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Northern Tour ‘great PR for Canada’ says departing Croatian

By Kristen Shane      

Veselko Grubišic set to leave before end of year.

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Croatian Ambassador Veselko Grubišic sits in a boardroom in his embassy, a Victorian-era manor bought and restored by members of the Croatian-Canadian community and handed over to the southeast European country in 1999.

That year, the country’s current president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, was a diplomat posted to Ottawa. When she and her colleagues moved into the new Sandy Hill embassy, her office became the boardroom, whose walls are lined with paintings, where Mr. Grubišic now sits.

“We call it the president’s office,” said the ambassador.

Ms. Grabar-Kitarovic served in Canada from 1997 to 2001 as a counsellor and then minister-counsellor.

Mr. Grubišic is hoping to see Canada invite her back next year for an official visit, marking a quarter-century of the renewed Croatian state. 

But if the visit occurs, he may not be here to see it, as he’s set to wrap up his posting before the end of the year.

Mr. Grubišic visited all 13 Canadian provinces and territories during his posting. He is one of the lucky few heads of mission who have participated in the Northern Tour, organized by the Canadian foreign ministry. While Mr. Grubišic took part in 2011, the tour hasn’t regularly run since then in part because of its high cost.

It was a rewarding experience, he said, to meet members of Canada’s Inuit and First Nations communities and see the North firsthand.

“It was also I think great PR for Canada. Since then, when I think oil, I think Canada; when I think diamonds, I think Canada. Before, I never thought about Canada as an oil-rich country, or gas, from European perspectives. But I think more and more, Europeans may look at Canada— especially countries of the European Union—as a source of energy, a stable democracy, a country that works.”

That’s exactly the type of thing the previous Conservative government wanted European officials to think about Canada.

During his four years in Canada, Mr. Grubišic and his wife, Marta, have become a staple of the Ottawa diplomatic community.

“I would like to say that my wife was a great asset to me and to Croatia here,” said the envoy in a farewell interview on Dec. 9.

Besides helping him and guiding their three kids through school at both Colonel By Secondary and the University of Ottawa, Ms. Grubišic, who back home works for the government, was active in the Heads of Mission Spouses Association. She helped the group liaise with a similar group for spouses of parliamentarians. She also pitched in for the Children’s Wish Foundation of Canada.

“I think our spouses should be praised for doing…great work,” said Mr. Grubišic.

He also heaped kind words on members of the foreign diplomatic corps and Canadian departmental officials for all their help over the years.

He came to know several cabinet ministers while Stephen Harper’s Conservatives were in power.

“I will never forget John Baird, Jason Kenney, [former House] Speaker [Andrew] Scheer, Lisa Raitt and Ed Fast and many others,” said the envoy.

But he’s optimistic about continuing strong ties with the new Liberal government too. He said he spoke to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan at a reception the government hosted for the diplomatic corps on Dec. 7.

“They are really willing to listen to you and to tell you about their experiences and so on. I was really so happy about it, how open they are.”

When the Trudeau cabinet was sworn in on Nov. 4, Mr. Grubišic recalled seeing the team with its gender parity and diversity. “I was so [impressed] that I wanted to be a Canadian at least for [the] day,” he said in a follow-up email. “This was an outstanding image of Canada.”

The 200,000-strong Croatian-Canadian community has been helpful too, including the Canadian-Croatian Chamber of Commerce.

“These are people who want Canada to succeed and they want bilateral relations to succeed,” said the envoy.

He said the number of Canadian tourists to Croatia has more than doubled from 41,000 in 2010 to 94,000 so far this year. The best public relations is word of mouth, he said, from happy returnees.

The swell has helped Croatia land weekly direct flights from Toronto to the capital, Zagreb, by Air Transat starting this June for the summer season.

And though both he and the Canadian government describe trade between the two sides as “modest,” he said he was happy to see Croatian exports double during his term. He’s hoping a Canada-European Union trade deal, currently winding its way through a slow ratification process, will help give commercial ties a bump.

Meanwhile, he’s been working on getting more Croatian wine onto Canadian lips. While it’s sold at top restaurants in Vancouver and Montreal, he said, he’d love to get Croatian wine on the general list of provincial liquor stores so it’s more readily available. For now, agents generally apply to bring in a set stock, but it’s not always on store shelves, he indicated.

It will be something for his successor’s to-do list. She’s set to be Zorica Matkovic, a former ambassador to Israel and consul general in Chicago who was most recently the Croatian government’s secretary general, which Mr. Grubišic said is similar to Canada’s clerk of the privy council. She is expected to arrive in January.

kshane@embassynews.ca

@kristenshane1

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