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Water, student exchanges on US consul general’s agenda

By Sneh Duggal      

Other priorities include fighting counterfeit goods, violent extremism.

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Juan Alsace’s diplomatic career came after a brush with priesthood training and practising law. This will be his 30th year since becoming a foreign service officer and it’s a decision he says he doesn’t regret.

“My wife and I have enjoyed it tremendously,” said the United States consul general in Toronto, from his office on Feb. 9. “We’ve had the chance not only to see the world, but to interact with a lot of different people.”

Mr. Alsace went to high school in Niagara Falls, Ont., and was studying for the priesthood with the Carmelites, a Roman Catholic religious order. He then studied political science and philosophy at Marquette University, a Catholic and Jesuit school in Milwaukee where he also met his wife, Nancy.

Mr. Alsace realized the priesthood wasn’t for him and started practising law in small-town Minnesota after getting his law degree at the University of Minnesota.

He was interested in relations between the United States and Latin America and the Caribbean, especially since his parents came from the Dominican Republic. So he decided to try his hand as a diplomat.

Mr. Alsace has had the chance to work on United States-Caribbean ties as director of the Caribbean affairs office and as a diplomat in the Dominican Republic, something he said was very satisfying.

He spent a year in Iraq as the leader of an embedded provincial reconstruction team, meeting with local leaders on issues on governance, economic reconstruction and education.

At one farm where they were trying to build an irrigation system, he recalled meeting six young girls who he said did not have shoes or proper clothes and could not go to school because it was too far. Mr. Alsace said he reached out to family and friends and managed to raise about $10,000 used for books, uniforms, shoes and a tutor who came from Baghdad to teach the girls and others.

“It ultimately didn’t go as far as I wanted to because the tutor considered it too dangerous to go out there; but it was a start,” he said.

Before coming to Toronto, Mr. Alsace taught strategic leadership at the National Defense University for one year.

He was coming full circle because he had been a student there from 2002-2003. The school is meant for US military and other government officials seen to have leadership potential.

Mr. Alsace had visited Toronto as a child and adult. Soon after he started his posting in the city in August 2015, he got to experience the Toronto International Film Festival, which allowed him to meet people in the cultural, media, political and business sectors.

“That was a terrific immersion and introduction to Toronto,” he said.

On the agenda

Two of the priorities for his post include boosting education exchanges and collaboration on water issues.

There aren’t as many student exchanges at the post-graduate level as one would expect, and often this has to with the fact that the countries are neighbours, Mr. Alsace said. 

“We know each other very well. Often, a student interested in doing an educational exchange is more interested in going to China, Europe or Latin America and doesn’t think about Canada, or the Canadian doesn’t think about the United States as a place to go,” he said. “One of our priorities is to try to improve that.”

The consulate has established a working group with educational institutions to focus on this issue.

On water, he has travelled to cities such as Windsor, where he spoke to people about fighting invasive species. The consulate will be bringing together provincial officials, academics, non-governmental organizations and First Nations representatives next month to discuss ways to collaborate on clean-water technologies and other water-related issues.

The consulate has also been working to promote business interests and an initiative called SelectUSA, which is a United States government program to promote investment in the country. The United States will be holding an investment summit in Washington in June.

“Our ambassador would really [like] to see the Canadian delegation be the largest to this…so we’re working with that to try to make sure that we have a diverse and important Canadian delegation to the Select USA conference.”

Other consulate agenda items include combating counterfeit goods and countering violent extremism.

“We see ourselves as bringing people together and finding ways to find creative solutions to help combat the efforts of others to attract people to violence,” he said. 

The consulate is the largest that the United States has in Canada. Mr. Alsace is responsible for about 100 staff, 35 to 40 of whom are American, plus more than 100 customs and border patrol staff at Pearson International Airport, along with their families.

While Canadians do not need a visa to visit the United States, the consulate processes about 100,000 visas each year, Mr. Alsace said.

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



Rapid fire

Born: In New York City, but grew up in Buffalo.

Age: 58

Favourite restaurant: L'Unità, an Italian restaurant.

Books: Now reading SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. He’s a fan of history books and biographies.

Music: Jazz, Frank Sinatra.

If I wasn’t a diplomat, I’d be: An archeologist. “I find ancient civilizations and the whole question of evolution also just fascinating in terms of why we are here and how we got here. And archeology can try to answer some of those questions.”

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