Ambassador McAlister dropping the puck at the Chevron Cup Final
McAlister never thought he’d end up in the diplomatic service, but we are sure
glad that he did, as very early on he’s proving to be a very engaged and
devoted ambassador. The new Canadian Ambassador to Thailand says, “I had the
same misconceptions about the Foreign Service as everyone else; that it was all
about formality and protocol, and that it involved a lot of entertaining and
socializing. And, while it is true that there is some protocol and socializing,
it’s all done for a concrete purpose.”
Windsor and raised in Toronto, Ontario, Ambassador McAlister had originally
planned on being an academic, focusing on either
economics or international relations. He received a BA (Political Science and
Economics) from York University’s Glendon College in 1972, an MA (Political
Economy) from the University of Toronto in 1973, and a PhD (International
Relations) from the prestigious London School of Economics in 1977. But when it
came down to it, he just didn’t think he wanted to spend the rest of his life
in an ivory tower.
problem was he really didn’t know what he wanted to do. Until a former
diplomat and professor at Glendon College, Dr. John Holmes, suggested he try the
Foreign Service. He thought, why not? It didn’t cost anything to sit the exam,
and he could do it while completing his studies at LSE.
Anyway, we all know what happened – he got the job and started working for the Foreign Service in 1976. The Ambassador recently sat down and talked with Voyageur about his new posting, and how he’s finding it.
How has being
posted here earlier in your career helped you adapt to life as Ambassador?
has helped in a number of ways. Because of my earlier posting, I have some grasp
of Thai culture and a great affection for the country. I also have some
knowledge of Thai history, which helps me to understand the current political
and economic situation. And since I traveled throughout the country when I was
the First Secretary and Consul here, I have some understanding of both rural and
“I also made a number of Thai friends back then, with whom I have kept in touch. They have moved up the ladder and now hold senior positions in both the public and private sectors. These are very good contacts for me to have.”
What do you hope to
accomplish during your tenure as ambassador?
want to update Canada’s image. I think that when Thais think of Canada they
think of beautiful scenery and friendly people, and I’m glad that they do. But
we have so much more to offer, especially in the hi-tech, IT and financial
sectors. I don’t think Thais necessarily think of us when they are looking to
make partnerships abroad, and I want to change that. I want to broaden the
Thais’ awareness of Canada, so they can better understand our capabilities.
also want the Embassy to be accessible to show that we are approachable people,
and that we are very interested in developing our relationships with the Thais.
want to work hard to promote Canada as a destination for Thai students because
again I don’t think Canada is necessarily the first country of which Thais
think when they are looking for educational opportunities for themselves, or for
their children. Part of this is a lack of awareness of what Canada has to offer
in the way of high quality education, at a cost, which is very competitive. So I
do want to increase the flow of Thai students to Canada.
“I also want to promote Canada as a destination for Thai tourists. I’m an optimist by nature, so I think the Thai economy will rebound, and when it does there will be a significant demand for new and interesting tourist destinations. I think that Thais will find Canada an interesting place to visit, because it has so much to offer.”
Where do Thais like to
visit in Canada?
West Coast – the Rockies, Vancouver and Lake as well as Niagara Falls.
“I’ve also spoken to an increasing number of Thais who love Montreal and Quebec City, where they can get a taste of old Europe, but with a New World flavor. Many Thais love the French cuisine, the French language, and the beautiful architecture.
“But I think Thais would also be attracted by our wide-open spaces, which we have in abundance. And I think they would get a thrill out of seeing real wilderness.”
In the past the
Embassy has received some criticism for the way it handles visitors. Now,
obviously it’s not a hotel or a drop-in center, but would you please comment
on your policy towards dealing with enquiries, visa applications and passport
have service standards to which we must try to adhere and we do have discussions
regularly about how we serve the public, both Canadians and Thais.
will have approximately 130,000 Canadians visit Thailand this year, and our
Consular Section is extremely busy dealing with urgent cases such as robberies,
serious illnesses, accidents, missing persons, deaths and Canadians who are
detained. Obviously, it has to set priorities. They have to deal with the most
urgent cases first. That said, I believe that our consular staff does its utmost
to provide the maximum consular service to any Canadians who come through the
door. I am proud to say that every day, we receive compliments from Canadians
for the Consular services we provide.
“With regards to passport issuance, we again have service standards, which I’m proud to say we meet. I think you’ll find that our clientele are very satisfied with our passport service, which is fast and efficient. There will always be documentary requirements –Embassy staff cannot change the passport regulations - but if people provide the required documentation, they will receive very prompt passport service.
have done a lot of training of our staff, and certainly I put a high priority on
service to the public, as the job of the consular section is, indeed, to serve
the needs of the Canadian traveling public and the local Canadian community.
the visa side, again, we have service standards, which are adhered to. Not every
visa applicant will be successful, but by far, the vast majority of Thai visitor
visa applicants receive their visas, and they receive them promptly, provided
that they submit the documentation required. We don’t think the documentation
required is overly onerous and there is ample information on our website about
what needs to be submitted to support a visitor visa application. If the
documentation is in order, we issue visas very quickly.
“We have an excellent Embassy website: www.dfait-maeci.gc.ca/bangkok, which has abundant information about the Embassy, as well as hotlinks to Government of Canada websites across the board. I’m really quite proud of it. If people are looking for information about Canada, looking at the website should be their first move as it’s user-friendly, tri-lingual, and there’s a substantial amount of information there.”
couple years back, an idea was floated to have a “Canada House,” a place
where Canadians could meet to discuss business and have social gatherings. Any
news on that, or do you think there is any need for it?
have, as you know, a very active Thai-Canadian Chamber of Commerce, which is
both a business and social organization. It holds functions regularly, and
it’s composed of a very lively group of people.
is also the Canadian Women’s Group, which is very active, holds meetings
regularly and does a lot of work for charity.
have occasional Embassy functions, and of course we strongly support events like
the Terry Fox Run, Canada Day, and the Thanksgiving Ball where Canadians can
always get together.
“My impression is that Canadians in Bangkok are pretty busy. There is a lot going on in this city and this country, with so many interesting things to do. Sometimes I get the feeling people think their social calendars are overloaded already because of all the things to do here.”
You are also the
Canadian Ambassador to Laos and Myanmar, any comment on those two nations?
Laos, we are engaged, through CIDA, in trying to promote economic development
and dealing with the problem of poverty, which is very serious there. I recently
gave a reception for the Canadian community in Vientiane, and I was quite
surprised to see how many Canadians are there, working in various areas. We have
been involved in the effort to clear unexploded ordnance, which litters the
country. It is slow, painstaking work, and it’s going to take a lot of time,
but they have made an excellent start.
“In terms of our relationship with Myanmar, we have continuing concerns about the human rights situation, and we are urging the regime to bring about some concrete progress in reconciliation with the opposition to move forward on democratic development.”
How can Canadian
expertise help Thailand, especially during this downturn in the economy?
are demand-driven. We have to respond to the needs of our Thai partners, and in
keeping with the capacities of Canadian partners.
we can be particularly helpful through our information and communications
technology. We see enormous potential for telephone and radio communications and
information databases, and making those information databases available to
grassroots projects. For example, the Canadian firm Radarset is involved in a
project that will provide real-time data to Thai farmers to help them make
decisions on what to grow, when to grow, and where and when to sell. Many other
Canadian firms are looking for new opportunities here. We recently developed a
successful project for 15 Canadian geomatic firms. Next February, we expect to
have up to 12 Canadian telecommunications firms participating in the
CommunicThailand Trade Show here in Bangkok. It’s wonderful to see this
growing interest by Canadian firms in the Thai market.
of course, a key commitment of mine is to continue to work hard to support
Canadian firms that are already here, both large and small, representing a full
range of sectors. Just take a look at who is working here now. We have
world-class firms such as SNC, Bombardier, Bell Helicopter and General Motors
Defense involved in some major project opportunities. We have equally strong
firms involved in the environment, energy, natural resources and life sciences
sectors. And of course, we have Scotiabank, which has developed a very strong
and respected presence here in Thailand. I want to be an ally of all of these
firms, and I am happy to advocate on their behalf to advance their commercial
projects. More generally, whenever a Canadian firm signs a contract or reaches a
significant milestone, we publicize the event on our “Success Stories” web
page. We are also working closely with the Thai media to raise Canada’s
commercial profile locally.
firms have a lot to offer Thailand in terms of training opportunities, transfer
of technology and employment. Our technology and expertise are second to none.
We have an excellent story to tell and I will work hard to ensure that Thais
start to “think Canada” when they are looking for new commercial
do you view your role?
“I think it’s really important for the Embassy to function as a team. Each of the managers must manage his or her own program. My job is to give advice, based on my experience, help resolve issues, and ensure coherence across Embassy programs. Since September 11, our consular responsibilities have been a high priority and I hope we have done an effective job of reaching out to the Canadian community to let them know we are here, we are approachable and we can be easily reached. We have recruited new wardens and updated our registration lists. And certainly one of my tasks is to become known to the Canadian community, so that they can feel free to call me, or any member of my staff, if they have questions or run into problems. We will give them the best advice we can. It’s a two-way street, and we are grateful as well for the information and advice we receive from Canadians living here.”
Please tell us how you deal with the demands
of being an ambassador, especially when it comes to scheduling your time, doing
your duties and deciding which functions you should attend?
“That’s a very good question. I have to make choices virtually every day, and they are not always easy ones. Generally, I try to be as active as I can, and I try to attend as many events as possible. But I will always give preference to events or activities, which involve advancing concrete Canadian interests or assisting members of the Canadian community. I also try to focus on doing things that will project the kind of image we want for Canada in the minds of our Thai friends.Of course my family is of utmost importance to me and I try to protect some private time for them as well.”
Rumor has it you
had a fascinating talk with the King when you presented your credentials, can
you please tell us about the meeting?
“His Majesty received me graciously and with great warmth. He was exceptionally well informed about Canada and about Canadian-Thai relations. He underlined the very close friendship between our countries, as well as the close ties, which members of the Royal Family have developed with Canada over the years. We began the conversation in English, and then His Majesty, remarking on Canada’s bilingual character, switched to French. It was a great honor for me to have had an audience with His Majesty, and a highlight of both my professional career and my life.”
always the little things that make the difference between doing a good job and
going through the motions. The Ambassador has proved on a number of occasions,
he’s not just here to just go through the motions. On the weekend of Oct.
27-28, he took the time to fly to Chiang Mai to participate in the Terry Fox
Run, held at the Regent Chiang Mai.
Then, the following weekend, he was kind enough to fly to Chiang Mai again, to drop the puck for the Asian Championship of the 7th Annual Chevron Ice Hockey Championship.This was a tremendous boost to the morale of the ice hockey community in Thailand.
Andrew McAlister is a nice guy. He brings a quarter-century of diplomatic experience with him to his new posting. He’s bright, capable, caring, conciliatory, and considerate – just the type of diplomat the Thais like to deal with. Our future is in good hands.
first job with the Foreign Service was in Ottawa from 1976-77 with the
Commonwealth Division in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International
1977-79, he took his first overseas posting in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, as the
Second Secretary and Vice-Consul for the Canadian High Commission there.
went back to Ottawa, until 1981, where he worked in the Anglophone African
Affairs Division for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
saw him take his second overseas posting, and his first in Bangkok, as he came
here to be the First Secretary and Consul for the Canadian Embassy in the
went back to Ottawa for a year to work in the Political/Personnel Division as an
Assignment Officer in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
1985, he switched roles again, staying in Ottawa, but becoming Head of the
Senior Management Secretariat again with the Department of Foreign Affairs and
next year, he was made Deputy Director of the Security Division of the Foreign
Affairs and International Trade, still in Ottawa, and he stayed in that post
was sent back to South-East Asia, where he was made Counsellor and Consul at the
Canadian Embassy in Manila, in the Philippines, a post he held until 1991.
then back to Ottawa, until 1993, where this time he held the post of Director of
the U.S. Tariffs and Market Access Division for the Department of Foreign
Affairs and International Trade.
1993-94, he held the post of Senior Departmental Assistant to the Minister of
until 1998, he was the Minister and Deputy Permanent Representative in
Canada’s Permanent Mission to the Office of the UN in Geneva, Switzerland.Then
it was back to Ottawa again until he came here, where he was working as the
Director General of the East Africa Program for Canadian International
(The Ambassador is married to Bente McAlister, and the couple has two sons: Nicholas, aged 19 and born in Thailand, and Daniel, aged 13 and born in the Philippines).