Bruce Heyman wasn’t expecting the grilling he got at a recent appearance in Ottawa. The United States’ brand-new ambassador to Canada found himself on the defensive as Frank McKenna, Canada’s former top diplomat to the U.S., hammered him mercilessly on virtually every major point of bilateral contention, from the status of the Keystone XL pipeline to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Heyman’s response didn’t rely on talking-point platitudes. Instead, he came across as cavalier, occasionally dismissive and, depending on who you ask, condescending. (A sample? “Let’s not get distracted by irritants,” in response to a question about Keystone.)
Critics weren’t impressed, painting Heyman as arrogant and out of touch. The latest chapter in Canada’s relations with our powerhouse business partner to the south appeared less than promising. But in a phone interview from Calgary midway through a cross-country meet-and-greet tour, Heyman quickly underlined the importance of our country to his. “The White House is focused on Canada,” he says. “We do $735 billion worth of bilateral trade a year—that’s the largest amount in the world. Think of what would happen if we could grow that by even a few percentage points.” Heyman’s mission, then, is less about dwelling on capital-I Issues and more about capitalizing on opportunities that can be seized with relative ease.
A businessman at heart—he started at Goldman Sachs in Chicago—he’s already made it a key priority to loosen the often-crippling bureaucracy that has surrounded border crossing since 9/11, in hopes of increasing the trade and tourism that are so essential to both economies. And he’s keen to further enable collaboration between tech clusters in Canada and the U.S.—an area he sees as holding massive potential.
He may not be rushing President Barack Obama to make decisions on complex diplomatic issues, but he seems to be genuinely listening to the concerns of Canadian business. And his role doesn’t have to be a mere figurehead gig; his predecessors David Wilkins and Peter Teeley brokered key deals related to softwood lumber and NAFTA, respectively. Heyman has even set up a Twitter account to make himself accessible. His goal, in his own words, is to “make a really good trade relationship even better.”