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From Toronto’s high rises to terror in Mumbai

By Sneh Duggal      

Germany's top Toronto envoy has seen it all in his 30-plus-year diplomatic career.

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Walter Stechel stepped into somewhat familiar territory when he arrived in Toronto in September 2013.

“When you look outside, you see the difference because when I came to Toronto in the early 1990s, you didn’t have all these high-rises. You had Bay Street obviously, but most of the buildings that are defining the Toronto skyline now have come up in the meantime. So that is a big, big change,” said Mr. Stechel, Germany’s consul general, in a July 15 interview.

But much has stayed the same in terms of the German government’s presence and its diplomatic mission in the city.

This is Mr. Stechel’s second posting to Canada. His first was 25 years ago as an economic counsellor in Ottawa, having an economics diploma under his belt. He often made trips across the country to Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and cities in Alberta.

He fondly remembered his posting in Ottawa with his wife as well as his daughter and son, who at the time were four and one. The kids learned to skate at their neighbourhood rink.

“It was a nice homecoming, even though the winters were unexpectedly severe,” he said of his 2013 arrival with his wife.

‘Difficult moments’

Mr. Stechel said all of his postings have been fascinating, allowing him to experience the world, and learn about other cultures and people.

But there have been some challenges.

“When I was posted to Argentina there was hyperinflation that made life difficult for the Argentinians,” Mr. Stechel said, who has also served in Chile and the United States.

He was stationed in India as consul general during the 2008 attacks that shook Mumbai. Among the targets of the Pakistani gunmen were the Taj Mahal Palace hotel and the Oberoi hotel, both of which were located close to the German consulate.

“These are difficult moments, particularly for the country where you are posted,” Mr. Stechel said.

It became very personal for Mr. Stechel and his colleagues who sheltered German citizens who could not return to these hotels.

“Or you were driving through the streets during that night…collecting the Germans who were stuck in restaurants or other places,” Mr. Stechel said, adding that he was very impressed at how the hotel staff tried to help the guests who had been staying there.

The consulate later helped Germans without their passports so that they could return home.

“So the personal and the professional is always intermingling in the diplomatic service,” Mr. Stechel said.

Meanwhile, his 2011-13 stint as adviser to the secretary general of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris was the “fulfillment of a dream.”

“You really hear everything, see everything and learn everything—so that was great,” said Mr. Stechel.

Naturally, his economics-focused career afterward took him to Canada’s financial hub.

Consular life

The German consulate is home to about 20 staff members, half of whom have diplomatic status with the rest being locally-engaged staff and interns.

About half of the staff members work in the consular section. Mr. Stechel has also been involved in helping to consolidate services provided by German missions, meaning the Toronto consulate has taken over some consular-related duties from other consulates.

The consulate works to promote Germany as a study destination, maintain contact with local researchers, scientists and universities and reach out to the community.

The Canadian German Chamber of Industry and Commerce Inc., which receives some funding from the German government, serves as the country’s trade promotion agency. The consulate and the chamber work together to host business delegations, for example, with Mr. Stechel giving briefings focused more on the macroeconomic and political aspects of business ties.

Meanwhile, the Goethe Institut acts as the government’s cultural arm and provides language courses and exchanges between Canadian and German artists, among other activities.

Mr. Stechel said one of his focuses is on being available for the German community, but it doesn’t stop there.

“There is a strong Jewish community here in Toronto. And when you think of Germany’s past…and so many Jewish Canadians who have come originally from Germany or Europe, it is very important for me to be engaged with them.”

In fact, one memorable moment for Mr. Stechel was celebrating the 95th birthday of Rabbi Erwin Schild, who suffered through the persecution of Jews.

“That was a moving moment,” he said.

Other memorable moments of his time in Toronto include visits with his wife to a winery with a German manager in nearby Niagara-on-the-Lake.

What’s up with Greece?

Mr. Stechel has also been dealing with questions about the economic situation in Europe and the Greek debt crisis at conferences, meetings or from citizens. Greek banks reopened on July 20, with Greece paying off some of what it owes creditors at the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank.

All this has brought about differing opinions, including that Greece should leave the eurozone.

“That is one of the challenges in Europe to find a fair deal, a fair deal not only for Greece as a recipient of aid, but also for the other 18 eurozone countries that are providing the aid,” he said.

The European Union is a construct and is not a country government, Mr. Stechel said, meaning that the countries involved need to come to a negotiated and unanimous solution, which can be difficult. He said he thinks this is one factor economists are losing sight of.

“That is not always providing a clear-cut and easy solution, but something complicated in which everybody gives and everybody concedes and so the outcome may not be perfect, but that is how we have proceeded over…more than 50 years in Europe, that we have looked for a compromise and that is what we are trying to do now.”

This is part of a series of columns on foreign consulates in Canada, by Toronto-based journalist and former Embassy staff writer Sneh Duggal.



Rapid fire with Germany’s consul general


Your favourite restaurant?

Sassafraz: it’s close, it’s good and it has a German waitress.


What has surprised you about Toronto?

The diversity. You read 50 per cent of the citizens in Toronto were not born in the city, but even if you didn’t read it, you see it when you go through the streets.


What does a typical Sunday afternoon look like?

Sitting on our terrace with something too cool to drink and a pack of newspapers or a book. In winter, it would obviously be sitting in front of the fireplace and doing the same, and rather having a cup of coffee than a cool drink.


If you could have any job aside from being a diplomat, what would it be?

Most likely a professor or researcher at the Munk School [of Global Affairs]. 

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