Washington Capitals. Is he better than Sidney Crosby?
A: Oh, they’re both marvellous players.
Q: But Ovechkin’s more exciting, right? Or is it too undiplomatic to say so?
A: Ovechkin, because he’s not with as strong a team, has gotta be a very impressive player.