Philip Calvert, Canada’s Ambassador to Thailand, Laos and Cambodia comes from the saw-mill town of Prince George, British Columbia. He enrolled in the University of British Columbia in 1975, where he studied Chinese History for his undergraduate degree; he then moved out of his comfort zone, travelling across the country to live in the Jane-Finch corridor while taking his Masters Degree at York University, again in Chinese History.

While a teenager in Prince George, Ambassador Calvert studied a Korean martial art called Hapkido, so he became interested in Asian culture because his instructor made him learn the philosophy underlying Hapkido. Then upon entering UBC, he had to take six credits of another language so he chose Mandarin.

For a vocation, he had originally planned to be a forest fire spotter, flying out of a patrol plane as he had spent a few summers as a “forestry lookout”; getting into the foreign service wasn’t something he intended to do. But because a friend was taking the civil service exam, he decided to do so as well.

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And as fate will have it, the best laid plans of forest fire fighters often go awry; in April of 1982, while he was writing his Master’s Thesis back in BC, the Foreign Service, after a series of interviews and a security check, told him he had been accepted. He was immediately offered positions in various “streams”, the political, immigration and trade sections all wanted him, but he chose the latter because they had approached him first and they seemed more organized. It was also in the middle of a recession so there weren’t many job opportunities available.

He stayed in Ottawa for the first year of his diplomatic career, and then was posted to Beijing but not before he spent eight months at Cornell University taking an intensive Mandarin course (now Foreign Affairs has their own in-house language program). He was given a test earlier on and showed an aptitude for picking up tones; he credits his dad’s musical background for that.

His first posting as a trade commissioner in Beijing was as the third secretary in the commercial section, responsible for oil and gas, mostly equipment in that field.
Describing his first foreign posting the ambassador says, “It was an interesting time to be in China, a time of perceived optimism, the first economic reforms were starting to have an effect, and every month there was an expansion of where you could travel. Deng Xiaoping was moving the country toward market economy, and Premier Zhao Ziyang was contemplating moving party committees out of state enterprises. There was still repression, but there was a sense that political reform was on the way. I served two more times in China (1994-97 & 2004-2008) and each time it was a different place.”

ambassador at charity game

After his first foreign posting, he moved to Seattle for a few years where he did his Doctorate in Asian Studies at the University of Washington.

In 1990, he moved back to Ottawa and spent a year writing his dissertation. In 1991, he went back to the civil service staying in Ottawa for three more years before heading back to Beijing where he was an economic counsellor and the embassy’s media spokesman.

In 1997, he went back to Ottawa and had two main responsibilities: first, as deputy director on agricultural trade policy, including Canada and the US (he led a small DFAIT team of five); and second dealing with China’s accession to the WTO, where he managed the negotiations and an inter-departmental team.

In 2001, he did some French-language training, and became deputy director, then director, of the Technical Barriers to Trade division. This deals with issues like regulatory issues, food safety, labelling, GMOs, and other technical issues.

In 2004, he was back in China for the third time, but his intention was to accompany his wife, Chantal, also a Foreign Service Officer, who had been offered a posting and language training in Beijing. Philip was going to find a job in the private sector, but soon after arriving the position of deputy head of mission came available and he grabbed it. He ran the embassy’s day-to-day affairs freeing up the ambassador to deal with bigger issues. Calvert says his job in Thailand now is a combination of those two top jobs in Beijing.

ambassador calvert with tccc board members

Describing his ambassadorship to three countries, he says, “I didn’t expect it to be as much fun as it is and I meet so many interesting people. No two days are the same. I can be in a meeting with a Canadian company in the morning then meeting with other ambassadors in the afternoon to chat with the Thai Ministry of Tourism about issues relating to tourists. It’s a lot of fun being an ambassador in Thailand because the Thais take it very seriously, they like palace formality. But you do have to be ‘on’ all the time, as you are always representing Canada, you have to realize that Canada will be judged based on your behaviour.
“I knew the economic agenda would be an important part of the job as well as security. I also expected to hear, ‘We like Canada, you have a good image, but we don’t know a lot about you and we would like to see more of you. Our profile is not as high as it should be.”

The ambassador is a big proponent of looking after his staff: “If you don’t look after your people, how can you expect their loyalty and how will you then have a team that works? I believe as a manager, that if people know you have their back they will be a little more comfortable taking risks, especially since foreign affairs can be risk averse. Remember, the job can’t be about you, it’s about Canada. Also, as a former ambassador reminded me, you should always be nice to the people who work for you because some day you may work for them.”

How do you juggle being ambassador to three different countries at one time? “I’m really dealing with three different countries at three different stages of their development. With Thailand, we’ve started exploratory discussions on free trade, but we need to raise our profile. How do we do that? It’s got to be a partnership with the private sector focusing on a few key areas such as education and we can start by making better use of social media. In terms of our commercial relationship, we need to look at where Thailand is going and decide what we can best offer, e.g. gas, clean energy, and LNG plants on Canada’s west coast have great potential for export. In the automotive sector, we’ve got Magna here, but I think there’s a lot more we can do in the especially with Thailand’s pre-eminence in this field regionally.
“We don’t have a federal minister of Education like say Australia does, Ed Fast, our Minister for International Trade and the Asia-Pacific Gateway is very active in promoting education in Canada. But we do need to make more Thais aware of the educational opportunities available to them in Canada, and we need to encourage Canadian universities and schools to have more of a presence here. And then when it comes to Laos and Cambodia, we could do a better job of promoting the vocational training we offer.

“We used to have an ambassador in Cambodia and we used to have a bi-lateral aid program — CIDA spent millions of dollars in Cambodia. There’s a trade commissioner in Phnom Penh now, a Khmer Canadian named Bunleng Men and I think that now moving forward we should look ahead at what we can do, and not dwell on what we no longer have. There are concerns about democracy and human rights issues in Cambodia, but while we do address these issues a strong economic relationship gives you a better basis from which to engage more comprehensively with a country.

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“Canadian companies such as Manulife are operating there now, but there’s a lot of potential for Canadian companies in the agriculture and food processing sectors as well as in resource exploration.

“Laos is resource rich like Canada, and we have a lot of experience in resource development; we also offer a better model than most countries when it comes to protecting the environment, so that’s definitely one area where we can help the Laotians.”

What personal goals have you set for yourself as ambassador? “I’d like to have a Free Trade Agreement with Thailand in place by the time I leave and I’d like to see more diversity and more activity in the commercial sector, I’d also like us to find ways we can do more to stop human trafficking, especially when it comes to children. It’s a huge regional issue and the causes of human trafficking — poverty, lack of economic opportunity, corruption — are huge.
“Being from northern BC, the forest industry has always been very important for me too and I’d like to see us do more trade in wood products such as window frames.”

Tell us the latest about our mission in Myanmar. “In Myanmar, we are opening up an embassy; we will have an ambassador, Mark McDonald, there this summer. There’s a trade commissioner on the ground now and we have sent a parliamentary and business delegation led by Ed Fast. We will transfer over all the political and most of the DFAIT duties, but the Bangkok embassy will still carry out some of the duties relating to Myanmar such as the RCMP’s responsibilities. The challenge will be Myanmar’s capacity to manage all the development money flowing in.”

What else is happening with the embassy? “We are opening up visa application centres run by private companies; there’s one in Bangkok now and they will others opening in Yangon, Phnom Penh and Vientiane, these companies will process visas and the embassy in Bangkok will market the final decision on authorizing them.”

What about the role of the Thai Canadian Chamber of Commerce? “The TCCC has a good role to play here as a partner to the embassy in promoting business and raising the profile of Canadian companies operating here.”

What about the current state of trade between Thailand and Canada? “Trade has actually gone down, though we did CAN$3.3 billion bilaterally in merchandise trade last year (balance?), but we do have some big Canadian companies working here such as Magna, Celistica, Scotiabank and CAE and we have smaller niche companies like Smiling Albino and Siam Wheels. Our big export is wood pulp, but there’s a lot of potential for growth, so again it comes back to where is Thailand going and how can Canada fit into that growth; I’m particularly thinking of the infrastructure projects the Thai government has planned in and outside Bangkok where we can help with engineering, equipment, software and systems management. As mentioned, we can also contribute further in Thailand’s energy and automotive sectors.
“One of the reasons I want to sign a FTA is that the FTA does more than just lower trade barriers and address obstacles to trade, it sends a message about the trade relationship, it boosts confidence on both sides and it sends a political message about the state of relations between the two countries, which in turn reinforces trade between the two.

“I’d also like to see more Canadian food products come into the country, especially wine, and we will be having a food promotion in August.”

What about the political situation in Thailand? “Prime Minister Yingluck has a big international agenda, I’m glad to see the stability we have now, because it’s good for everyone, let’s hope it continues.”

Parting comment? “I can’t think of a better posting than this one.”

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