A Word With… U.S. Ambassador Bruce Heyman and Cultural Envoy Vicki Heyman

On embassy life, their diplomatic legacy and what the Obamas are really like.

Photo by Shelley Arnusch

U.S. Ambassador Bruce Heyman and Mrs. Vicki Heyman, cultural envoy.

U.S. Ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman and his wife, Vicki Heyman, who serves as cultural envoy, made an official visit to Calgary last weekend, taking in several Juno events as guests of Mayor Nenshi, who they met two years ago in Ottawa. Not surprisingly, the power couple got into all the big-time events, including Burton Cummings‘ induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame at the National Music Centre and the after party where Cummings played a private show (and where Mrs. Heyman secretly pretended that his performance of “American Woman” was for her). En route back to Ottawa, the Heymans stopped by the University of Calgary to check out the FIRST Robotics Western Canada Regional, a competition sponsored by the Schulich School of Engineering involving teams of high-school students partnered with tech companies, and where we caught up with them for a chat about embassy life, diplomatic legacy and what the Obamas are really like.


You’ve been in Ottawa now for two years. What’s the vibe been like since the Trudeau government took power?

Bruce Heyman: “We’ve enjoyed being in Ottawa from the very beginning. It’s been an incredible experience and the people in Ottawa have embraced us with warmth and enthusiasm and great friendship. From the day we arrived, there was a great community there. What’s changed with the election is that we have a lot of new people with new positions, and so everybody is coming in with a lot of enthusiasm and excitement. We’ve had the opportunity to work very closely with the new government over the last months preparing for the state dinner and the official state visit and as a result of that we’ve created some incredible bonds, both personally and professionally. It’s really a great time for U.S.-Canada relations.”


It feels like it. I’m saying that as a total outsider, but that’s just the feeling you get.

Vicki Heyman: “A lot of warmth…”

Bruce Heyman: “A lot of enthusiasm, and I think a lot of optimism.”


Speaking of optimism, economically it’s a tough time right now for this city. As someone who has visited on several occasions over the past years, what’s your take this time around? Is it noticeable?

BH: “It’s noticeable in that people are telling me. But the strength of the Calgarian people is something to be incredibly proud of. You have no control over the price of a commodity but you can control the way you approach things and I’m impressed by the determination and desire and hard work of the people, not only in Calgary, but in Alberta [in general]. I’m completely confident we’ll get through this cycle and come out stronger and better than ever before. But I’m sensitive that people are going through a difficult time and I don’t want to minimize it in any way. Being in the financial service business for a very long time, I’ve seen many cycles in financial markets, commodity markets and when you’re down, it’s painful. You have to recognize that. This too shall pass and we’ll have better times, and maybe in some ways, we’ll be stronger and better as a result, but easier for me to say right now. I recognize the challenge everyone is going through, but I do have confidence in the people here.”

VH: “You’re very impressed by the resiliency of the people, but also the creative class in the city and the cultural dynamism. You look around and it’s a beautiful city – every plaza with an incredible piece of sculpture or art, the music scene. The creative entities seem to be thriving and palpating and I think it’s a great counterweight to tough times. Certainly this past weekend has been a great showcase for how culture can be an economic driver for a city and it seems Calgary is really seizing that opportunity. That’s very optimistic.”


What’s a typical day at the embassy like?

BH: “The U.S.-Canada relationship is the most comprehensive and complex relationship between any two countries in the entire world. You can name just about anything – whether it’s cultural, whether it’s economic, whether it’s military, whether it’s geo-political, we are working together at every level. So you can imagine, that when you come to work and you have an embassy, seven consulates, eight airports that are pre-clearance, that we work together in shared North American air defence, that we work together on issues, everything from ebola to Ukraine to dealing with the coalitions against Daesh*, we are doing things together at every level… All people in the embassy and the consulates, we are all working on all of those issues, all the time. There may be an individual day where something happens in one of those categories that takes you off your planned day. But for the most part, we are working on furthering the goals of 1) trade on every level; 2) working together on energy and the environment and trying to promote a strong energy relationship but also a strong environment; 3) working on the cultural side, which Vicki has really championed as cultural envoy …

“For me, one of the most important things, is our border and making sure the border functions well. We have almost 120 border crossings between our two countries with nearly 400,000 people crossing on every single day. And that takes away from the big sport days or event days or things that are happening when the numbers really skyrocket. So there is no average day. I work with my senior team at the embassy. I work with our consul generals here – we’re very lucky to have a strong consul general here in Calgary. But it’s a very complicated and complex set of relationships. [Being] Ambassador is about making sure everything is functioning and people are doing their jobs and paying attention to where things either bubble up, or just furthering the goals that [both countries] have.”


Let’s talk for a bit about your working relationship. Have you always worked together?

VH: “We’re kind of a duet. We’ll have been married for 37 years in June and we got to know each other way back, many moons ago, in undergraduate school, in business school. We started our ‘working partnership’ as partners in some classroom activities, which led to romance…”

BH: “She heard we both got into business school and she came to me and said: ‘you know, with your brains and my creativity, if we work together we can both get an A.’ After I got over feeling bad that she didn’t think I was creative, I knew a good proposition when I saw one. So I took her up on it and we ended up studying together. The class was called ‘new venture creation’…

VH: “And we created one.”

BH: “It was about entrepreneurship and doing things together and building things together and our whole life has been based on a partnership.”

VH: “In our early days we both worked on Wall Street, myself at a banker’s trust, Bruce at Goldman Sachs. Then I transitioned in my life to stay-at-home mom and working in our community and I would say we ran in our separate lanes, different tracks but in same direction, building a family and being community builders. And then we started working closely together as a team in philanthropic pursuits, community pursuits, but then also campaigning for Barack Obama’s first run for president.”

BH: “We met this guy, Barack Obama, a new senator when we were at dinner in Chicago.”

VH: “And it started this incredible odyssey that led us here. In our work for the president in his election process we worked as a team, got here as a team, and when we were asked where we would like to come serve, we looked at each other and said ‘Canada.’ When people asked us ‘why Canada?’ Well, it’s a place that really recognizes partnerships. We knew we would each have an opportunity to lead in our own sphere of influence. We had familial [connections] as well – my great-grandparents were Canadian as was my grandfather. Bruce had done work in Canada.”

BH: “We vacationed here. We had a deep Canadian connection and loved the country.”

VH: “And we have an incredible respect and love for nature.”

BH: “We love the mountains.”

VH: “So in terms of the partnership we are a yin and a yang.”

BH: (To Vicki): “Are you yin or are you yang?”

VH: “What do you think?”

BH: “I don’t know.”

VH: “I don’t know either. I guess I shouldn’t say that because I don’t know how to answer that question!”


Obviously then, you’re on close terms with Barack and Michelle Obama. What are they like in real life?

VH: “Just sensitive, intelligent, visionary, great leaders.”

BH: “Normal.”

VH: “Normal. Loving. Fun. You name it.”

BH: “Sense of humour.”

VH: “Great, great people. We have great affinity for them, as so many people in our country do. We’re very proud of our president, very proud of our country. And what a gift to come here and represent that. My job as cultural envoy is really connecting to people, and hearing stories and making these kind of connections across border. We’re neighbours, we’re friends, we’re family, but a greater and deeper understanding of each other, shared vision of the world, how we can examine issues that connect us rather than divide us, issues that are core of our belief system. It’s been great.”


If you had to appoint an ambassador for planet earth, who would it be?

BH: “Look, you know, I’m deeply respectful and appreciative of the vision our president has for fairness, greater humanity, climate change, a safer planet without nuclear weapons, diversity and respect for people whether it’s being able to marry who you love or get fair pay for fair work. I don’t know everybody on the planet, I don’t know a lot of the world leaders, but given my personal experience knowing the president the way I know him, and what he cares about at his core, I think the world could do well with him as ambassador for the planet. But I’d hate to be so presumptuous to give him another job.”


He might want some time off.

BH: “He may!”


Have you ever used diplomatic immunity to get out of a speeding ticket?

BH: “The good news is I’m not allowed to drive here. Your RCMP wouldn’t dare let me drive.”


As ambassador, what’s the most important thing to you to leave as a legacy?

BH: “I think about this a lot … The day that I wave goodbye at the plane and fly off that people say that Bruce and Vicki contributed to the U.S. Canada relationship in ways beyond what we thought they would do and the relationship is in good hands, and in good stead, and they’ve done everything they could possibly do to enhance the U.S.-Canada relationship. That would be a good feeling.”


* An alternate term for ISIS that challenges the group’s legitimacy (bbc.com).

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