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Meet the most interesting man in Montreal diplomacy

By Carl Meyer      

A look inside the world of chance diplomats: Honorary consuls.

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Montreal has long been a major North American city and cultural beacon, not to mention home to two major diplomatic hubs: the International Civil Aviation Organization, and the World Anti-Doping Agency. Diplomats have long been attracted to its cosmopolitan neighbourhoods and festive atmosphere. 

But for a handful of countries with no ambassadorial representation in Ottawa, Montreal takes on a more central importance. These honorary consuls have bosses who are out of the country, making their jobs somewhat unique in Canada’s diplomatic world. 

Their histories are intertwined with the history of these major international organizations, and with the history of Ottawa-Quebec relations. They offer a fascinating window into how diplomacy works outside of Canada’s capital. 

This week, Embassy presents Part I of a series exploring honorary consuls in one of North America’s storied diplomatic hubs:

 

Step through the door of the unassuming five-storey building in Montreal’s leafy, well-to-do Westmount neighbourhood, and the first thing that hits you is the unusual office directory on the wall.

Suite 200 is listed four times—twice, in English and French, for both Wagram Communications and the honorary consulate of Mauritius. 

It turns out it’s all the same man: Richard G. Gervais, president of Wagram, and honorary consul general of Mauritius for almost two decades. That listing, it later becomes clear, is trademark Richard. 

A fluently bilingual political consultant and avowed federalist, he rose from being a Liberal staffer under the first Trudeau government to becoming a well-connected political socialite, courted by a powerful Mauritian airline to be their man in Montreal. In 2010, Quebec awarded him the Ordre national du Québec.

His story, and others like him in Quebec’s bustling metropolis, are testaments to how political connections can sometimes haphazardly lead to long-lasting diplomatic links. 

“A lot of this happens by chance; you don’t plan it. Events often decide on your career,” Mr. Gervais says at one point during a wide-ranging interview in his office on Sept. 25.

 

A political background

Mr. Gervais’s personal office at 310 Victoria Avenue is like a museum of Canadian political history. Neatly occupying almost every available square inch of wall space, windowsills, and tables are photos of world leaders, particularly famous Canadian politicians.

One photo that stands out is a faded, signed colour photo of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, standing in the prime minister’s office on Parliament Hill. He’s wearing jeans with his sleeves rolled up and his tie loosened, his thumbs looped around his belt. 

“That’s him,” Mr. Gervais says, with a knowing ring to his voice, his lips curling into a smile, before he catches himself.

“Well—there were many hims.”

The former prime minister, it turns out, is deeply connected with the honorary consul general, who is married to Marie Chevrier. Her father Lionel was a minister under the Liberal government of Lester Pearson, in which Mr. Trudeau worked, and whom he succeeded as Liberal leader. 

Both Mr. Gervais and Mr. Trudeau attended the Institut d’Études Politiques in Paris—Mr. Gervais was president of a Canadian student association there. After Mr. Pearson stepped down in 1967, Mr. Trudeau was elected Liberal leader a few months later; he won a federal election the following year, as the country was swept by Trudeaumania. 

Because Mr. Gervais was an avid globetrotter and knew several languages, he asked Mr. Trudeau to appoint him as a staff member for the foreign minister. That ended up being Mitchell Sharp: “a great man who became my mentor,” says Mr. Gervais.

“He taught me about how to work in Ottawa. The complexity of the machine.”

The two would stay friends for the rest of Mr. Sharp’s life; Mr. Sharp came to eat lunch in Mr. Gervais’s office in the fall of 2003, six months before his death, Mr. Gervais said.

Mr. Gervais would go on to work for Imperial Oil in Toronto for seven years, and then consulting firms, but he always maintained his political links, helping out any politician who would cross his path. He was chair of several benefits, including one involving a dance troupe that had danced all over Africa, where he invited the whole African diplomatic corps from Ottawa. 

He was the adviser to Gabonese President Omar Bongo for 16 years, he said. (President Bongo was leader for 41 years, said to be one of the longest ever, and one of the last so-called strong men rulers in Africa. He battled allegations of corruption. “People say he was corrupt, [but] they all have funds, the world over,” said Mr. Gervais.)

He organized a Saudi Arabia promotional event in Montreal, and the resulting state visit of Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, now the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, who was the governor of Riyadh then.

And he headed up the famous wine club in Montreal, La Commanderie de Bordeaux. On his wall is a photo of Mr. Trudeau and former Quebec premier Jean Charest at a Commanderie de Bordeaux reception in 1987.

“I had inducted Pierre and Jean, and in my speech I joked that it was the only evening where I was their boss,” he said.

 

A twisted road to diplomacy

Being an honorary consul is a benevolent activity—you’re not paid for the job, and most honorary consuls hold down day jobs. These individuals often get into diplomatic work, Mr. Gervais says, because they stick around the city after working for some other pursuit. 

“If they stay here, of course, eventually they get involved, either politically or at cocktail parties,” he said.

“They meet people in Ottawa, in Montreal; they create links; and then they help their colleague who’s now in the job.”

That traces his own path. In the early 1990s, he was working for GGA Communications on 606 rue Cathcart, on the edge of Phillips Square in downtown Montreal, when he got a knock on the door. Representatives from Air Mauritius wanted to meet with him. 

“They said, ‘Mr. Gervais, we wanted to meet with you because we’re going to have a promotion of Air Mauritius in Montreal in a few weeks…would you give us some names of people to invite, or advice?’” 

He says he didn’t know at the time that the request was a test to prove his worthiness. His name had come up as a result of the Mauritian prime minister asking the president of Air Mauritius, who was coming to Montreal for an ICAO meeting, to find an honorary consul there. 

The airline president, Harry Tirvengadum, talked to former ICAO council president Assad Kotaite, who was good friends with Mr. Gervais and his wife, and mentioned his name. 

He ended up organizing the entire Air Mauritius promotional event, he says, for free, unwittingly passing the test. 

By 1994, he was honorary consul general. 

He says for many years he was the only Mauritian representative in Canada. He bought his own flag, and equipped the consulate to reflect Mauritius’ membership in both the Commonwealth and La Francophonie, a trait it shares with only a handful of other countries, Canada being one of them.

He threw receptions for former heads of state of Mauritius who came through Canada—“I had a thousand invitees; 400 came.” After 15 years, Mauritius made him Grand Officer of the Order of the Star and Key of the Indian Ocean. He says he’s the only non-Mauritian to receive the award.

“I took care of Quebec, and Toronto, and Ottawa all the time, because I’ve known all governments, it’s my signature that we have decent relations,” he said.

 

‘Unique situations’

Mr. Gervais is a unique creature in the Montreal diplomatic world. He says he doesn’t know of any other honorary consul who has a public relations firm. The consensus among many of the consuls Embassy spoke with is that most in the city are lawyers.

“The consuls, whether they’re honorary or not, have different levels of access and power…it has a lot to do with experience, personality, and the country you represent,” he said.

A few others have held unique political titles. Daniel Johnston, for example, is a former premier of Quebec, who since 2002 has been honorary consul of Sweden. He works at the McCarthy Tétrault law firm, which has offices in the skyscraper at 1000 De la Gauchetière Street West. 

“He knows everybody in Ottawa as well,” said Mr. Gervais.

Similarly, Richard William Duncan Pound, or Dick Pound, is a former president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, who has been honorary consul general of Norway since 1993. He now does tax litigation at Stikeman Elliott in the CIBC Tower, another Montreal skyscraper.

These types of gigs—premier, head of the anti-doping agency—are “unique situations which facilitate your job,” as Mr. Gervais puts it. They, like him, have personalities that attract attention. 

“You have definitely a way of doing things, formal relations, a formal way of doing things, and then you have the geopolitical economic reality, and thirdly the personalities involved. And the three play,” he said.

But even so, if consuls represent countries with very little business ties to Canada, there is no occasion to solicit the attention of federal power, Mr. Gervais says.

“You have honorary consuls who do very little because they represent countries that have little to do. Countries that have…few [diaspora] in Canada or few in Montreal. So they will do some cultural activities, now and then, a film, once a year, twice a year. But they don’t need to turn the world around. Others are very busy.”

Montreal hosts dozens of headquarters of international organizations, all in town because of the diplomatic community, that in turn is drawn to the large bodies like ICAO.

“It creates a huge nucleus,” says Mr. Gervais.

Diplomatic life in Montreal even mirrors, sometimes, that in Ottawa. Consulates host parties in honour of national days, and often, ambassadors posted to the capital will make the two-hour drive to Montreal to attend, especially if the event is not on the same day as their own mission’s celebration. 

For Montreal events, the ambassador and the consul often host together, Mr. Gervais said, creating more Ottawa-Montreal links. 

He says he doesn’t come to Ottawa as much as he used to—”gas is expensive nowadays,” and he doesn’t have any drivers. You had to cut costs in the recession, he laments. 

“But I try to go, because I do believe in the linkage. And I would love to see [Embassy] have a page or two on the regions, on the provinces.”

cmeyer@embassynews.ca

@ottawacarl

 

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