Ottawa Writers Festival: A book written for the love of Canada by Vicki and Bruce Heyman

Vicki and Bruce Heyman. Photo: Shelley Arnusch

The Art of Diplomacy (Simon & Schuster) is part memoir, part essay, and from cover to cover a “love letter” to Canada.

“It’s a big hug,” says Bruce Heyman, the former United States ambassador to Canada and co-author with his wife, Vicki. Their term as ambassadorial couple ended when Donald Trump was inaugurated as president, but rather than disappear from Canada’s collective consciousness, as many ambassadors do, they set to defending their country’s relationship with Canada, their “second home.”

The book title — The Art of Diplomacy: Strengthening the Canada-U.S. Relationship in Times of Uncertainty — is loaded with subtext. It refers literally to art, which was an important part of their work in Canada, principally through the ‘Conversations’ series that brought leading American artists — Eric Fischl, Kiki Smith, Theaster Gates, and others — to Ottawa for public talks. It refers to the art of diplomacy done well, and it’s a contrast to The Art of the Deal, the 1987 ghost-written book by Trump. Trump is, Bruce says during an interview at a downtown Ottawa hotel, “thinking in isolationist terms, in terms of binary outcomes of I win or lose, whereas the art of diplomacy is finding win-win outcomes and coming together.”

The Heymans could be sitting at home in Chicago, or at their place in Colorado, bouncing grandchildren on their knees, luxuriating in the fruits of Bruce’s many years at the investment bank Goldman Sachs. But they’ve become evangelists for the deep relationship between their country and Canada, which, Bruce says, is “under stress and threats and attack by our president. I think there’s a role for us as citizen ambassadors. . . Our heart says the U.S.-Canada relationship is too important to be sacrificed. It’s the responsibility of each of us to find those spots where we have the ability to shine light on truth. And if not us, who? If not now, when?”

Their book tour brought them to Ottawa for a capacity event at the National Gallery of Canada on Tuesday, then to Kingston and Toronto, then back to the capital for a Saturday appearance at the Ottawa International Writers Festival. Add to the list a night in Cleveland and multiple dates in Washington D.C. and Chicago.

“The most wonderful things in our lives have happened by following ideas and people that we believe in,” Vicki says. Now they’re launching their own ideas and seeing where they lead, letting them “maybe flow like the river a little bit and see where the energy is.”

With Barack Obama. Photo: Allison Heyman

Their book, like their personalities, brims with energy. It’s a duet, of sorts, with chapters written by Vicki or Bruce, and it covers the period from their departure from Ottawa, back to their first meeting with then-senator Barack Obama. They were entranced by the young politician, who, Vicki says, shared their community goals of supporting education, health and art. They got involved in Obama’s presidential campaigns and were rewarded with the diplomatic posting to Ottawa.

They confess in the book that when they arrived in Ottawa they were naive about Canada, and about Canadians’ view of the United States. Someone told Bruce he was “so American” and he replied with a hearty thank you. “Bruce,” Vicki told him, “I don’t think that was a compliment.”

Bruce says now, “I think what we learned coming up here was the art of seeing something through other eyes, through someone else’s eyes.”

There are other comic moments in the book — the Wrigley Field marquee that congratulated the new “am assador,” Vicki’s debut on Twitter when she misspelled the name of a local jewelry maker and inadvertently tagged a porn site, and the revelation that the Heymans had to go to diplomatic “charm school.” Anyone who’s spent time with the couple knows that sending the Heymans to charm school would be like sending a puppy to cute school.

Vicki Heyman and her Vespa buddy Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau. Photo: Bruce Heyman

Once settled into Ottawa they became friends with opposition leader Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau — so close that Vicki found herself scooting around the city on the back of Sophie’s Vespa.

The reception was cooler from then-prime minister Stephen Harper. At their first meeting Vicki mentioned how she had resurrected the nickname of the U.S. ambassador’s residence, Lornado, and asked Harper if the prime ministerial abode had a nickname. “Twenty four Sussex,” he replied. The Harper government also froze Bruce out after the White House failed to get behind the Keystone pipeline.

This leads to perhaps the most pointed line in the book, as Vicki begins a chapter with, “There were the Harper months, and there were the Trudeau months — and they were as different as night and day.” Eventually diplomacy won out, and later Bruce had a brief but heartfelt encounter with the by then-former prime minister Harper at a NAFTA meeting in Dallas.

There’s no questioning the Heymans’ love of Canada. Vicki sits in the Ottawa hotel and effuses about the Canadian artists  she so admires — Edward Burtynsky, Wanda Koop and Ottawa’s Meryl McMaster among them. Bruce says, “I think Americans would really benefit from seeing and experiencing a lot more of Canada.”

Vicki mentions that of three million Americans living outside the country — the single biggest group of them, 600,000, in Canada — only nine per cent voted in the 2016 presidential election. At the event at the National Gallery on Tuesday Bruce said that if all of those 600,000 Americans in Canada had voted “they would have determined the outcome of the election.”

Getting more American ex-pats out to vote is one of the goals set by the Heymans, who have long capitalized their differences to get results. It was always the way, from the day they met in 1979 while both were at business school at Vanderbilt University and could pick a partner for a project and be graded as a team.

Justin Trudeau accompanies Barack Obama after the latter’s speech to Parliament. Photo: Vicki Heyman

“Bruce was a great student, sat in the front row, raised his hand for every question,” Vicki recalls. “I was a good student too but I was sitting in the back row figuring out what I was going to do this weekend. I thought, that Bruce Heyman, I’m going to get him to be my partner. So I approached him and said, ‘Bruce, with your brains and my creativity, I know we’re going to get an A.’ Well, we went from study buddies to a romantic relationship. Within eight months we were engaged, and eight months later we were married. We were kids, we were 22 and 23.”

In town: Vicki and Bruce Heyman will be at the Ottawa Writers Festival on May 4 at 1 p.m. For information and tickets:

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.