Pakistani High Commissioner Tariq Azim Khan says his prime minister sent him as his country’s first political appointee to head Pakistan’s mission in Canada to send a signal to Canadians that “we mean business.”
Mr. Khan shares the same political party as Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and used to head his media team.
“He just wanted to send a signal to the government of Canada, that 'I’m sending somebody who’s a friend and close colleague, a critical colleague to at least let you know that we mean business this time. Let’s have good relations. And if there are small irritants, they should be removed. We value a lot your friendship…and we want to develop on that,'” said the high commissioner in a Nov. 2 interview at his Range Road mission.
Thought in some quarters to be an extension of the United States, the former politician said he sees Canada, a G7 and G20 member and energy power, to be “great in its own right.”
"We want to make sure that it has got a special relationship with Pakistan. I want to develop that special relationship."
He’s got a bit of an uphill climb. Trade is lukewarm. Exports to Pakistan rose to nearly $700 million in 2011 but then dropped sharply to $163 million in 2013 before rebounding to $387 million last year, according to trade data from the Canadian government. Imports have been stagnant at around $300 million.
Canada bumped down Pakistan in a list of country-to-country aid priority recipients in 2014 due to security concerns.
Mr. Khan notes that though it’s beneficial that there are an estimated 200,000 (or more) Pakistani-Canadians, Pakistan has an image problem in Canada.
"For wrong reasons, we have been sometimes portrayed not correctly, not only in Canada but in the rest of the world as well. That will be another one of my major tasks to bring about the right image, present the right picture of Pakistan," said the high commissioner, who presented his credentials at Rideau Hall on Oct. 27.
Before the Canadian gig, Mr. Khan, 70, was a two-term elected senator, and minister of state both for overseas Pakistanis and information and broadcasting. The latter job meant he was in charge of the Pakistan Image Project, which produced a DVD he plans to send to Canadian colleges and universities to help Canadians see another side of his country—not the bullets and bombings of the last 30-odd years, but its remarkable history that dates to 5,000 BC.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan during the Cold War years in the 1980s left hardened foreign fighters flowing through porous borders into neighbouring Pakistan that has scarred the country of 185 million. It’s housed millions of refugees, but also extremists.
"This was a very heavy baggage that the world left for us, a very heavy baby that we had to look after, which has unfortunately given us a bad image," he said. "Quite frankly, we need to correct that image, that this is not something that we created. We are not terrorists; we are victims of terrorism."
Hope for the future
Starting his posting at the same time as a new federal government settles in, he’s optimistic. Echoing the sentiment of diplomats from Mexico and China, the Trudeau name is strong in Pakistan, noted the high commissioner. He said Pierre Trudeau was close to Pakistan’s Zulfikar Ali Bhutto when they both were prime ministers. And the good looks of Pierre’s son, new prime minister Justin Trudeau, might have the Canadian High Commission in Islamabad busy these days.
“Somebody tweeted the other day that the number of young girls applying for a visitor visa to Canada has doubled,” Mr. Khan said with a chuckle, demonstrating his political charm and penchant for one-liners.
He said he hopes to boost Canadian investment in mining and energy, and for Canada to take advantage of Pakistan’s enterprising youth, especially in the information technology, health and engineering fields.
Of course, there are irritants he’d like to do away with too. Though Canada is a desirable place for Pakistanis to study, it takes months to get the necessary permits to get into the country. That sometimes means students miss out on semesters while waiting for travel documents.
And he’d like to see Canada narrow and eventually drop its current warning to Canadians to avoid non-essential travel to Pakistan. While the border area near Afghanistan remains unstable, other parts of the country are safe, he said. He’d like to see big cities like Lahore and Islamabad excluded from the advisory.
Mr. Khan, who holds an MBA and previously worked as a management consultant, has two grown sons with kids of their own, one based in Silicon Valley. Both are lawyers, as is his wife, Adline Azim Khan.