Canada, Politics, Social Studies and History

Canada Speaks Softly But Persuasively: Notable Canadian Ambassadors

Canada Speaks Softly But Persuasively: Notable Canadian Ambassadors

Originally published in TEACH Magazine, 75 Years of the United Nations Special Issue, 2020

By Carolyn Cooper

Canada’s diplomats and foreign service staff work on a vast range of assignments, in consulates, embassies, and High Commissions worldwide, and on permanent missions to forums like the United Nations (UN).

As one of the UN’s founding members, Canada has always been an active participant in the multilateral organization, and according to Global Affairs Canada, we currently have “seven diplomatic missions accredited to the UN.” The senior diplomat leading each of those missions is the ambassador, or permanent representative (PR), tasked with ensuring Canada’s foreign policy goals are achieved.

The head of the UN mission is the PR to the United Nations Headquarters in New York, whose job it is to use “diplomacy, negotiation, and analysis of UN activities… to advance Canada’s interests and strengthen the pillars of the UN: international development, peace and security, and human rights.” Because of their high profile, Canada’s ambassador to the UN is frequently seen as the face of Canadian diplomacy, who often brings his or her personal style and values to the role.

Following are four Canadian ambassadors who have influenced the way Canadian diplomacy plays out on the world stage.

George Ignatieff

By the time George Ignatieff was appointed PR to the UN in 1966, he had already spent more than two decades in Canada’s foreign service. During which, he helped establish Canada’s reputation as a relationship builder between nations.

Ignatieff began his lengthy diplomatic career with the Department of External Affairs in 1939, working with Lester Pearson at the Canadian High Commission in London. After joining the Royal Artillery and working in intelligence, Ignatieff was named Canada’s wartime delegate to the International Red Cross. Like Pearson, Ignatieff was horrified by the human and economic devastation of the Second World War and was committed to maintaining peace and world stability. He was convinced that a global, rules-based organization like the UN was essential for preserving peaceful mediation between nations. It was also in Canada’s best interest as a middle power with a strong foreign service network.

Before being named UN ambassador, Ignatieff worked closely with Canada’s first ambassador to the UN, General Andrew McNaughton, and served as ambassador to Yugoslavia from 1956 to 1958, and PR to NATO in 1963. “As an ambassador he was prototypically Canadian,” says Adam Chapnick, Professor of Defence Studies at Royal Military College, and Deputy Director of Education at Canadian Forces College. “He was a relationship builder, he was well connected, very articulate, generally well liked and highly regarded.”

During the Cold War era, says Chapnick, “smaller skirmishes at times would be the cost of doing business, but the real fear was that the great powers would go to war against one another, because that would be nuclear conflict. So peace was ideal, but stability and order were truly critical. As a result we could advance our interests best through a rules-based order where the best negotiators had success.”

Chapnick adds, that “quite often the greatest accomplishments of small powers at the UN are things that don’t get written up in any record book. Diplomacy can be very nuanced, and Ignatieff was extremely effective.” He points to Ignatieff ’s work in arranging a series of “unofficial” hostage negotiations after the US spy ship Pueblo was captured by North Korea in 1968. “This is the kind of thing that Canada could do quite well—use the relationships we had to solve problems that other people couldn’t solve.”

Ignatieff worked with the UN until 1972, and was especially involved in disarmament efforts. He was named a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1973, and was awarded the Pearson Medal of Peace by the UN Association in Canada in 1984.

Stephen Lewis

In 1984 Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney surprised some by naming Stephen Lewis, the former head of the Ontario New Democratic Party, as Canada’s PR to the UN. Although far apart on the political spectrum, Lewis says the two found middle ground in their agreement on Canada’s international involvement, especially as the world experienced unprecedented humanitarian and health crises during the 1980s.

Mulroney made it clear from the beginning, says Lewis, that freeing Nelson Mandela and ending apartheid in South Africa were two of his highest priorities. “So success in that became one of the things which all of us who were involved felt most strongly about. Similarly the work on the Ethiopian famine.” As a result, Lewis says he was allowed more autonomy in how he achieved foreign policy goals. “It was a special privilege, which was quite unusual. The ambassador is, in significant measure, dependant on the foreign service in Ottawa and the Prime Minister’s office. Mulroney allowed me to say and do things which were much more flexible and interventionist than is usual with ambassadors.”

Lewis remembers the UN as “a pleasure to be part of. It was so fascinating to sit down with the ambassador of Singapore one day and the ambassador of Egypt the next, and discuss subjects which were coming before the General Assembly or the Security Council. And it was a real privilege to deal in so many different cultures and values.” Canada’s high diplomatic profile during the 1980s also opened doors. “We were considered to be principled and progressive, reliable and accessible,” says Lewis. “We had an excellent reputation based on peacekeeping, our official development assistance, and our multilateral reputation.”

Lewis served as PR until 1988, and went on to work as deputy executive director of UNICEF in 1995, and UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa in 2001. “It was those experiences that made me understand you could really make progress internationally if you mobilized the right people and if you used the podium,” he says. “You could really move things through multilateralism.”

Following his work with the UN, Lewis co-founded the international advocacy group AIDS-Free World, and the Stephen Lewis Foundation that assists people affected by HIV/AIDS in Africa. He was named a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2002, and was awarded the Pearson Medal of Peace in 2004.

Lewis believes Canada’s standing at the UN has diminished in recent years as “we began to be far more rhetorical than we were substantive.” At the same time, he says some areas of the UN require reform. “The UN at the moment is in a very precarious state, induced by the fact that the Security Council doesn’t function, because the permanent five members use the veto indiscriminately to serve their own interests. However, the other side of the UN—the funds and programs and specialized agencies like UNICEF and the World Food Programme—often works in exemplary fashion. They do a superlative job on the ground. It’s this enormous amount of work that the UN performs to keep the world going that is truly the measure of multilateralism.”

Louise Fréchette

A career diplomat, Louise Fréchette worked in embassies and on missions around the world including, Greece, Switzerland, and Argentina before being named Canada’s PR to the UN in 1992.

Fréchette’s interest in international diplomacy began while at university in Montreal and Belgium. “It was just a curiosity about the world. But along the way I discovered, particularly with true multilateral diplomacy, that you were dealing with major issues that have global consequences, and complex problems may involve dealing with people from all kinds of backgrounds and origins. I find all of that extremely stimulating.”

At the time, recalls Fréchette, the UN was a very collegial place, and Canada’s reputation made it easy to make connections. “My approach to being effective in a multilateral setting is to forge links with your counterparts, and try to get to know them personally, to be a friendly interlocutor,” she laughs. “I would say it is quite representative of a Canadian way of acting in a multilateral context, because we’re not a big power, we don’t win by bullying or playing the lone wolf.”

Despite the conflicts in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, Fréchette says diplomatic co-operation between nations was high during the 1990s. “There were interesting and stimulating circumstances, with the end of the Cold War, and the developing world evolving. And our policy at the time was very much designed to strengthen the UN, and Canada wanted to be seen to be fully engaged.”

Fréchette was very much an active ambassador. “On peacekeeping there were a lot of policy reforms, as well as a large number of operations going on,” she recalls. “And I shared a crew that shepherded all kinds of reforms to improve the UN delivery of humanitarian assistance. I was particularly involved with the US representative, Madeleine Albright, in finding a way forward for the deployment of the UN mission in Haiti. So there was a lot going on.”

After serving as Canada’s deputy minister of National Defence from 1995 to 1998, Fréchette returned to the UN in 1998 as its first deputy secretary-general, a position created by secretary-general Kofi Annan as part of reforms to the organization. She remained in the role until 2006, and has since continued to work with global charities such as CARE, and international think tanks like the Global Leadership Foundation.

Since the early 2000s, Fréchette says geopolitical realities, including the rising power of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), have significantly changed UN dynamics. “What we see nowadays are the big conflicts and confrontations involving China, Russia, and the US, and the Security Council, where much of that rivalry is played out. That’s what makes the headlines, and therefore one gets the impression that the UN is totally paralyzed. But it isn’t quite true. The UN is involved in every field of human activity and operates at many different levels.”

Fréchette also firmly believes the UN’s value as a multilateral institution far outweighs its problems. “The alternative is rules made by the strongest, and this is not in the interests of the vast majority of countries,” she says. “There are a lot of problems that are global in character and require global co-operation, and you need a place where everybody can come together. It doesn’t mean that the UN cannot and doesn’t need to be reformed, but to me its not the perennity of the institution, but the perennity of the concept of multilateral co-operation.”

Bob Rae

In July 2020, former Ontario premier Bob Rae was appointed PR to the UN. Rae has spent four decades in provincial and federal politics, including as interim leader of the federal Liberal Party, and is a Companion of the Order of Canada, and a member of the Order of Ontario. Since leaving politics in 2013, Rae has served as Canada’s special envoy to Myanmar to investigate the Rohingya human rights crisis, and as special envoy on Humanitarian and Refugee Issues.

During a Global Affairs press conference announcing his appointment, Rae noted that his father had worked in the Canadian foreign service for 40 years, and as ambassador to the UN in New York and Geneva. “So to be able to work in the same place as my father, and to be engaging constantly in a sense that we’re part of a very fine tradition, is a wonderful moment for me.”

He also outlined that one aim of his tenure would be to re-connect Canadians with our legacy of international diplomacy. “Many Canadians say to me, ‘Why don’t we spend all of our time focusing on Canada, as opposed to helping others?’” says Rae. “But we have to understand that to protect Canadian security and prosperity, we have to engage globally. And in particular we have to engage at a time when things are so difficult in terms of health, in terms of the condition of people, and the financial stability and political security of the world. That’s going to be my job number one—to convince Canadians of the importance of what we’re trying to do—and also to persuade as many other countries as we can that we need to work together to reinforce, to renew, to rebuild a successful world order.”

Lester B. Pearson

Lester B. Pearson, Canada’s 14th Prime Minister, was a public servant and diplomat before entering politics. During his time as Canadian ambassador to the US in 1945, Pearson was involved in establishing both the UN and NATO. He believed deeply in the importance of maintaining peace and world stability.

Although Pearson never officially served as Canada’s UN ambassador, he worked closely with the organization throughout his career. In 1956, while he was Canada’s secretary of state of External Affairs, Pearson proposed the first UN Nations Emergency Force, a multi-nation peacekeeping army, as a solution to the rapidly escalating conflict between Egypt, Israel, Britain, and France over the Suez Canal. The UN force managed to maintain the ceasefire while the combatants withdrew, and remained in Egypt until 1967. Pearson won the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize for establishing the peacekeeping tradition that continues today.

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Whether helping to negotiate peace treaties between nations, or organizing the delivery of food and medical aid to refugees, the UN ambassador is viewed as Canada’s global mediator. How they establish and cultivate multilateral relationships with their UN peers has a huge impact on Canada’s standing in the world, as well as on our ability to achieve foreign policy. Ultimately, they are an essential, if sometimes unseen, diplomatic link between nations. “Canadian ambassadors have traditionally been very involved on a day-to-day basis with their colleagues from other countries in seeking to improve the functioning of the UN,” says Fréchette, “and to ensure that whatever decisions are negotiated contribute to the global welfare, and not only to the achievements of specific Canadian objectives.”


Carolyn Cooper is a freelance writer and editor living in Kawartha Lakes, Ontario.