CANADIANS are generally known as friendly, relaxed and well informed, and His Excellency Philip Calvert, the Canadian ambassador to Thailand, lives up to all these traits perfectly.
In a departure from previous interviews with envoys, Mr Calvert suggested we meet at his residence, a large two-storey house surrounded by greenery in a quiet part of Thung Mahamek district in Bangkok, where Canadian ambassadors have resided for over 20 years.
It was a good choice because the surroundings, which included a genuine Christmas tree imported from Europe, several large paintings, piano and tastefully furnished guest area created a pleasant and relaxed atmosphere for the interview. It was also an opportunity to meet the ambassador’s wife, Chantal Meagher, and their youngest daughter, 13-year-old Jessye Calvert. Both speak Mandarin, as does the ambassador.
Before Mr Calvert arrived, a large and friendly dog became an instant favourite of the BigChilli crew. “Her name is Ginger. She’s a three-year-old Rhodesian Ridgeback, a mixture of Labrador and German Shepherd. She was born in Quebec, and abandoned for some reason I can’t imagine, and we adopted her.
Mr Calvert began the interview by saying he didn’t want to overwhelm readers with statistics and figures on trade, tourism and so on. “We have good and comprehensive relations with Thailand but I don’t think that people want to read the details of Canadian-Thai relations since we have a lot of this information on our website and facebook page.
“I also think that it is very good to demystify ambassadors a bit,” he said, adding: “We Canadians are very relaxed and don’t tend to go for a lot of pomp and circumstance.”
“A lot of people, when listening to English Canadians, think that we are Americans but once you get used to it the accent actually is different. It is like being a New Zealander – many people confuse them for Australians.
“It’s interesting that over the years a lot of news broadcasters in the United States have been Canadian. They like Canadian newscasters there because their accent is neutral and very clear. For example, Peter Jennings, a famous news anchor, was born in Canada.”
Mr Calvert expressed concern over political events in Thailand but diplomatically refrained from going into specifics.
The Ambassador’s background
“I grew up in northern British Columbia, an English-speaking part of Canada on the west coast. I learned French in high school and I studied Mandarin at university. I’d have to consider Mandarin my second language, and French the third. I probably speak better Mandarin than French, and I can write in Mandarin as well. I did my PhD in Chinese history.
“I also studied German in high school so I can speak some German and also a bit of Japanese,” Mr Calvert said.
His background, he says, is ordinary middle class. “I spent summers working in lumber mills. My mother is a nurse and my late father was a carpenter. Nurses don’t make much money, so to help pay for university I worked for two or three summers in saw mills, and then worked for the British Columbia Forest Service as a lookout. That was before there was satellite technology. You are out in the bush by yourself in the tower with binoculars looking for forest fires. If you spot one then you have to use the equipment on hand and calculate the fire’s location and get on the radio to alert the fire fighters.”
After university Mr Calvert joined the Department of External Affairs, now known as the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD), in 1982 and has been a career diplomat ever since. “I served in Beijing altogether for 10 years, from 1984 to 1987 and then from
1994 to 1997.
“My third posting was from 2004 to 2008. I was the deputy chief of mission in China [number two after the ambassador]. The deputy at a big mission is the one who does most of the work. You never travel, just stay at the embassy and make sure things run smoothly and keep the ‘stupid stuff’ away from the ambassador.”
Mr Calvert said that his three postings in China were “in a way like going to three different countries. It was the same country but at three very different stages of development.
“To live in Beijing was great. Since I speak the language, I could get around very well – even arguing with taxi drivers over routes through Beijing.
“I was very comfortable in Beijing. It is a very good city to live in except for the pollution, which has now gotten to the point where people are concerned about their health,” said the ambassador.
He explained that the Canadian Foreign Ministry assignment may not always seem logical, so sometimes a Latin America specialist gets sent to Asia and an Asian specialist to the Caribbean. “But, in fact, they worked it out well for me – I am an Asian specialist in Asia.
“My first visit to Bangkok was in 1986, the second in 2006, and in October 2012, I arrived for my four-year ambassadorial posting. Before assuming my post here I was Director General for North Asia, looking after trade and political relations with the region at the DFATD headquarters in Ottawa.
Bilateral relations and cooperation
“As ambassador, I represent the government of Canada in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, so there are wide-ranging responsibilities. These include promotion of economic, political, security and cultural ties, education, public relations, and ensuring that the embassy serves Canadian and local clients.
“Thailand and Canada established diplomatic relations 52 years ago, in 1961. Canada’s first ambassador was appointed in the same year and the first embassy of Canada in Bangkok with a resident ambassador was opened in 1967. The embassy was located at the Thai Farmers Bank building on Silom Road.
“We are now at Abdulrahim Place on Rama IV Road, with 72 people, including about 48 Thai nationals, working in a wide range of capacities.
“Our embassy in Bangkok, in addition to managing bilateral relations with Thailand, is also accredited to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and the Kingdom of Cambodia. Canada has had formal diplomatic ties with Lao PDR since 1974 and with Cambodia since 1954.
“Canada and Thailand enjoy a deep and enduring friendship. Since the 1970s we have cooperated bilaterally and regionally in the areas of community, rural and industrial development, governance and human resources development. Our current relationship is dynamic and growing, encompassing commerce, regional and multilateral cooperation, security/policing, defense, education, culture, tourism and people-to-people ties.
“Our countries enjoy a dynamic and growing commercial relationship. Bilateral trade reached over C$3.3 billion [about 100 billion baht] in 2012, making Thailand our largest trading partner in Southeast Asia, and we have an active services trade, and significant and growing bilateral investments.
“Canada and Thailand are committed to seeing this key trade relationship expand. In 2012, our two prime ministers launched exploratory discussions on a possible bilateral free trade agreement which would benefit both countries. The embassy also actively supports the Canadian business community as it pursues new opportunities for investment and trade here.
“Canadian exports to Thailand include wood pulp, satellite technology, BlackBerry mobile phones, fruits, foods and lumber. From Thailand we import mostly food products and machinery. In the financial area, the Bank of Nova Scotia is in partnership with Thanachart Bank. We have a lot of investment here in companies like Celestica [electronic equipment], Magna Automotive [auto parts], Manulife Insurance, Bombardiers [planes and rail systems], and SAE [flight simulators and pilot training].
“Canada is also a proud member of La Francophonie and I would encouragetoute le monde to join us at the new Alliance Française on Wireless Road on Saturday, February 8, for the annual Fête de la Francophonie, a celebration of Francophone culture and great day of fun for children and families.
“Canada is a destination of choice for thousands of Thai students seeking educational opportunities. We are working with Canadian and Thai academic institutions to further grow and strengthen these important linkages. With one of the highest proportion of post-secondary graduates in the OECD, our education system is recognized as one of the best in the world.
“A number of embassy people are members of the ‘Flying Farangs,’ an ice hockey club established in 1994. They play in a local league and they have some international tournaments as well. There was an international hockey tournament here in October at the Ring Ice Arena at Central Plaza Grand Rama 9.
Mr Calvert said that high-level visits between Canada and Thailand are an important feature of bilateral relations. “Thailand graciously hosted Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in March 2012. Over the course of the past year, Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty, Chief of Defense Staff General Tom Lawson, and Minister of State for Consular Affairs Diane Ablonzcy all visited Thailand.
Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird visited Thailand in 2012 with Prime Minister Harper, and made the first ever bilateral visit of a Canadian Foreign Minister to Lao PDR in October 2013.
“I told my boss, the foreign minister, when he was in Laos that I have the best job in the Canadian public service. It is a fantastic job, but we are really busy and we have to figure out – because we are a relatively small mission – what we are going to focus on. You have to focus only on very important activities.
“One of the real challenges is that you can burn yourself out by going to events like hotel openings. For me the deciding factor on whether I attend is if it has a Canadian connection, if it is fun and useful or it helps me to connect with people.
“You are the one who makes sure that things work smoothly between the countries and the only way to do that is through contacts and getting to know people. I tend to go to events that help me to develop my network.
“I travel outside Bangkok quite frequently. For example, my travels since September have taken me to the south of Thailand.
“While there I met with women’s groups who are working on peace building. They are teaching children non-violent conflict resolution and working on a dialogue to establish the basic building blocks and restoration of a peaceful society.
“These groups are dynamic, very brave and focused. I had such a good time with them. This is what has impressed me most while in Thailand,” Mr Calvert said.
“I have also visited Chiang Mai, Trang, Krabi and Phuket. I went to Krabi and Phuket with other ambassadors in January 2013 to meet the locals and to raise our concern about protection of tourists. My point was we want Canadian and other tourists to come to Thailand and enjoy themselves. This is a shared interest with the officials we met.
“Canadians like to visit and it is good for Thailand for them to come here, have a good time and spend money. It’s really win-win, but there are certain practices that we talked about with the authorities that sometimes make it not such an enjoyable experience for a small number of foreign tourists.”
Approximately 218,000 Canadians visited Thailand in 2012. This was a 12% increase over the previous year. Based on periodic updates from the Ministry of Tourism, the ambassador expects an increase in 2013.
“Given that not all Canadians in Thailand register with the embassy, we are only able to make an educated estimate of the number of us are here in Thailand – approximately 5,000 residents and tourists on any given day.
Cambodia and Laos
Asked if it is a heavy load looking after three countries, Mr Calvert replied: “Ideally, we would like to have an embassy in every country but it’s very expensive. You have to calculate how you can best represent your country being based in one and visiting the other two.
“I enjoy the diversity and I enjoy the three great countries. I travel to Cambodia and Laos usually every couple of months.
“We have a long-standing relationship and ties with Cambodia and we were backers and funders of the post-Khmer Rouge regime peace process in the 1990s and have also supported the Khmer Rouge trials. I have been back and forth to Phnom Penh a lot. I presented my credentials to the Cambodian King, His Majesty Norodom Sihamoni, in April. His French is excellent. The King is a very elegant and nice man.
“We have an embassy in Myanmar but some part of our embassy duties in Bangkok still cover Myanmar, such as our immigration and police liaison services.”
“Although I am happy with Thailand’s climate, I do miss the change of seasons. I like spring and autumn. Sometimes I walk out in the morning and have to think about what month it is, whereas in Canada you have a pretty good idea when you step outside. But I do like not having to shovel snow in the winter.
“I am trying to learn Thai but I find it harder than Mandarin, most probably because when I started learning Mandarin I was 18 years old. Learning a new language is tougher when you are 56. I try to read Thai because I like to explore the country by car and once you get out of Bangkok many road signs are in Thai, so you must know what they mean. I can read them now.
“At the embassy, we rely on our Thai staff to tell us what various Thai newspapers say and we also talk to the locals. I use a lot websites, especially the news aggregator called ZITE which collects news from all kind of sources.
“As for hobbies I like to travel, play tennis, swim and read works of history and politics.
With an area of 9,984,670 square kilometers, Canada is the second largest country in the world after Russia and slightly larger than its southern neighbour the United States. The Canadian coastline is 202,080 kilometers long. The highest point is Mount Logan at 5,959 meters.
Given the vast geography, natural wonders of Canada include Niagara Falls, the Northern Lights, the Bay of Fundy, 15 UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) world heritage sites and the ski slopes of the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
The population of Canada is approaching 35 million. The national capital of Canada is Ottawa, the 4th largest city in the country with a population of around 900,000. Canada has 10 provinces and three territories. The largest city is Toronto with about 2.8 million people.
Canada spends more per capita on public postsecondary education than any other country in the G8 and has the most educated workforce among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.
Canadian secondary students are among the top five academic performers in the world and Canadian universities rank among the best in the world.
Canada is rich in natural resources that include copper, diamonds, fish, iron ore, lead, nickel, molybdenum, natural gas, petroleum, silver, timber and zinc. The Economist Intelligence Unit has named Canada the best place for doing business among G7 countries because of its secure infrastructure, market opportunities and low taxes; 7 of the world’s 50 safest banks are in Canada.
Learn more about Canada at: www.facebook.com/CanadianThailand