The remarkable career of diplomat Margaret Huber

| June 26, 2011 | 0 Comments
Margaret Huber

Margaret Huber

Margaret Huber, Canada’s chief of protocol, comes to the demanding job in the 38th year of her career with Foreign Affairs. That career has included head-of-mission positions in the Czech Republic, Pakistan, Jordan, Iraq and Oman, consul-general positions in Milan and Osaka and postings to Washington, New York and Brussels.

Diplomat talked to Ms Huber just a few weeks before she was to lead her first Northern Tour, an annual trek Foreign Affairs organizes for a rotating number of diplomats and which, this year, took place during the summer solstice. She said she was delighted to be able to show Canada’s North to her diplomatic corps colleagues and, in turn, present to people in the North — not only premiers and ministers but First Nations people and new immigrants — the extent of international interest and support for them as they develop the north. This year, in addition to the “black flies, mosquitoes and what-to-wear” logistics briefing, Foreign Affairs held a series of policy briefings on the north, and opened it to all diplomats, not just those joining this year’s tour.

Diplomat magazine: What led you to a career in the foreign service?
MH: About halfway through university, I knew I wanted to gravitate towards an international career. I took a year off after completing my undergraduate degree at McGill before doing my master’s and I worked for a trading company in Tokyo and that’s when I decided I wanted to join the foreign service. At that time, the foreign service had three branches: political, trade and immigration. I was fortunate that I received offers from both political and trade.
After my experience in working for a trade company, trade seemed very interesting to me. My early assignments were all related to trade and trade policy. I think foreign affairs, then, and today, is a wonderful career for someone who is very interested in international developments and experiences, living abroad, and someone who’s willing to make the trade-off, which is that, for long periods of time, you are living out of the country, far from your family and friends. That’s a lot easier than it used to be, thanks to Blackberry and Skype and an increased ease for international travel, despite the security precautions we all have to take.

DM: You’ve had some interesting postings, particularly as ambassador. Can you talk a little bit about your time as ambassador to Iraq?
MH: One of the happier days with my experience in Iraq was when my Blackberry started to work there. It used to be cold turkey for eight to 10 days at a time when I was traveling in Iraq. [When I was ambassador to Iraq], I was actually based in Oman because I had dual-accreditation but then, happily, and still now, Blackberry works in Iraq. That, I must confess, for an addict like myself, is terrific because it also means that when you come back from a business trip, you’re not facing hundreds of emails.
Iraq was certainly a fascinating assignment. I think that having an opportunity to present credentials wearing body armour on the way there — that was interesting. I was delighted that over the three years I was accredited to Iraq, security improved dramatically. When I was first going there, it would be on military flights into Bagdad and then you’d take helicopters from the airport in and out of the city, throwing your luggage onto the helicopter with the wheels going. There’s a certain adrenaline there but it’s also a sign of improvements, much cherished improvements, that Bagdad Airport is now operating like an international airport with flights in and out all the time.

DM: Are you optimistic about Iraq’s future?
MH: In the long term, I must say I’m very optimistic about the future of Iraq. It’s a country with a remarkable, long, rich past and as a student of history [both of her degrees are in history], I’m thinking millennia. But it’s also a country which is one of the cradles of civilization. In more recent years, it was also known for being an education centre; its universities were renowned. The Iraqi people have enormous talent and resolve to overcome the issues that they have faced and, to a certain extent, still do face. But they’re also very fortunate because they also have oil. They have resources — both geological and human — to overcome the challenges and fully rebuild the country.

DM: What about Afghanistan?
MH: Afghanistan is such an interesting country. I had an opportunity to first visit there when I was doing our liaison with the Asian Development Bank many years ago. I also visited Afghanistan when I was high commissioner in Pakistan. It’s an enormously beautiful country and another country with a remarkable past, not only as a centre of the Moguls but also Alexander the Great. In the museums in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, there are artifacts from the Hellenic Kingdoms, which is quite amazing.

DM: So it has lots of history but does it have a future?
MH: We all have a future. It’s how we make the future that is a work in progress. Certainly the Afghans I had the pleasure of meeting give me hope that their country has a much brighter future.

DM: In addition to Jordan and Iraq, you’ve been posted to Washington, New York, Manila, Brussels, Osaka, Milan, Czech Republic, Pakistan and Jordan. That’s an amazing career. Which of those postings was the most memorable, and why?
MH: A few of those were training postings. My time in Washington, working with matters related to the World Bank, and then in New York working at UNDP (United Nations Development Program) — that was really in preparation for my time in Manila, doing our liaison with the Asian Development Bank. But yes, I’ve been blessed with great variety in my assignments and it’s certainly one of the aspects of the foreign service life that is, I think, the most seductive. It’s the degree of variety, of opportunity to learn so much, whether it was the opportunity to spend two years in intensive Japanese language training, or the opportunity to learn more about the then-burgeoning European Union. When I was in Brussels (1985-1988), it was the EC-nine and now look at them, and it’s still a work in progress.

DM: Which posting was the most memorable?
MH: That is a really difficult question. I think it’s like asking which of your children you love the most or which of your good friends. Each is so different. Each has special delights. I think for those of us who have the opportunity to live and work abroad, whether in the foreign service or in international organizations, it really puts an onus on us to find out what, in this place where we’re privileged to be sitting for whatever number of years, is special or unique. What can I learn or bring to the table? What do they not know about Canada, about the many trade, investment, partnership possibilities? Each place is truly unique and in each place, you kind of reinvent yourself and how you can facilitate that learning and dialogue.

DM: What was your most memorable meeting and who was there?
MH: Again a tough choice. When I was ambassador to the Czech Republic, one highlight was getting tips on teamwork from Wayne Gretzky, in Prague, for Canada’s bid to the International Olympic Committee for the honour of hosting the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. The Great One, who was there as one of a very large delegation, demonstrated outstanding modesty, grace, and charm — and we won on the second ballot by two votes.

DM: When you first entered the foreign service in 1973, was it a male-dominated workplace?
MH: I think that social mores do change. I think that now is a great time for young women — and men — of talent to be seeking opportunities in Canada’s foreign service or in other international fields of endeavour. We’re so fortunate that there is such respect for diversity.

DM: But what was it like then, as a woman?
MH: You know, I believe strongly that as long as you find ways to connect to people, to be of service in carrying out your responsibilities, you will always find opportunity.

DM: If such a thing even exists, what is a typical day in the life of the chief of protocol?
MH: There is no typical day. That’s one of the great things about the job and why I feel very fortunate and lucky to be in this position at this time, working with such a wonderful group of experienced colleagues. The challenges and opportunities that get thrown our way are many in terms of high-level visits, both coming and going, in terms of running the physical operations we have responsibility for, whether it’s 7 Rideau Gate [the guest house for visiting heads of state adjacent to the Governor General’s residence] or a hangar at the airport for high-level visitors or dealing with an amazing diplomatic corps.
On the diplomatic side, we have more than 8,000 diplomats and their families across Canada whom we interact with and have responsibility for. This includes not only those who are here in Ottawa, and there’s a growing number of resident ambassadors, but also nearly 500 consulates and other offices across Canada. There’s a large group of international civil servants at the International Civil Aviation Authority, so matters may come up demanding your attention on any of the above. Our website shows how diverse is the span of our activities. As someone very new to the position, I must say I feel fortunate to be surrounded by colleagues with such depth of experience. We also work closely with colleagues in protocol at other levels of government. I’ve been invited to speak to an international group of protocol officers that will take place in Toronto in late July. They’ve chosen Canada for their gathering.

DM: Do you have any routines that make for a constant in your life? A breakfast ritual, or a workout regimen, for example?
MH: I like to be active and I maintain an active exercise program. I think it gives great stamina and it helps protect against the temptations of too many diplomatic dinners and receptions.

DM: What are your goals as chief of protocol?
MH: To lead, support and then, where appropriate, get out of the way of an experienced and extremely talented team of protocol experts, including specialists in logistics, hospitality, diplomacy, security, law, coordination and planning.

DM: What was the best piece of advice you received before starting the job?
MH: That protocol is all about respect — at every level.

DM: Can you offer some tips for those just starting their careers in the foreign service?
MH: Remember that we are all works in progress, so keep learning, embrace new knowledge, ideas and technology. Respect differences, including difference with those with whom you may not agree: You can learn from them. Stay grounded. Take inspiration and strength from your family, friends and colleagues. When you might otherwise be discouraged, exhausted, disheartened, that’s what keeps you going. [And finally], give to others. Whether donating money or time, mentoring, or volunteering, stepping up to the plate is truly rewarding. This is same advice I’m giving tomorrow to 150 graduating cadets and their parents, attending the Royal Canadian Air Cadet Squadron’s 48th annual ceremonial review.

DM: Apart from all your interaction with diplomats, you have other protocol duties. How much of your time is spent dealing with the diplomatic corps and would you describe the other parts of your job?
MH: It’s hard to say, particularly because I’ve been in the initial taking-up-of-the-reins period but obviously the bulk of my time is spent with people, either meeting them or making myself available. Whether it’s meeting new ambassadors who are arriving, consulting with them on forthcoming high-level visits, whether it’s having conversations at diplomatic receptions when they like to take the opportunity to raise matters. That is the most important aspect of the job — the interacting with foreign diplomats here in Canada. But it’s also then acting as a link for them with colleagues in foreign affairs, and, as appropriate, in other agencies in Canada, or with our missions abroad.

DM: Is attending all national day receptions part of the job as you see it?
MH: I do feel it is important to attend, even if only briefly, to honour the country that is investing in a partnership with Canada by having diplomatic representation here. But also, it’s an opportunity to meet with other foreign diplomats with whom there are ongoing discussions about various matters of mutual interest.

DM: You’ve seen a lot of foreign ministers come and go over your 38-year career. Can you name the best one?
MH: I think it’s a very exciting time now, with a new foreign minister [John Baird], who I’d not previously met but who made a point of meeting people from the department the day he was appointed. He has also made a point of asking for recommendations on opportunities for diplomatic engagement, and he very much impresses with the vigour and interest and energy he’s bringing to the portfolio. The new trade minister [Ed Fast] likewise is very instantly immersed in his files and I’ve had an opportunity as well to meet with him. I think we’re entering a very exciting period and I’m looking forward, enormously, to providing the level of support and service that we aspire to in the office of protocol for them, and for other important clients, such as His Excellency the governor general and for prime ministerial travel and other priorities.

DM: Not getting a rotating seat on the  UN Security Council was a blow to Canada. How do you see Canada’s place in the world? Is it slipping?
MH: I think that not having a seat on the Security Council was one door closed at that time but it doesn’t take away from the fact that Canada has been, continues to be, and will maintain a very strong presence internationally. One need only look at our activities, not only in Afghanistan, but Libya, in organizations like the G8, the G20. We have a unique role to play and as someone who’s spent more of her career outside the country than in, I’m happy to report to you, most honestly, that Canada is very highly regarded around the world, that we are respected. Our engagement, not only in multilateral organizations but also bilaterally, I believe reflects this. Of course, I believe there’s more that we can, and doubtless will, be doing. And I look forward to playing my small role in all of this.

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