c2c’s Exclusive Interview with David H. Wilkins: U.S. Ambassador to Canada

David H. Wilkins, a native of Greenville, South Carolina, became the United States Ambassador to Canada on June 29, 2005. Ambassador Wilkins has traveled throughout Canada extensively and has visited every province and territory.

He makes it a point to stop at every Canadian Forces Base wherever he travels to personally thank the brave Canadian troops for their service and sacrifice.

Benjamin Perrin, a member of the C2C Editorial Board, recently interviewed Ambassador Wilkins.

C2C: What unique contributions have the Canadian Armed Forces made to the mission in Afghanistan? Could Canada be doing more?

Ambassador Wilkins: I think Canada is doing an incredible job in Afghanistan as part of the U.N.-sanctioned, NATO mission there. They are certainly punching well above their weight; they are carrying a heavy burden, while in the tough, southern part of Afghanistan.

I had a great privilege of witnessing the Canadian men and women of your Armed Forces in Afghanistan over Christmas when I travelled there with General Rick Hillier and Minister Peter McKay. We spent a lot of time at forward operating bases.

I spent a lot of time with Canadian troops and I can tell you firsthand that their morale is high, their spirit is good, they believe in their cause, and they think they’re making a difference to the roughly 32 million people of Afghanistan. Everybody should be very proud of them and their efforts.

When you have met Canadian soldiers who have fought in Afghanistan, what have they told you about their personal experience over there?

The ones I talked to feel like they are making a difference, making a tangible difference. They are professional, they don’t complain, their morale is high and they go about their business.

I think they feel like they are providing a path for freedom to follow; that they are giving an opportunity for freedom to flourish for people who have been repressed under a prior regime. The ones I’ve talked to certainly feel very proud of their work and proud of the difference they are making.

Just look at the difference in the past five years because of the Canadian forces, American forces, and the NATO and ally forces. You’ve got kids going to schools where there were no schools, you’ve got girls being treated humanely and being educated, you’ve got immunization across the country, dams being built. They are really making a difference not only on the military front, but on the civilian side as well.

Years after the myth that some of the 9/11 terrorists entered the United States through Canada was debunked, several U.S. politicians have continued to make the claim to justify tighter border controls with Canada.

How can Canada and the United States ensure a border that is free and open to trade and tourism, but secure against organized crime and terrorism?

I think we’re doing that. I think we do that every day by working very closely together. First of all, you can’t control what everyone says but I can say this…that there’s no one in the Administration from President George W. Bush on down that believes the 9/11 terrorists entered the U.S. through Canada. This Administration doesn’t believe that and the vast majority of the American people don’t believe that. I think your Embassy has done a good job of clearing up any misunderstanding in this area, and making sure that the person who made such a statement is corrected and is given the real facts. I think that’s positive and is a good way to handle it.

Having said that, we all need to be vigilant against terrorists. We’ve learned since 9/11 that no country is immune from terrorism. The Brits have learned that, Canada has learned that with the arrests of the terrorists in Toronto, and by the attempt in London (U.K.) last summer to bomb two Air Canada planes that had hundreds of Canadians on board.

We all have to continue to be vigilant and not let our guard down. So working closely together to secure North America and our borders is a high priority. We do that together; we share information, we have law enforcement teams working together at the border made up of provincial law enforcement, state law enforcement, RCMP and U.S. federal law enforcement officials.

We’ve piloted, on more than one occasion, the Shiprider Program. This is where you have boats on the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence River or the Detroit River with an American flag and a Canadian flag with law enforcement of both countries on board so they have jurisdiction to cross over into each other’s respective countries. And so we continue to work very closely together to make sure not only that at the end of the day our borders are secure, but that we are implementing these security measures in such a way that they do not impede trade and travel.

During the Democratic Presidential primaries, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was assailed by Senator Barack Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton.

What is the key to ensuring the prosperity of the Canada-U.S. economic relationship moving forward?

NAFTA has been beneficial to both the United States and Canada. As President Bush said at the meeting of the North American leaders in New Orleans less than two months ago, now isn’t the time to back away from NAFTA.

It is bad public policy to try to pull out of or unilaterally re-negotiate an agreement with an ally who has relied on that agreement.

President Bush is a strong pro-NAFTA advocate. And what I think needs to be done is to continue to talk about the strengths and benefits of NAFTA. I believe that at the end of the day, whoever becomes the next President of the United States, after they are fully apprised of all the issues and all the benefits of NAFTA, I believe that this trade agreement is going to remain in effect and continue to benefit the citizens of both Canada and the United States.

The U.S. State Department recently assessed Canada’s performance on combating human trafficking in its 2008 Trafficking in Persons report. While Canada met the “minimum requirements”, there was some pointed criticism of its response.

Why has the U.S. government made the global fight against human trafficking a foreign policy priority? Should Canada be doing more to address this issue?

Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery and it has a devastating impact on millions of people around the globe every day. I think it’s fitting for all freedom-loving countries to put emphasis on that and try to prevent it.

Over the last year, Canada has increased its trafficking victim protection and prevention efforts, making some positive effects in that direction. We also need to continue to improve in that area and put more resources in place to guard against human trafficking and to try to prevent it and catch those who are involved in it. So we ask all our allies, Canada included, to intensify their efforts of investigation, prosecution, and hopefully the conviction of those involved.

During nearly three years as U.S. Ambassador to Canada, what do you view as your most significant achievement?

The polls are indicating that Canadians and Americans are thinking better of each other than maybe they were a couple years ago. When I arrived in Canada in the summer of 2005, the border was closed to Canadian cattle for mad cow disease, and the softwood lumber issue was at a fever-pitch. These issues are now behind us. The strength of the U.S.-Canada relationship is that we resolve issues.

When I came here three years ago we were going to accentuate the positive, work on the issues that divided us, and also continue to work on strengthening an already strong bond. I think we’ve had some success in doing that.

We encourage American decision-makers to come to Canada and over the three years we’ve had about fifty congressional representatives, close to twenty governors, ten to twenty senators, a vast majority of the cabinet members. President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff have all been here. We continue to try to strengthen our relationship by talking about the positive and by making sure we have continuous dialogue among decision makers.

What is the greatest challenge facing the future of the Canada-U.S. relationship?

I think it continues to be about the border. Whether we talk about trade or whether we talk about security, it all gets back to that large border that we share.

Making the border more secure and better at facilitating trade and travel, I think those are the important benchmarks we will be able to look to in the years to come.

Obviously right now we are in the process of implementing the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) which requires a passport for land travel as of June 2009. We need to make sure that the technology is in place, that people get word of this, and that the alternative security documents like enhanced driver’s licenses, Nexus cards and others are accessible to most Canadians and Americans, so that once implemented the initiative will not impede any trade or travel.

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