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Spotlight on alumni

Gavin Buchan

Gavin Buchan is a philosophy graduate who one day answered a fateful phone call and found himself crisscrossing the world as part of Canadian foreign service. He has served as an observer in Kosovo, an economic officer in The Hague, with NORAD and as a political director for the provincial reconstruction team in Kandahar, Afghanistan. David Sorensen recently had an opportunity to talk with Mr. Buchan.

DS: Tell me about your experience at Memorial.
GB: It was a bit different for me because I was so young when I started. Spent a fair bit of the time at the Muse. It was the Muse that actually got me into the foreign affairs quite by accident. I was the person sitting next to the phone one day when it rang so I answered it and it was the Department of External Affairs in Ottawa. They were doing an orientation talk encouraging people to write the foreign service exam. They asked if we could send someone and I said “sure, I’ll go myself.” I went, and I wrote the exam and I passed. So that’s how I got into foreign service.

DS: What was initially that attracted you to it besides the worldwide travel?
GB: [laugh] The notion of seeing other cultures. The chance to work at issues of significance to world at large, that’s got a certain allure to it. The travel was also important. Plus, as a philosophy grad, a prospect of a paying job [laugh]… It’s always good to get sense of how the rest of the world lives, because, whoever you are, there is a tendency to be insular.

DS: What is the initial phase of that work like?
GB: They bring you to Ottawa. Before any of the formal training, they used to give you a very broad exposure under a very close supervision. But that is great. I got to do a three-month stint at the UN General Assembly in New York, for example. Everything is building up towards your first posting. They’ll give you language training. I was going to Czech Republic so I got a couple of months of training in Czech. You do have a sense of a higher purpose and a mission. You feel that you are working in the service of your country and you undergo a particular series of hardships that other people don’t and you do have a series of benefits that other people don’t.

DS: What happens after your first posting? What is the progression through foreign service?
GB: You go back to Ottawa. It’s usually one away and one back. I was assigned to multilateral human rights. Fantastic job. Coming out of human rights job, there was an opportunity to do some conflict monitoring in Kosovo. That was in 1998 while there was still a shooting conflict between the Albanians and the Serbs before NATO got engaged. I spent the fall of 1998 crisscrossing Kosovo province in an armoured vehicle as a part of an observer team. I managed to blow up my armoured vehicle.

DS: You obviously weren’t in it when it happened.
GB: I was driving. We were crossing the front lines and someone either misidentified us or did not care that we were the observers and detonated an anti-tank mine beneath us. We got lucky. Nobody took serious injuries. Sept. 14, 1998. No wonder I remember the date.

DS: What do you do after something like that happens?
GB: Well, you figure out that the radio isn’t working, you get out of the car and set up your satellite phone and you make a call back to base. And than a funny thing happens. That was the first day for a new American operations officer, the guy who sits with all the communications gear. We call to report mine strike, vehicle destroyed, interpreter likely injured, request evacuation… looong pause… I hope you don’t mind me asking… but is this a drill? [Laughter] I am the only person in foreign service I know of who got to say “This is not a drill, I repeat this is not a drill.” They took us out of the field for a week and did all sorts of medical tests. We were all fine. But, the important thing is to get back on the horse and do another patrol.

DS: How do you separate yourself from the policies of your government that you may agree with or may not agree with?
GB: As public servants, we are there to do the will of the government. If you find that there is a clash of consciences between you and the government, than you should leave. That is the bottom line. Or at least move to the other area of government where there is no that clash of consciences. I have never encountered such a situation.

DS: Tell me about Afghanistan.
GB: Glyn Berry (political director of the provincial reconstruction team in Kandahar) was killed in a terrorist bombing. It was a huge shock for the department. We haven’t lost anybody since Vietnam and that was a plane crash I believe. This was the first time in anybody’s memory that a Canadian diplomat was targeted and killed because they were doing their job. It brought people closer together but it also, for the mission in Afghanistan as a whole, came as a bit of a slap in the face. When we went out in 2005 this was not the logical consequence of that decision. The next morning [after Berry’s death] I got a call from personnel saying we need to staff the post. We are not asking for the commitment, but are you willing to consider it? It was early in the morning and I wasn’t fully awake. [Laughter] I went in April of 2006 to take the political director job on the interim basis. I found it sufficiently interesting and sufficiently worthwhile that I said I would be willing to take the post.

DS: Do you believe in the mission?
GB: I would have very hard time working there if I didn’t. Some of the public debates on Afghanistan have frustrated me. Why Afghanistan and not somewhere else. It’s because Afghanistan is the confluence of two sorts of reasons that don’t always coincide. One is national interest, which is present in Afghanistan. And the other is that it’s the right thing to do. We collectively, as the West, walked away from Afghanistan and left it in shambles and the Taliban have risen as a consequence. We don’t have the right to make that mistake again. It’s obvious that long term international commitment to Afghanistan is required, but what is the most efficient nature of that commitment is what we are wrestling with right now, what Americans are wrestling with. This is something that will take at least a generation to fix.