Almost 13 years after retiring from politics, the "unwild and uncrazy" Michael Wilson, the finance minister and then the international trade minister in the two majority governments of former conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, was named ambassador to the United States, Canada's most important diplomatic posting.
It was a critical choice by the newly appointed minority government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in February 2006. Relations between Canada and the United States had deteriorated sharply under Harper's Liberal predecessors, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, even though Martin had made improved relations a priority. Matters weren't helped by the fact that there hadn't been an effective, long-serving ambassador in Washington for a number of years. Frank McKenna, the former Liberal premier of New Brunswick, resigned after only 10 months in the position after Harper won the election of 23 January. Former Deputy Prime Minister John Manley, like McKenna a Liberal leadership candidate who ultimately decided not to run, had been offered the embassy under Martin but declined.
Given the offer to Manley and the appointment of McKenna, it was hardly a surprise that the embassy was offered to another politician, rather than to a diplomat. And that, according to one well-placed source, was not a bad thing: "Washington is the last place you need a traditional diplomat. Canada needs a decision-maker like Wilson who understands politics in Washington."
Nor was it a surprise-though a tribute to the confidence that Harper had in Wilson-that the politician chosen was from the old Progressive Conservative side of the party, and had been a senior minister under Mulroney. After all, influential figures of that era, including Marjory LeBreton, Hugh Segal, and Derek Burney-himself a former ambassador to the United States-played roles during the campaign. In fact, Burney is thought to have helped persuade Harper to appoint Wilson (in an interview, Burney praised the appointment of "my old friend and colleague," but declined to discuss his role in the choice). Contributing to the appointment was the fact that the former finance minister had been co-chair of the Ontario campaign and had shared platforms with Harper, who joked that he had learned his charisma from Wilson.
Whatever the politics, the appointment was widely praised in the press-The Economist called it "shrewd"-and by decision-makers. Every one of the 15 or so figures (including Liberals such as Roy MacLaren and Patrick Gossage) interviewed for this article had positive things to say about Wilson (a spokesperson for the embassy said that Wilson was declining interview requests).
The Toronto native was variously described as highly experienced, a man of integrity and presence, dogged and determined, knowledgeable both about business and politics, exceptionally hard-working, and, most importantly, a person with direct access to the prime minister. "Diplomats are paid to lie for their country," mused Hugh Segal, a former Mulroney chief of staff and now a senator. "Michael is not a guy for whom lying, even in its lightest sense, is easily embraced."
"It's hard not to look at his resume and say, it's our lucky day," commented Pamela Wallin, consul-general in New York. Added Richard Rémillard, his press secretary from 1984 to 1990, "He's so formidable because behind that quiet, silent exterior, there is a real core of steel."
While that core of steel will be essential in negotiating with the notoriously hard-nosed Americans, Allan Gotlieb, who was the ambassador from 1981 to 1989, points out that the real question is how tough an ambassador can be with his or her own government when it is wrong on an issue and needs to be told to back off.
"If you are popular in Ottawa, maybe you are not doing your job," he said. Fortunately, he continued, "Michael Wilson is not worried about popularity, and he is not running for anything. …