Morocco's recently arrived ambassador says her country is ready to be a "bridge" between Canada and the rest of the world.
Speaking with Embassy from her office overlooking the Rideau Canal, Nouzha Chekrouni says she hopes that the relationship between her country and Canada can continue to grow as she attempts to shrink the ocean—described as a mere "roadway between two sidewalks" by one of her aides—that lies between the two nations.
Speaking mostly in French, the former linguistics professor, who is fluent in several other languages including English and Arabic, says her country is well positioned to open the world through Morocco because of its unique position on the globe.
A quick glance at a world map shows why Ms. Chekrouni believes there is great potential for her country as a trading partner with Canada. Few countries are as geographically blessed as Morocco. Located at the northwestern corner of Africa, the country has a long coastline that extends along the Atlantic Ocean from its southern border with Mauritania northward to the mouth of one of the world's most important shipping lanes—the Strait of Gibraltar.
The strait is a narrow and busy shipping lane that opens into the Mediterranean Sea south of Spain, and is dominated by the looming, iconic image of the famed Rock of Gibraltar. On a clear day, it can easily be seen from Morocco's coast. Less than 15 kilometres separates the African nation from Spain, and the rest of Europe with its vast wealth and huge markets.
Clearly, Morocco could be a huge asset to Canadians as a trading partner, says Ms. Chekrouni.
Morocco has already signed free trade agreements with the European Union and the United States, and initial discussions have been held with Canada about similar terms of trade, says the ambassador.
"We are looking into it," she says, not revealing to what extent the negotiations have gone.
Beyond trade talks, there is also an important cultural connection between the two countries. The relationship with Morocco has been strengthened through the years with good diplomatic relations, but most notably with membership in La Francophonie—an international organization of politics and culture made up of countries that have large French-speaking populations.
The close cultural ties have led to a vibrant Moroccan diaspora of nearly 100,000 located primarily in Montreal. The Moroccan-Canadians make up the largest North African population in the country, and the people are mostly Sephardic Jews and Muslims.
"They are different than the immigrants to Europe in the 1960s," says Ms. Chekrouni, referring to the large numbers of Moroccans that migrated to Europe nearly 50 years ago. "The immigrants to Canada are mostly new."
The majority of the Moroccan community in Canada is well educated and many are professionals and university educated, she says. Most of the Moroccans living in Canada arrived less than 20 years ago. Ms. Chekrouni was formerly her government's minister in charge of the Moroccan community living abroad.
Morocco's link to the Muslim world can also play an important role in bridging the divide between the West and the Middle East. Ms. Chekrouni says as a democratic, moderate and mostly Muslim nation, her country can help Canada connect to that part of the world. Her academic, then government background should be of big help in her first diplomatic post.
Before becoming the Moroccan ambassador, Ms. Chekrouni studied at the famed Sorbonne in Paris before returning to Morocco as a university linguistics professor. After several years of teaching, she entered into politics, where she served as the national minister in charge of women and children's issues, as well as the minister responsible for the integration of the disabled.
Her role in the Moroccan government gave her a hand in the reforms that have swept the country since the new head of state, King Mohammed IV, came to power in 1999. Most notably, she helped lay the groundwork for the creation of the mudawana, the family code that established women's rights in her country. The code was passed into law in 2004 (after Ms. Chekrouni had left her post) and was hailed by human rights experts as the first of its kind in the Arab world.
Ms. Chekrouni is also the first female ambassador to Canada from Morocco.
While women's issues are dear to Ms. Chekrouni's heart, she knows that some of that work will take a back seat to her work as ambassador. Her focus now is on relationship building and connecting with the Moroccan community in Canada.
Hundreds of young Moroccans still come to Canada to study every year, mostly in Quebec's French-language universities. Included in that number this fall will hopefully be Ms. Chekrouni's 21-year-old son, who is currently looking into studying in Montreal. She also has a 25-year-old daughter who is working as a translator, also in Montreal.
Ms. Chekrouni says she and her husband would prefer to have their family close to them, but she says the distance between Ottawa and Montreal is close enough that visits are not that difficult.
Travel is something that she would like to do while she is in Canada, a country she likens to Morocco because of its diverse geography. She has already planned trips to Nova Scotia and British Columbia, and she hopes to see the rest of the country before her mission is over.
While Ms. Chekrouni says it is too early for her to know exactly what the outcome of her time in Canada will be, she says the most important thing is to build relationships. If that happens, she will be happy with her time here.