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From the farm to cabinet, and now diplomacy

By Sneh Duggal      

Barbadian consul general once ran in an election against the sitting prime minister—his first cousin.

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Let my life be a light shining out through the night, helping struggling ones to the fold, spreading cheer everywhere to the sad and the lone, let my life be a light to some [soul].”

Each day, Barbadian Consul General Haynesley Benn sings the lyrics of this religious hymn.

“That is my wish for myself: that my life will be a light that shines, not necessarily for me,” said Mr. Benn on Dec. 16 at his office in Toronto’s North York neighbourhood.

He speaks of a difficult past. “I know what it is to struggle, what it is not to get your ends [to] meet,” he said. Mr. Benn said he was the fifth of 10 children and the first child that his parents were able to send to secondary school.

“No amount of money could buy for me the memories that I have of those days and no amount of money could pay me to go back and live through them again,” he said, shedding a tear.

He was preparing to head home for the holidays and said he would be packing one suitcase with school supplies, clothing and other items to distribute once back in Barbados.

Last year, the consul general worked with the diaspora and other community groups to raise funds to send two 40-foot containers full of medical supplies back to Barbados. Mr. Benn hopes they will be able to send more containers this year, but it is expensive. He said he plans to put aside part of the allowance he receives each month and has also requested his government to include funds in its annual budget for this.

Mr. Benn arrived in Toronto in August 2013 for his first-ever diplomatic posting.

He brings with him a varied background. He was a teacher, worked for a farmer’s association called the Barbados Agricultural Society and had a stint with a shipping and trading company before joining politics. Most recently he served as minister of agriculture and then minister of commerce and trade.

He decided to run in the 2008 and 2013 elections in Barbados for the Democratic Labour Party. In 2008, he ran against the sitting prime minister, Owen Arthur, who was representing a different party and also happens to be his first cousin—their mothers were sisters.

“Some people felt that I shouldn’t have done it,” said Mr. Benn of his decision to run against his cousin. “But I always liked politics…I contested it in an area in which I grew up, which is St. Peter.”

He had worked on other people’s election campaigns decades before deciding to run himself. 

Mr. Benn didn’t win, but he was appointed as a senator and a minister.

“I didn’t feel in any way humiliated or anything like that…I enjoyed every moment of it,” he said. “I kept…the mud out of my campaign; we had an understanding, we wouldn’t attack each other personally, we’d deal with issues.”

Mr. Benn said he “felt at home” in both his ministerial roles, but his biggest challenge switching from the private sector to government was that things took a lot longer to get done in government.

He often met with government officials as part of the Barbados Agricultural Society, which he joined in 1975. At the time the country mostly produced sugar cane and some root crops like yams, and the government adopted a policy of agricultural diversification. The organization created several different associations, each representing a subset of the agricultural industry.

They received help from Canada’s federal aid agency and Cuso International to develop the dairy and livestock industries. The organizations provided a veterinarian and other services, while Holstein cows, for example, were also sent to the Caribbean nation.

The Canadian Co-operative Association helped in the development of co-operatives and credit unions in Barbados and other Caribbean countries. Mr. Benn came to Canada in 1983 as part of this arrangement.

“So Canada has played a tremendous role in our development, our agriculture and our national development.”

Since arriving in Toronto with his wife, Margery, a few years ago, he said he's wanted to increase the participation of Barbadians in Canada's Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program and the number of skilled workers, such as plumbers, electricians and welders, coming to work in Canada.

He also wants to draw more investment into Barbados from companies and diaspora members.

Educational accreditation is another area that needs work, he said, adding that he would like to see greater acceptance of education completed in the Caribbean country.

The consulate, which hosts more than 20 staff members, five of whom are diplomats, moved from downtown Toronto to North York in November. Mr. Benn said they relocated so that the consulate would be more accessible to the community it serves.

Toronto-based journalist and former Embassy staff writer Sneh Duggal writes on foreign consulates in Canada.



Rapid fire

Age: 66

Favourite restaurant: He’s a fan of cooking spare ribs, fish, pies and soup. But if he has to take someone out for a meal, he chooses The Keg.

Music: Country, spirituals, calypso. He grew up in a musical family, and has been part of many choirs and chorales in Barbados. He’s a country singer when playing his guitar, but the keyboard brings out the religious songs from him.

Books: Biographies and books that are inspirational or about leadership.

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