Prime minister's office being urged to appoint Kirsten Hillman as Canada's first female ambassador to U.S.

Canada has never sent a woman to Washington D.C. as its permanent ambassador. A quiet lobbying campaign is underway right now to make Kirsten Hillman the first.

Hillman has served as acting ambassador since September

Acting Ambassador to the United States Kirsten Hillman (right), looks on with Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with Richard E. Neal, chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means of the United States House of Representatives, in Ottawa, November 6, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

In the hallway just outside the ambassador's office at the Canadian Embassy on Pennsylvania Ave., there's a wall of framed portraits — photos of everyone who ever served as Canada's diplomatic voice in Washington, D.C.

The photos are all of men; not one woman has ever been appointed to what is arguably the most important, highest-profile permanent posting in Canada's diplomatic service. Now, there's a push underway in the Trudeau government to break that pattern.

A source with direct knowledge of the situation said David MacNaughton, the last Canadian ambassador to the U.S., is urging the Prime Minister's Office to appoint acting ambassador Kirsten Hillman to the permanent job.

Hillman served as MacNaughton's deputy ambassador. Multiple sources told CBC News she did the job well, earning the trust of the most senior members of the PMO.

Given the sensitive nature of the Canada-U.S. relationship right now, sources said that sense of trust has never been more important — and will be a factor in deciding who ends up getting the job.

The lobbying push suggests the government may have moved on from trying to convince former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose to take the job. Last week, Ambrose shot down rumours of a run for the Conservative Party leadership, saying she wants to stay in Alberta and in the private sector.

Former federal Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose was widely considered a leading candidate to be named Canada's next permanent ambassador to the U.S. (Dean Bennett/Canadian Press)

Other names rumoured to be on the list of possible candidates for the job include Ralph Goodale — who served as public safety minister until he was defeated in the 2019 election — and former interim federal Liberal leader and Ontario premier Bob Rae.

Before the fall election, many observers thought Katie Telford, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's chief of staff, was being lined up for the job. Telford worked closely with key members of the Trump administration during the NAFTA renegotiation talks.

But the fragile balance of power in Parliament following the election, which reduced the Trudeau Liberals to a minority government, convinced Telford and her colleagues that she should stay put for now.

"Kirsten Hillman is an exceptional diplomat and trade negotiator and we have absolute confidence in her leadership in Washington," said Alex Lawrence, spokesperson for Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.

"The prime minister will announce a new permanent ambassador in due course."

Hillman is widely respected among career diplomats for her work on the new NAFTA, and for helping the previous Conservative government negotiate the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CP-TPP) trade agreement.

One source said MacNaughton will make a pitch for Hillman during meetings with officials in Ottawa today. He reportedly plans to point out that appointing a career diplomat to such an important role would send a positive signal to all of the foreign service.Contacted by CBC News, Hillman's office would not comment.

About the Author

Katie Simpson is a foreign correspondent with CBC News based in Washington. Prior to joining the team in D.C. she spent six years covering Parliament Hill in Ottawa and nearly a decade covering local and provincial issues in Toronto.

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