Recently Scott Murray had a chance to sit down with H.E. Bernard Giroux, and discuss the Canadian ambassador's life, his role, and his thoughts, as he completes the first year of his posting in Thailand.
Please tell us about your diplomatic life?
I became a foreign service officer in 1971 after gaining my undergraduate degree in political science and economics from McGill University and my masters degree in economics from Montreal University. At that time, the foreign service consisted of three branches: political, immigration, and the trade commission service. I joined the latter which focused on trade development, trade promotion and investment promotion.
My first assignment, back in 1972, was in Manila where and I was second secretary and Vice-Consul. Then in 1974, I went to Minneapolis where I was the Consul and Trade Commissioner before being posted to Brussels in 1977 where I was first secretary to the Canadian mission to the European Community.
In 1980, I became Deputy Director of Personnel for the Training and Recruitment Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in Ottawa.
In 1982, I stayed in Ottawa, but I became an agriculture analyst before moving to Seoul in 1984 to be a commercial counselor with the Canadian embassy there.
I came back to North America in 1987 to be the Deputy Consul General and Senior Trade Commissioner for the Canadian Consulate General in Boston. In 1990, I went back to Ottawa to work with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade as Director of the Trade Commission Service Personnel.
In 1993, I became Director of the United States Trade and Tourism Development Division, still in Ottawa. Then in 1994, I became Director General of that agency. Before coming here, I was the Director General of the International Business Planning Bureau of the Department of Foreign Affairs, again based in Ottawa.
So when I summarize my career, it has focused on Asia, the US and the personnel sector. I've also spent most of my career working on trade and economic issues.
My background, my training and my experience helped me prepare for my posting here. I was the charge d'affaires for nine months in South Korea so I have had quite a bit of training in non-commercial, non-trade issues ranging from the UN to political bilateral issues as well as some security matters.
Looking back, after a year in Bangkok, I've appreciated my various assignments over the years both abroad, and also at headquarters. They helped prepare me to face the issues I have had to deal with. Knowledge you can always acquire, but there are some experiences that you must accumulate over the years, and the way the Canadian foreign service assigns people, and the way it has people gain experience has certainly prepared me well for my job.
Has there been any part of the job that you weren't quite ready for?
As I mentioned, the preparation I have had over the years helped me to make a fairly smooth transition into the job. I knew what an ambassador's duties were and there have been very few issues that I haven't already dealt with, but the social side has been very challenging. I had an idea, but I really didn't realize how busy I would be. It's not a 9 to 5 job, it's more like 9am to 11pm, including many week-ends.
The social demands on the ambassador are tremendous, but they are part of the job. You represent your country and you are constantly called upon to attend social functions where you meet influential and interesting people. I have found that these functions are very important and I really didn't realize how important they were before. You get to meet a great number of people in a very short period of time.
You must be deluged with invitations to attend all types of social functions. How did you decide which ones to go to, and does your wife accompany you most of the time?
Other Canadian ambassadors advised me that in the first five to six months, if I was in doubt, I should accept the invitation because I was likely to meet people that would help me understand what is going on. I followed that advice so my first six months were rather hellish as I went out about five times a week.
Luckily, my wife can participate in most of the social functions here which is quite different from what we experienced in South Korea. The spouse of an ambassador plays an important role, and very often a non-recognized role in terms of participating in a lot of events, talking to people, and getting to understand the host culture and country better. Certainly, I consider my wife, Marjolaine, to be of great assistance in terms of helping me to get my job done. She also has to look after a lot of the receptions and dinners at my house.
Since May, I must say, I have been more selective about the invitations I accept because going out five nights a week is just too much. I can't maintain that pace, there's too much work to be done in the office, and during the day I have meetings with ministers, senior officials, businesspeople, academics etc.
Has there been any pressure on you to be any different from your predecessor?
There's the reality that the ambassador before, or after you, will always do things differently than you. Every ambassador has to determine what their priorities are, and what is the best way to achieve them. But there isn't a secret recipe, and no one way to achieve the objectives of the Canadian government.
You arrived just after the baht was devalued and the Asian currency crisis began. Didn't this make assuming your duties all the more difficult?
Yes, I came at a most challenging time. I would have liked to have arrived when Thailand was continuing to grow, so there would be more opportunities for Canadian companies to trade, and to create more jobs in Canada. I would have preferred that. But I arrived 20 August 97 when the de facto devaluation was really starting to take effect.
You must remember, however, that this was also the time of the discussion of the new constitution, which was, and continues to be, a very important process. If you come in as a new ambassador at a time when there is such a public debate, and public discussion in Parliament, you become involved in an extremely important time in the history of a country. You don't read about it, you live it, and you talk about it almost every day. This to me has been a remarkable opportunity.
How has the economic crisis affected the initiatives launched by the Team Canada visit last year?
When Team Canada 97 came through here a number of MoUs were signed. The embassy has tried to keep those projects alive given that the Thai government has cut its budget, revenues are going down, and that the economy of the country is going into negative growth. We are trying to make sure that some of those critical projects are kept alive.
Have many Canadian companies have shut down or gone home because of the crisis?
I'm not aware of any Canadian company that has pulled out of Thailand during this recession. Some have reduced their activities, and laid off some of their staff, but they are all still operating. My Trade Commissioner Ken Lewis has told me we have about sixty Canadian companies operating here now, and five or six new ones have just opened up.
What's the state of Thai investment in Canada?
At this time, there's a hiatus in terms of promoting Thai investment in Canada. When I talk to the executives of Thai companies I have found that their number one, two, and three concerns these days are simply to survive, not to expand.
What about exports going both ways?
Our exports to Thailand are going down, as are the exports to almost all the other Asian countries because of the economic crisis. Last year, we had CAN$440 million in exports which was down substantially from 1996 when we had CAN$540 million. And we are concerned that our exports will be even lower this year.
On the other side, Thai exports are going up. The Canadian market is very open to importing Thai products. Last year, Thai exports to Canada were CAN$1.2 billion. The forecast is that this year they could reach CAN$1.5 billion. By opening up our markets, we are contributing to the economic recovery in Thailand.
How do you see your role as ambassador?
I must always look at everything with Canadian eyes. I must advocate, promote and defend Canadian interests. I must assess what is happening here and determine what it means to Canada, and Canadian business interests.
I've said that the ambassador is a representative of the Canadian government but as the "senior" Canadian here I'm also responsible for the Canadians living in Thailand and in Laos and Burma as well.
It's important to understand the people you are working with. So I meet with people, and I talk to them. That's very important to me. I've had a couple of meetings with the wardens, who would work with us in case of emergency consular cases, such as the evacuation of Canadians in Indonesia last May. The Canadian Woman's Group also plays a an important role here, and I've met with them. I'm in the people business and meeting these people gives me an opportunity to learn about them and I can learn from their experiences.
What did you think of the Canada Day picnic?
It was fun, I even won a prize. My wife warned me I shouldn't participate in the tug-of-war, and she was right. I'm too old for that stuff anymore. But it was really nice to have about 400 Canadians and Thai friends of Canada all together in the same place. It was very informal, very Canadian. It was as if for about seven or eight hours we had a mini Canada in Thailand.
How can Canada raise its profile in Thailand and the Asia-Pacific region?
All the contributors of the US$17.2 billion IMF bail-out to Thailand in August of last year were from the Asia-Pacific region. But as the situation deteriorated it became clear that some of those that pledged money, particularly Indonesia and South Korea, could not keep their commitments.
In March of this year, all the Canadian ambassadors from the Asia-Pacific were called home for two weeks and we met with federal and provincial ministers, premiers, and academics. One of the conclusions of our meetings was that the Canadian profile in Asia has almost disappeared from the radar screen. Given the efforts that Canada had expended over the previous ten years to develop and expand its relationships within the Asia-Pacific region it was obvious that we needed to do something drastic particularly in those countries facing economic difficulties.
So we contributed US$1 billion to the South Korea rescue package. Then in April of this year, a decision was made to lend US$500 million to Thailand as part of the IMF package, to replace some of the intended contributions that Indonesia and South Korea could no longer make. This was a very important decision to put Canada back on to the radar screen.
Remember, this will be about twice the amount of Canadian exports to Thailand this year. So what we are clearly telling the Royal Thai Government is that we were here during the excellent years, we are here during the difficult years, and we want to be here when, not if, the economy starts getting better. It's the loudest signal we can send about our commitment to Thailand for the long-term.
Is there anything you would like the Canadian community in Thailand to be doing more of?
I think there is a very vibrant Canadian community here that promotes and projects a very positive image of Canada. However, there may be some social causes where we could have a more active participation.
Tell us a little about Laos.
Given the slowdown of the pace of visitors to Thailand as a result of the economic difficulties, I've had the opportunity to spend more time in Laos PDR. So far, I've made five visits of two to three days at a time. In the past three or four years, particularly since the regime opened up, the pace of activity in Bangkok and the workload related to Burma was such that is was almost impossible for the embassy and the Canadian ambassador to spend a fair amount of time in Laos. If I had been here during those years I would have done exactly the same thing and Laos would have been a lower priority.
But I came last August, and I didn't have a premier every month, or a minister every week, coming for meetings with senior Thai government officials, businesspeople, academics and the heads of research institutes. So I started to develop a strategy in terms of slowly and gradually expanding our relations with Laos PDR. Laos remains one of the ten poorest countries in the world. I focused on the areas where Canada can do more to help in terms of a development perspective.
Laos is now a member of ASEAN, so in terms of ASEAN integration there are significant needs for the country. Canadians have some experience that can be beneficial to the Laos PDR government and it has proven to be the case. We are running an English language training program on a tripartite basis. Singaporeans are training Laotians, Cambodians, and Vietnamese in learning English with significant funding from Canada.
We are finishing a program where seventy Laotians have been trained over the last three years and we will soon start the second phase of the program where ninety more Laotians will be trained. You can join ASEAN but if the people going to the meetings cannot speak the language to explain and advocate the Laotian government, what's the point? So as you can see the needs are great but their abilities are limited.
I led, the month after my arrival, the first ever Canadian trade mission to Laos PDR sponsored by the Thai-Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise Thailand Canada and the Canadian embassy. It was a mission to better understand what is going on in Laos. We went to look at sectors like energy because Laos is, and will continue to be, a large electricity producer, and Canadians have expertise in that field.
There are a number of Canadian companies that are interested in doing business in Laos. SNC has a US$6 million contract to do an integrated urban development involving water, sewage and drainage systems in Vientiane. So there are opportunities but we have to be very focused.
Laos had more bombs dropped on it during the Vietnam War than all of Europe did during World War II, can we help clear up the ordnance?
We are doing something right now. We have provided CAN$250,000 to help fund the Unexploded Ordnance Center. The Canadian program focuses on awareness. What have we done?
We have paid for the publication of comic books for children to show them what bombies are, what it means when they explode, and the danger of these bombies. There have been hundreds of thousands of these comics distributed across the country. We are also involved in training as we are part of a larger program that explodes the ordnance and trains nurses and paramedics to help people who are hurt by the ordnance when it detonates.
Another major and related issue has been to engage Laos in the Ottawa Process and the signing of the antipersonnel landmines treaty. Through our support, they attended as an observer the conference in Ottawa in December of 97. It's a small step but it was the first time that they had sent representatives to such a conference and it is so very important to engage them in the process of eliminating landmines. There is a significant amount of funding available right now for demining for those who participate in the Ottawa Process and Laos will be eligible for this funding once they sign the treaty.
What about Burma?
Well, I'm still waiting to present my credentials to the Senior General Than Schwe. We took economic measures against Burma in August of 97, so from a trade perspective there is no support whatsoever from the Canadian Government.
As a diplomat, and being a Canadian from Quebec, how difficult is it with the continual call for the separation of Quebec from Canada?
The lost opportunities sadden me because as the debate goes on it makes it more difficult to bring in investment, and I'd rather see more investment and more jobs. I'd like to see the time spent on more productive rather than divisive issues. Remember, the UN has declared Canada to be, for the fourth year running, the best place in the world to live.
What do you think of your new embassy?
The move took a lot of work but I think the new embassy truly reflects the importance that Canada places on Thailand. It's in a better location, we have better facilities, it's more productive, and I now have all my team on the same floor. I think Canadians should be proud of their new embassy.