Hillmer completed his B.A. (Hons) and his M.A. in history at the University of Toronto in 1966 and 1967, respectively, before going on to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in 1974. During this period, he also worked as an assistant to former Prime Minister Lester Pearson, who was then working at Carleton University's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. In 1972, Hillmer joined the Directorate of History at Canada's Department of National Defence as a staff historian. He rose to become the acting director of the directorate before shifting in 1990 to a full-time career as a professor of History and International Affairs at Carleton University, a position he continues to hold.
Hillmer collaborates with other scholars on many of his book projects, often with the respected Canadian historian J.L. Granatstein.
Beyond academics Hillmer is an avid sports fan, favouring the Ottawa Senators hockey team.
Selected recent publications
- Negotiating Freer Trade: the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and the Trade Agreements of 1938, 1989 [with Ian M. Drummond].
- For Better or For Worse: Canada and the United States to the l990s, 1991 [with J. L. Granatstein].
- Empire to Umpire: Canada and the World to the 1990s, 1994 [with J. L. Granatstein].
- Elder Daughter of the Empire: A History of Canadian-British Relations, 1713-1982 (in Japanese),1997 [with Kazuo Kimura and P. A. Buckner].
- Hillmer, Norman; Granatstein, J L (1999). Prime ministers: ranking Canada's leaders. Toronto: HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-00-200027-7. OCLC 41432030. Also ISBN 978-0-00-638563-9.