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Big history, big civilization

By Carl Meyer      

Mongolia's ambassador wants to share his cultural heritage.

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Sometimes being the head of protocol means you have to maintain diplomatic composure in the most unexpected of circumstances.

It was October 2013, and Radnaabazar Altangerel was director of Mongolia’s diplomatic protocol department, co-ordinating high-level visits. Canada’s governor general, David Johnston, was in town to meet with Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj

It was the first time a Canadian governor general had held such a visit to Mongolia, so Mr. Altangerel was on his toes trying to make everything right. It would be his own president, however, that would throw him a curveball, during the state dinner on the first day of the visit. 

“My president introduced me to the governor general [this way],” he recalled: “‘Mr. Altangerel, our chief of protocol, will be my next ambassador to Ottawa.’” 

He was floored. “It was a big surprise for me!”

Mr. Altangerel is now, indeed, Mongolia’s ambassador to Canada, and has been since May last year. In a June 18 interview in his downtown Ottawa office, he told Embassy he was happy to have met Mr. Johnston in this fashion, and unsurprisingly is a big booster of the governor general’s particular attention to his country. 

A week before his posting, the diplomat noted, Mr. Johnston gave a speech in California that touched on the “contribution to Western civilization” of Genghis Khan, founder and ruler of the Mongol Empire. 

“The enlightenment may have been sparked—at least in part—by Mongol ingenuity,” offered the governor general in that speech. 

That’s a nice welcome for a man representing a country he himself admits is not often thought of as a Canadian tourist destination. But Mongolia wants to remind the world of the grandiose Mongol civilization that once ran the largest contiguous land empire in history.

“Mongolia is still an exotic destination for Canadians, not well known,” he said. “In Mongolia, we have a good cultural heritage—big history, big civilization—and we want to share our cultural heritage, because cultural exchange is a very good way to understand each other’s nations.”

The embassy is negotiating with the Musée des beaux-arts in Montreal for a “very big exposition” in 2018, said the diplomat.

Montreal is a natural place for Mr. Altangerel to expand ties because of his extensive background in French diplomacy. Mr. Altangerel, who speaks French, English and Russian, was the third and then the second secretary at the embassy in Paris from 1996 to 2000. 

The following year, he graduated from the École nationale d'administration in Paris, and then from 2006 to 2010 he was posted again to Paris, this time as ambassador to France, Spain, Portugal and Monaco, as well as the permanent delegate to UNESCO. He’s also worked in his foreign ministry, as protocol chief and state secretary of foreign affairs. He’s married with one daughter and one son.

But North America is a new nut to crack.

“I am very happy to be here, since last year I had so many very friendly contacts with Canadians—not only with the politicians or with the ministers or with the government, but I had very good contact with Canadian societies, businesspeople, with people working at the universities,” he said.

Not just mining

In addition to promoting Mongolia’s history and culture, Mr. Altangerel is also trying to diversify the country's business image.

The country is small by population and GDP standards—2.8 million and $11.2 billion respectively. It's surrounded on all sides by either China or Russia. But it has extensive mineral deposits and so it has traditionally been a big mining partner with Canada.

But while the country has seen incredible growth over the last 15 years, in 2014, Financial Times reports, "Mongolia’s economy had a bruising year" with foreign investment dropping 74 per cent year-on-year. Export Development Canada doesn’t exactly sound enthusiastic in a note from this spring either: “macroeconomic imbalances, financial sector stress, soft commodity prices, and declining foreign direct investment inflows are contributing to reduced near-term growth prospects and increased credit risks.”

The two countries began talks on a foreign investment deal back in 2009, but it was only last summer that the two foreign ministers put out a press release where they “welcomed the renewal” of the talks. Mr. Altangerel puts it this way: “I think very soon we will conclude this agreement.”

Still, it's clear the country needs stronger infrastructure to deal with any growth coming its way: railways, bridges, airports, roads, power plants, you name it. 

“We have very similar climate conditions,” noted Mr. Altangerel. He suggested Canadian technology would be of good use in building cold-tested projects. In 2010, the two countries signed an MOU allowing Mongolia to adopt Canadian norms and standards in the infrastructure sector.

“But signing a document is just the beginning,” says the diplomat. Last year, he said, there were exchanges of experts, and he’s looking to organize a working visit of their construction minister now.

He also brings up agriculture. “Livestock is the second economic sector of Mongolia. Saskatchewan is for us an agricultural destination in this sector.” He’ll be attending Canadian Western Agribition, Regina’s huge agriculture trade show in November.

Counting the votes

For the ambassador, working with Canada also provides an opportunity to talk values. Given the East Asian neighbourhood, Mongolia likes to boast about its democratic chops.

“This year we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of Mongolian democracy,” the ambassador said. “Celebration is not just a ceremony, it’s to share the democratic values with our friends, including Canada. But Mongolia wants to be an example…in East Asia. You know very well in China, Russia, North Korea…we try to contribute democratic processes in the region.”

It's a theme Canada loves picking up on. During Mr. Johnston’s speech, for example, he mentioned the “shared values of democracy" between the two countries. That same exact phrase appears in the foreign minister joint statement from July 2014.

Mongolia even hosted the Freedom Online Coalition conference in Ulaanbaatar on a request from Canada, the ambassador said.


Irwin Cotler bids Parliament farewell 

Longtime human rights advocate Irwin Cotler finished his final session as a member of Parliament last week, leaving behind more than 15 years of work in Canada’s House of Commons. 

“It’s a bittersweet moment,” said Mr. Cotler, who has announced he will not run in the fall election after representing Quebec’s Mount Royal riding for the Liberal Party since the end of 1999. 

During those years Mr. Cotler served as Canada’s minister of justice, chair of Parliament’s human rights subcommittee, and one of the country’s foremost advocates for the protection of human rights abroad. 

“For me, this has not just been a place of work. It’s a place where I come to work with my friends, and it’s become like family,” he said.

That includes members of all parties, he said. Mr. Cotler pointed to other members of the parliamentary subcommittee on human rights, including Conservative member David Sweet and NDP member Wayne Marston, as among those friends, as well as Green Party leader Elizabeth May

“She has been at almost every one of my press conferences on behalf of political prisoners,” he said, adding the two have worked together on human rights and environmental issues as well.

“The friendships are things that will always remain with me,” he said. 

Mr. Cotler said his father took him to Parliament for the first time when he was 11 years old, and told him it was “the voice of the people.”

“Today that would invite a kind of cynical [response], but for me there’s always been that sense of reverence and respect,” he said. “That’s why it’s going to be difficult to leave.”

As a member of the subcommittee on human rights, Mr. Cotler advocated for sanctions against individuals implicated in human rights abuses abroad, and helped to study the state of human rights in Rwanda, North Korea, China, Russia and elsewhere.

Mr. Cotler said he intends to continue working on human rights issues after he leaves Parliament. 

“For me this has been a very, very inspiring involvement,” he said. 


‘Sexy’ farming

Several Latin American diplomats turned out on June 18 for the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture's Annual Accountability Seminar at the Sheraton Hotel in Ottawa.

The IICA, which is led by the organization’s representative in Canada Audia Barnett, held a panel discussion titled "Engaging Youth Today to Feed the World Tomorrow," with Mexican agricultural researcher Adrian Garcia, Farm Management Canada executive director Heather Watson, Ontario dairy farmer and founder of Fresh Air Media Andrew Campbell and farmer and chair of the Canadian Young Farmers’ Forum Paul Glenn. Alberta farmer and motivational speaker Leona Dargis was also a special guest.

Much of the discussion turned on how to make farming “sexy” to younger generations and how to get Canadians more directly engaged in Latin American farming. Costa Rican Ambassador Roberto Dormond, for example, asked the panel about how to bridge the communication gap between farmers and consumers.

Also spotted in the crowd were: David McInnes, president of the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute; Colombian counsellor Miguel Angel Castro Riberos; Juan Higuera, a trade and business development consultant at CanNexion; Honduran minister-counsellor Luis Francisco Bogran Moncada; and Wendy T. Goico Campagna and Melvin E. Paredes, counsellors at the Dominican Republic embassy.



—With files from Peter Mazereeuw

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