When the summer ended, he took an English-teaching job in Japan, only to return to Vancouver with a letter of acceptance to UBC Law. Following that, a title at a top Canadian firm in Toronto; and, finally, a shot at a position in Foreign Service.
“What was so attractive about this job?”
“The same reason I left the suburbs as a kid. I wanted to travel, to see and understand other cultures. So I needed a job that would put that into practice.” He laughs.
“How has being a diplomat affected your view of the world?”
“I’ve developed a lot of tolerance for different things and started to appreciate that things work differently in other places. When I’m posted in another country, I do my best to embrace its culture. It’s easy for a first-world diplomat in developing countries to live, in varying degrees and for lack of a better word, in a sort of bubble. You can shelter in the security of your apartment and rarely seek experience outside the safe and familiar. I just try to get the most out of the experience: learn what I can, have fun, and treat others with respect. There are a lot of socio-economic differences, injustices, and prejudices in the world upon which, unfortunately, you as an individual are not going to have a significant impact, but, a wise man once told me, ‘What matters most is how you treat me and how I treat you.’ I think everything else can follow from that.”
“Has all this experience changed the way you see Canada?”
“There is so much space between cars in Canada!” He lets out a laugh. “That aside, Canada is one of the very few countries in the world that has a system that allows people who are smart enough to get an education and be successful. You have to realize how fortunate you are. I learned this through traveling, not through living as a diplomat.”
“So, in the office is it I, the Traveler, or I, the Diplomat?”
“It’s hard to distinguish between a human being and an immigration officer. When you take this job, what you do is written in the legislation—so you have to follow the framework. You have to have a certain level of belief in the law you’re enforcing. But you also need to have intuition and good judgment and above all, a genuine desire to help someone get in the country, not prevent him from getting in. I like letting people into Canada. Immigrants get to make a new life. Canada gets enriched economically and culturally, with new blood. It’s a win-win.”
“So many lives go through your hands.”
“And it’s my job – and duty – to open the door for those who I believe can make our country better.”
“You must have witnessed incredible personal stories.”
“Yes, I have. Interviews often result in surprises. I’ve had some really pleasant (and some not so pleasant) ones. Not too long ago, I was reviewing a simple visitor application. On the face of it, it didn't look like the applicant could afford a trip to Canada—a warning sign that the intention might not be to visit, but rather to work illegally. Upon further review, however, I realized that despite working many years for the same company, in the laundry, for a very modest wage, this applicant was a big-time success. He’d been a widower for many years, so it seems he had raised three children alone, and on that modest wage. The eldest was a professor at one of the most prestigious universities in that country; the youngest was an engineering student at another top university; and the middle child he was seeking to visit in Canada? She was completing her PhD at McGill. One heck of a success story, and an application I very much enjoyed approving. On the other side of the ledger, I’ve also faced dishonest people in interviews and had to unravel webs of lies to come to a correct conclusion on a case. That can be fun sometimes, other times it can be really frustrating. I once had a gangster type ask me very unsettling questions about whether I had any family back in Canada.”
“Have you ever felt unsafe?”
“I’m not easily intimidated and I have good intuition. In that particular scenario, I made it pretty clear that thinly veiled threats weren’t going to work in getting a visa.”
“What do you think makes a true Canadian?”
“I’ve got to think about that question a bit. ‘True Canadian’ sounds a bit exclusive, which isn't very Canadian.”
“Are there qualities that are uniquely Canadian?”
“I don't know, Canada is pretty much the world these days. Of course, there's hockey and Tim Horton’s and the sweeping arctic vistas, but I don't know anyone who lives too far north of the U.S. border and I don't think Tim’s makes good coffee. So, to me, the ideal Canadian is one who is accepting and respectful of the rights and freedoms of others, up to the point where those rights and freedoms seriously interfere either with the rights and freedoms of other Canadians, or with the functioning of our society. We're not judge-y, and we mind our own business, but not to the point of condoning injustice. Live, let live, have fun, and try to stay warm.
“What song do you think best represents Canada?”
“For me personally, Early Mornin’ Rain by Gordon Lightfoot because I’m almost always ‘a long way from home’. More universally, Sugar Mountain by Neil Young.”
“In an alternate reality, would you ever deny someone an entry visa based on their musical taste?”
“I’d let them in the country, but nowhere near the stereo.”