Transcript – Episode 55: Portrait of a trailblazing Canadian woman in foreign policy

Kirsten Hillman: It demonstrates that if you are a woman or a person from any other group that is traditionally unrepresented in these more senior roles, you can have a shot at those roles if you have the skills and the abilities and the experiences and, frankly, the people willing to give you a shot. And I think that’s the biggest thing that I try to focus on as much as possible is that this is something that is available to people when the stars align if they have the skills and ability to do so.

Welcome to the GAC Files, a podcast about the people, issues and ideas driving Global Affairs Canada.

Sandra McCardell: Hello, everyone. My name is Sandra McCardell, Assistant Deputy Minister, Europe, Arctic, Middle East and Maghreb, and Champion for Women at Global Affairs Canada. I am delighted to be part of this podcast on pioneering Canadian women in foreign policy with Ambassador Kirsten Hillman. 

This podcast is one of the events organized by the Women’s Network of Global Affairs to mark women’s history month. For this year’s theme, “She did, so now I can,” we can have no better guest: Canadian trailblazer Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s first woman ambassador to the United States, appointed March 2020.

Ms. Hillman has a wealth of experience as one of Canada’s senior women diplomats. As assistant deputy minister responsible for trade agreements and negotiations, she oversaw all of Canada’s trade policy and trade negotiations. Ms. Hillman was Canada’s chief negotiator for the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement which has anchored Canadian business in Asia-Pacific, and she also played a leading role in the negotiation of the Canada-U.S.-Mexico Agreement. 

Welcome, Ambassador Hillman, and thanks so much for joining me today.

Kirsten Hillman: Thanks, Sandra. It’s great to be here. 

Sandra McCardell: Ambassador Hillman, today, I think what’s really going to be interesting is—and of course, please feel free to speak in the language of your choice—I think it would be interesting for our listeners to know a little about how you started your career. Clearly, someone who grew up in Calgary, in Winnipeg, may not have thought of working in Ottawa, of being part of the federal government. Can you tell us a little bit about how you chose your career as an international Canadian diplomat, but also how you decided to join the public service? 

Kirsten Hillman: Yes, of course. For me, it was never really a goal to be a diplomat. When I was very young, I wanted to be a dancer. It didn’t work because, for those who know me, I am very tall and not very elegant. I mean, I’m pretty sturdy. After I studied philosophy and then law—I was a lawyer in Montréal, and I am a member of the Barreau du Québec, I was going to make my life there in private practice. At the beginning of my career, I had public law cases. I had 1 case in particular on constitutional law; it was a case against the federal government, in fact, on freedom of expression, and I found it fascinating. I loved it. Once that case was over, I found myself in a rather normal commercial litigation practice, that is, small cases, we worked for banks, we worked for hospitals, and I found that much less interesting. 

One of my mentors at the time noticed this, and we had a long conversation and he told me it’s clearly not where your passion lies. So, he encouraged me to go to Ottawa, to apply for positions with the Department of Justice. I did it and I got a position in divisions that no longer exist there, but at the time it was the Constitutional and Administrative Law Division at the Department of Justice. And from there, I did international law, I went to the Department of External Affairs and, as we say in English, “the rest is history.”

Sandra McCardell: Fantastic. And I think a lot of inspiration for Canadians from across the country to think about joining the federal public service, maybe together we can make a little recruitment plug right there. I think a really interesting path to get to where you have been, but I mean, I think what’s really fascinating is the history that you’ve made as our very first ambassador to the United States, arguably Canada’s most important relationship and a leader of the world. 

When you were selected for this position, were you aware of the kind of gender barriers you were overcoming? Did it mean anything? And I know that you’ve worked with a number of women leaders on the American side, but for us, it was history. How did that feel? 

Kirsten Hillman: Hmm. That’s a great question. So, first and foremost, I think I have to say that I was acutely aware of the magnitude of the role. It’s a huge honour to have been appointed to this position, but it’s also a huge responsibility. And that has…. There isn’t a single day, to be honest with you, that I don’t think about that. It is the most important relationship. There’s a lot of focus on this relationship at all levels and so you can’t reside in this position without feeling that every single day. 

I’m really humbled to be the first woman in the role. I really am. I think that that also brings with it a certain level of responsibility outside the traditional functions of the job, but to do it in the best possible way for myself, but, as the first woman in the position—and, frankly, as the first public servant in the position for quite a long time—and I take that responsibility very seriously as well. 

And I guess the last thing I would say—and this is quite obvious here in Washington—I have many colleagues who are the first women ambassadors to the United States from their countries. Most countries…. For most countries, probably almost all of them, this is the most important post for their country. So, the Italian ambassador is the first. The British ambassador is the first. The German ambassador is the first woman. There are many: the Scandinavian ambassador, recently, the Mexican ambassador, she was the first female Mexican ambassador here. And I find that worth reflecting on. So, it’s not just a breakthrough for Canada and all these other countries to have a woman in the job. I think it represents that, of course, but it also represents, probably, a couple of decades, at least, of work making sure that women had those experiences, responsibilities, leadership roles in order to be able to have the skills to be put to those positions. 

So, yes, this is a pivotal moment for Canada and for a number of other countries, as I said, but it’s also been a pivotal couple of decades. And our responsibility is to make sure that we not only continue to invite women to leadership tables—but we actually, like, not just invite them into the room, but, like, pull out the chair, have them sit down, push them back in, you know, and really, really encourage them in building up what it takes to have a shot at some of these jobs.

Sandra McCardell: Fantastic advice and a lot of work that the Women’s Network has been doing at Global Affairs for a while has been exactly focused on, measuring our success to understand where our numbers are to see where there are any barriers, where we need to go or to focus. But that’s just the start of the story: we need to have the tools and the allies to give women and others who have not been at that table with a table set…a way to get there and to succeed. 

The theme for this month dedicated to women, women’s history, is “She did, so now I can.” I’d like to know from you what role mentorship played in your success, or if you have key moments, individuals who led you to your current success? 

Kirsten Hillman: Yes, of course. First, I would say that my mother, who is a very strong, very independent woman, she was a single mother when I was young, and she was the owner of a very small business and it wasn’t always easy, in fact, sometimes it was very, very hard, but it was very important to her. She demonstrated what it means to work very, very hard for your dreams, even when you’re a little discouraged, but to really believe in yourself. She was very important to me as a mentor. But also I would say there are 2 people who have had a huge impact on me in my career. One, I was 27, 28 years old when I was in Montréal, it was in fact the lawyer who asked me the question, is, who I liked a lot, who said to me, “I would really like to work with you for our entire careers, but I feel that you are not as happy and that it’s really maybe not for you.” And that, it was very important to me because he taught me the importance of reflecting on yourself, not just putting yourself on a path and staying on the path, but to stopping once in a while and think about your life. 

Next, there was another person, another man, at External Affairs in Ottawa at a very critical time in my career when I, I maybe didn’t have a lot of self-confidence, I didn’t want to take too many risks. And he had a lot of faith in me. He pushed me to take risks, he pushed me to try different things, and he taught me to not be afraid, to believe in my abilities, in my voice, to express myself for things that— when I had an opinion to share, and also to trust my own instincts. 

And I would say, lastly, so this, that’s really 2 mentors who were very, very important to me, but I would say, in the end, that today, every day, I find women who inspire me. And it’s true that there are my, my counterparts, I have incredible counterparts here in Washington and, of course, in Ottawa, but it’s more often, I would say, young women who inspire me. I find there is an openness, enthusiasm, energy; they know things that I don’t know, they see things that I don’t see, they have youthful sensibilities that I no longer have, and really, I am always curious, I am always very, very interested in how they see their lives and their career paths, and that, that inspires me. 

Sandra McCardell: You’ve just described the ecosystem sort of from top to bottom of how a woman can succeed and find the people that helped carry you to that success that inspired you throughout your career, but above, beside, below. 

In a lot of the events that we’ve done around encouraging women to be inspired, to aspire in their career, you hear a great deal about maybe a lack of confidence, you’ve heard the term imposter syndrome. Clearly, somebody who has attained your success should be revelling in their accomplishments. At the pinnacle of what anyone could imagine to be a diplomatic career, what from your time as ambassador do you…are you…the accomplishments you’re most proud of or as you sort of look back over the last couple of years, what really stands out as a moment that, particularly anchors you in your success and in your real talent?

Kirsten Hillman: Wow. Uh, 

When you find yourself in a place with a group where you have a job to do and everybody is working in the same direction, but not because they’re being told what to do, but because they understand what it is that they bring to the table, and everybody’s voice is valued and everybody’s creative ideas are as valuable as anyone else’s creative ideas and solutions. And even the people that aren’t working on, let’s say—this example would be the renegotiating of the NAFTA—and during that time, this entire embassy was humming—I’m not good at metaphors, I think this is a car metaphor, but—on all cylinders, firing on all cylinders, I think that’s it. So, we were truly working in a very coherent way and it was because people knew what the job to do was. People knew that everybody had something to contribute, from the policy people to the logistical people, right, to the people who are maintaining the IT. Like, everybody had something to do. It was very important for Canada, it was very important for all of us and everybody felt valued. 

And, interestingly enough, we had a workplace audit not long after that and the expectation coming from Ottawa was that people were going to be burned out, that they were going to be exhausted, that they were going to be feeling really bad. And do you know what? The opposite was true. We had the highest ratings, I’m told, in staff morale and feeling a sense of accomplishment and that people knew what it was that they were meant to do, and they felt good about what they were doing than had been seen in a large mission in, like, a generation. And I’m not surprised, because we worked really hard at creating that environment and I’m really proud of that. I am really proud of the moments where, you know, people invest in the success of everybody around them, not just their achieving whatever policy goal, but their professional growth, their personal satisfaction. I think that that is really what we should be striving for all the time. 

And I think for women, for everybody…. what we need to be thinking about is how do we learn to become leaders? Not just managers, not just people who get stuff done, but how do we learn to really inspire people? How do we learn to take care of the workplace and the people that we are with in a way that makes the workplace somewhere where people are energized, somewhere where they want to be? How do we demonstrate all the things, excellence, right, excellence in the quality of advice? How do we make sure…. as I say, everybody’s voices are heard. I think that that’s what we should all be striving to help each other do. And, again, being a leader…. You know, you don’t have to be the most senior person to be a leader. I think all of us have experienced situations where there are leaders in the group that are not necessarily a person that has the biggest title. And I think that that’s terrific and that’s the way it should be, frankly.

I am most proud of moments where I am feeling like I have helped orchestrate a high-performing, highly satisfied, highly effective team where everybody feels really good about themselves and good about what they’re doing and good about what they’re contributing and is committed to the success and well-being of everyone else. I feel very good about that.

Sandra McCardell: Well, a fantastic example that brings together what you’re talking about: leadership, policy expertise. Fantastic, fantastic example. And rightly proud of it, for sure. Unfortunately, we’re almost coming to the end of the podcast, so I only have time for maybe a last quick, quick question before we need to bring this to a close. But, listen, there’s always the last word. What would be your final words of advice for women who are looking to succeed in their careers, whether it’s the government, the foreign service? What would be your advice?

Kirsten Hillman: I would say it’s important to make plans, but it’s also important to be willing to change them. It’s important to think, okay, this is where I kind of want to go, but check in with yourself: is that really making you happy? Don’t close your eyes to opportunities that might come your way that you never expected. I would…. There’s at least 4 times in my career where I changed radically what I was doing in a direction I never contemplated before, and I am thrilled about that. And I think it’s very, very important to keep an open mind and to always check in with yourself, personally. I think that it’s important to be committed to the success and well-being of the people around you in the workplace, and I don’t think anyone can succeed and be well if they’re not. I think that that’s crucial. 

And, finally, I would say it’s really important to take care of your non-professional life, really, really important, you know, to take care of yourself, take care of your health, take care of your family, take care of your friendships. 

When I was in my 30s, I took off a lot of time when my sons were born. I took about 9 months off when my first son was born and I took off 2 years when my second son was born. And the second time, when I was taking off 2 years, I was really…. It took me a while to make that decision: it was an important decision for me. And some of my colleagues said, “Well, you know, that will be it. That’s going to slow down your career: it will probably set you back by 5 years or more.” But that didn’t end up happening. What ended up happening was that I did something that was very important to me. It remains, I think, a particularly special time in my life and it fortified me. And I went back to work happy and wanting to be at work, instead of back to work and feeling conflicted and feeling unhappy and feeling like I was missing out on something. So, take care of your personal life, make the choices that are right for you because we just have one life and we should lead it in the best possible way in all its dimensions.

Sandra McCardell: A big thank you to Ambassador Hillman. It was a real pleasure to meet, to talk today. I think there was some good advice for the listeners today. And to those listening, thank you for listening to GAC Files and I encourage you to listen to others. Thanks very much, Ambassador. Take care.

Kirsten Hillman: Thank you, Sandra.

GAC Files is a production of Global Affairs Canada. All of the opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the individuals and not necessarily that of their employer or Global Affairs Canada. For more information on Global Affairs Canada podcasts, visit  Be sure to subscribe to our podcast. Thank you for listening to the GAC Files.

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