Yvonne Walkes is a lot like her home country: warm, friendly and relaxed.
The new high commissioner of Barbados arrived six weeks ago. Her priorities in Canada are to expand on trade and tourism and engage with the some 34,000-strong Barbadian diaspora community, based mainly in Toronto and Montreal.
Last weekend, Ms. Walkes said she attended the birthday party of a 100-year-old Barbadian woman living in Montreal. Incidentally, Barbados has the second-most centenarians per capita in the world, behind Japan.
Her family is spread out across Canada and the United States. “The children and grandchildren need to understand what Barbados is like, understand their roots,” said Ms. Walkes in an interview May 5, adding she’s encouraging Barbadians to visit their homeland next year for the country’s 50th anniversary of independence.
This is a political appointment for Ms. Walkes. Having worked for years in Barbados’s largest trade union and in politics in the Democratic Labour Party, which is currently in power, her expertise lies mainly in the labour movement.
She ran for office three times in the same constituency as Owen Arthur, who was the longest-serving prime minister of Barbados from 1994 until 2008. She had served in the Barbados Senate from 1990-94, when her party was in office.
Ms. Walkes was also president of the National Organisation of Women in Barbados from 2007-11. With her work she focused on issues such as domestic violence and human trafficking, an issue of significance to Barbados because of the many internationally-bound ships that anchor at its ports.
She said getting professional women to step out of the background and into leadership is something she’s passionate about.
Traditionally, in the trade unions she has spent her life supporting, women tend to take on support roles while men slammed their fists on the negotiating tables. “If you look at all the photographs, you would never see women up front, leading, negotiating,” said Ms. Walkes. But women have been making huge strides.
“Now, everywhere you look there is a woman permanent secretary, women CEOs.” She said the general secretary of her trade union is now a woman. She credits women in her generation with picking up a long-standing fight for equality. “They can be themselves, but can be leaders,” she said. “I don’t want to be a man because I want to be a leader. I want to be a woman doing leadership work.”
One of the world’s most famous figureheads will lose her ceremonial leadership in Barbados, if politicians have their way.
Both of Barbados’s major political parties have said they want to move to a republican system that would enshrine a president as head of state instead of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.
“I don’t know if it’s as much replacing the Queen as seeing yourself as finishing the era of independence,” she said, adding that politicians are positioning themselves to make this happen sometime next year.
“They see Republican status as a last step in saying, 'You are on your own, you are mature, you have grown. You reach adulthood.'”
Ms. Walkes is in Canada on her own, but has an adult daughter, Keisha, 28, finishing her last few months of internships as a medical doctor at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Bridgetown. Keisha is an accomplished athlete, too, having competed in the US in track and field, discus and shot put.
“She’s a beautiful daughter. That is one of the best things I’ve done in life, having a daughter, having a child,” Ms. Walkes said.
In her spare time, Ms. Walkes enjoys swimming, walking and reading. She’s currently reading Matrons and Madams, a book by the governor general’s wife, Sharon Johnston, she said. And she’s watching a lot of Power & Politics on CBC to catch up with Canadian political affairs, though she’ll usually tune in to Dancing With the Stars on Monday nights.
That spare time is limited, though. Ms. Walkes has already attended around 40 events or receptions in Ottawa and is being warmly welcomed by the diplomatic community, she said, including her neighbours in Rockcliffe Park—though she hasn’t yet met with her next-door neighbours, the Russians.
“I’m not a career diplomat,” admitted Ms. Walkes. But she’s familiar with the role Canada plays in Barbados.
About 75 per cent of foreign finance companies based in Barbados are Canadian, she said. Canada helped establish the Barbados tourism industry, and the diaspora in Canada sends back a significant sum in remittances every year.
Bilateral relations are modest. According to DFATD, Canada and Barbados co-operate on many diplomatic fronts and have reached several bilateral agreements including one on foreign investment protection. Bilateral trade was just over $50 million in 2010, and many workers from Barbados come to Canada for seasonal agricultural work.
Ms. Walkes is looking for “a movement from remittances to investment.” She said the infrastructure and regulatory framework of the island nation is “out of this world in relation to its size.”
But she seemed surprised to hear during an interview with Embassy that the International Monetary Fund had come out the same day with a ranking putting Barbados in the lowest position among 12 Caribbean countries for projected economic growth.
She mentioned a recent outlook from the country’s central bank saying there would be 1.5-two per cent growth in the next year. Those numbers are at odds with the IMF’s assertion, however, that growth will likely be capped at 0.8 per cent in 2015, and 1.4 per cent next year.
Despite Barbados having had financial strains since the recession, Ms. Walkes said she’s confident Canadians can make lucrative investments there.
Afghanistan envoy sent away after short stay in Ottawa
The departure of Afghanistan’s ambassador to Canada in March after less than a year of service is raising a few eyebrows.
Canada hosted a delegation that included the speaker of Afghanistan’s senate, Fazul Hadi, just a few weeks ago. But the Canadian government also backed off a plan to host Afghanistan's new president, Ashraf Ghani, the Canadian Press reported in April.
The current chargé d’affaires, Mohmmad Dawood Qayomi, initially agreed in mid-April to an interview with Embassy about why Sham Lall Bathija had left. But after a couple of weeks, he changed his mind, according to the Afghan embassy’s press secretary.
Nipa Banerjee, a professor at the University of Ottawa with an expertise in Canada-Afghan relations, said Mr. Bathija is one of the few minority Hindus left in Afghanistan and the only one she had met in 12 years of experience with Afghan affairs.
“He impressed me as an intellectual and a person with deep interest in Afghanistan’s development,” Ms. Banerjee, who is currently in Bangladesh, wrote in an email.
Mr. Bathija had held a position at an international organization in Geneva before being offered the position in Canada last year by then-prime minister Hamid Karzai, Ms. Banerjee said. He arrived in Ottawa in May 2014.
“I was much enthused at his deployment in Afghanistan because I saw great potentials for a person of his calibre to integrate with the diplomatic corps in our great capital and influence our government’s and other countries’ views of Afghanistan, its potentials, current needs for support,” wrote Ms. Banerjee. “But unfortunately, his term was cut short too soon.”
She said she first viewed the dismissal of 11 ambassadors by Afghanistan’s newly-formed government, which came into power in September and is headed by Mr. Ghani, as “part of an attempt by the new government to tighten up administration.”
It’s not the first time a chargé d’affaires has had to step in between ambassadors’ postings.
Mr. Qayomi took on the role from June 2013 to May 2014 after a different ambassador, Barna Karimi, had only served for 15 months. Ershad Ahmadi was chargé d'affaires from March to October 2011 after the departure of ambassador Jawed Ludin, who had served for less than two years.
Ms. Banerjee calls the lack of timely replacement of Afghan ambassadors a "distressing" fact. “I have wondered if this is because they consider representation in Canada a lesser priority."
However, she mentioned a past Afghan ambassador had decided to leave the post on his own accord because he did not find work in Canada to be stimulating enough. “I do not think, however, that within such a short time [Mr. Bathija] would have come to that conclusion.”