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Wilkins & McCormack On U.S. - Canada Relations

Washington, DC
November 14, 2007
David Wilkins, U.S. Ambassador to Canada
Sean McCormack, State Department Spokesman

Policy: U.S. - Canada Relations

MR. MCCORMACK: Ambassador David Wilkins, thank you very much for joining us here for a Policy Podcast at the State Department. You're here just for a brief visit, so I appreciate your taking the time.

AMBASSADOR WILKINS: Thank you. It's great to be with you.

MR. MCCORMACK: I wanted to start off talking a little bit about U.S.-Canada relations and how you see the state of relations between the United States and Canada. It's our largest trading partner --


MR. MCCORMACK: -- and we also have a lot of different equities with the Canadians around the world. Talk a little bit about that.

AMBASSADOR WILKINS: Right. We have a great friendship with Canada. They're a great ally, a great neighbor, and I think the relationship is very much on a positive tone. The tone at the top matters.


AMBASSADOR WILKINS: When I arrived in Canada almost two and a half years ago, the U.S. border to Canadian cattle was closed. That issue has been resolved.


AMBASSADOR WILKINS: Softwood lumber was at a fever pitch. That issue has been resolved.

MR. MCCORMACK: I remember that.

AMBASSADOR WILKINS: And I give a lot of credit to the President and to the Prime Minister for engaging in those issues and resolving them and for setting a very positive tone. So I think the relationship is very much on an upward trend at this point.

MR. MCCORMACK: I don't think a lot of people realize it here in the United States, but the Canadians actually have a pretty significant deployment in Afghanistan of troops.


MR. MCCORMACK: And their troops are fighting on the front lines there. Tell us a little bit about what you hear from the Canadians when you're up there about the deployment of their troops.

AMBASSADOR WILKINS: They've got roughly 2,500 troops in the southern part of Afghanistan in Kandahar. They're carrying a heavy burden. They're engaged in a lot of combat. They've lost 71 soldiers to date. And but I get an opportunity, Sean, to meet a lot of those troops. One of the great things about being an ambassador is I travel that vast and beautiful country in Canada. I've visited about probably seven Canadian bases and I meet a lot of the troops either coming back from or getting ready to go to Afghanistan. And they're very proud of their service. The morale is high. A lot of them that have come over want to go back. They think they're doing good; they're bringing freedom that part of the world that didn't know it six years ago. So they're very proud of their service, just like our American troops are.

MR. MCCORMACK: Let me ask you about another issue in U.S.-Canadian relations, the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. Now, everybody knows about the trade between -- border trade between the United States and Canada, but not a lot of people were aware before this summer the fact that they were going to need a passport. How is that going in terms of easing the travel between the U.S. and Canada?

AMBASSADOR WILKINS: Well, that's the big issue right now, the passport issue. WHTI mandated passports for folks using airplanes for air travel in January, and there's about 99 percent compliance. It's very smooth. The land portion of that, according to Secretary Chertoff, will be implemented sometime in '08, where they have to have a passport or a NEXUX card.

MR. MCCORMACK: So at some point in '08, you're going to actually need either some sort of special identification which we agree upon or a passport; is that right?

AMBASSADOR WILKINS: That's correct, unless Congress changes the law. There was a law passed by Congress that it has to be on or before June of '09, and the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Homeland Security decide when that date is when they get everything in place. And Secretary Chertoff has indicated when the President and Prime Minister met in Canada in August that he had every intent of implementing that sometime in late summer, early fall of '08. So we're gearing up for that. We're telling our Canadian friends get a passport. They're also looking at perhaps an enhanced drivers license that would have the same information as a passport, or a NEXUS card. But it will reduce the number of documents our border security folks have to look at, and indeed and it will speed up and facilitate trade and travel, not impede it.

MR. MCCORMACK: Now, Americans going into Canada, are they going to face the same kind of requirements for Canadian authorities?

AMBASSADOR WILKINS: I have every reason to believe they will. It'll probably be very compatible with what we're doing.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right, gotcha. Let me ask you a little bit about your history. You were a politician, the Speaker of the House in South Carolina. How do those two worlds relate to one another in terms of your experiences? A lot of people say diplomacy is politics by another name, but how does your experience in politics in South Carolina as Speaker translate to international politics?

AMBASSADOR WILKINS: You know, I like to think there's some transferable skills there. I was in the South Carolina House for 25 years. I was on the ballot 13 times and I was Speaker for 11 years. I resigned to come to -- to go to Canada as Ambassador.

Some of the skills -- you're used to dealing with the press.


AMBASSADOR WILKINS: So I'm not saying -- I'm not saying I'm good at it. I'm saying I'm used to it. (Laughter.) So, obviously, as the President's representative in Canada and the face and the voice of the U.S. in Canada, I speak to the press. I give a lot of speeches. I'm used to doing that because I was in politics.

I'm also used to dealing with elected officials. And unlike our system, their cabinet members, their ministers up there that make up the cabinet, are out of parliament. They're elected officials. And so they have to deal with the ballot, too. And so I'm used to dealing with elected officials, so I have a very good relationship with most of the cabinet members in Canada. And one of the things that binds us is the fact that I've been on the ballot and they've been on the ballot; we have that in common.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right. So you understand what sort of domestic pressures they're under when they're formulating policies.


MR. MCCORMACK: You mentioned a little bit that you travel around Canada. What are your top two or three places that you would recommend?


MR. MCCORMACK: That you like to go. I know it's hard to choose.

AMBASSADOR WILKINS: Well, it's -- you know, Canada is the second largest landmass country in the world and I've traveled all ten provinces many times over. I'm close to 200,000 miles now. Air Canada -- I think that's the best customers about and --

MR. MCCORMACK: They're going to wonder if you're running for office up there, if you've actually retired from politics.

AMBASSADOR WILKINS: Yeah. Well, I'm not going to be on the ballot in Canada, that's for sure. (Laughter.) But you know what it allows me to do is get out and meet the Canadian people from all walks of life. And when I got there, people said you don't know much about Canada, so I hit the road and I visited all the provinces, and six weeks later I was able to say I've seen more of Canada than most Canadians, and I've seen more of Canada than I have my own country.

So Canada is vast and beautiful, but the one thing that's overwhelming is the Canadian people have received me with such great friendship and warmth wherever I go. Whether it be the Atlantic provinces or whether it's up north in one of the territories, and like I say the Yukon or whether it's over there on the West coast like Vancouver, the Canadian people have received us with great friendship.

MR. MCCORMACK: So what's the thing that surprised you most about taking over as Ambassador up in Canada? You know, I'm sure you went there with a set of expectations about what it was going to be like, either working in an embassy or working in Canada, or both. What are the things that --

AMBASSADOR WILKINS: Well, it's a lot of hard work, but I like that. A couple of things. I went up there and I said I don't -- my goal is to accentuate the positive and hopefully improve the relationship so it's stronger the day I leave than the day I found it. I think we're making progress. I don't think I deserve that credit; I think the President and these great folks we have in the Embassy in Canada deserve that credit. But the relationship is getting stronger, I believe.

The other thing that impresses me is the incredible skill and professionalism of the State Department folks and the folks not only in the Embassy in Ottawa but throughout Canada at our seven consular offices. I mean, they are professionals in every sense of the word. And if we have any success, it's because of them.

MR. MCCORMACK: Ambassador Wilkins, thank you very much for joining us here at the State Department.

AMBASSADOR WILKINS: Thanks, Sean. Great to be with you.


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