Transcript – Episode 12: Chat with Kumar Gupta
David Morrison: Kumar Gupta is currently the senior departmental adviser in the office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, or O-MINA as many of us better know it, where he is in the thick of all of our important foreign policy files. But he began his career working on development, working with prominent Canadian NGOs in South America. Along the way he became an Africanist with postings in Ethiopia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, where he served as head of mission until 2017. He recently stopped by my office to talk about his work in Africa, his experience in the department as a visible minority and what it’s like to work in a minister’s office. Kumar Gupta, it is great to see you. You’re looking remarkably relaxed on the back end of some holidays. Totally unfair.
Kumar Gupta: Well thank you very much. It’s good to be here this morning at a gorgeous mid-July perfect summer day.
David Morrison: I was looking at your background and your CV and I noticed you seem to have lived all over Canada. Born in Montréal, educated at Queen’s and in Calgary, but even before that you had lived in Edmonton and in Moncton. What’s the deal? Where are the Guptas from?
Kumar Gupta: Well I’d like to say that I planned ahead and did a cross-Canada tour before joining the department, but it was not quite so systematic. My father used to work for CN rail, so the missing factor on most of that is the railway hubs. I was born in Montréal where my dad and, my mom and I immigrated.
David Morrison: From where?
Kumar Gupta: From India in the 1960s and then we moved to Edmonton, another railway hub and then Moncton, which was also a railway hub.
David Morrison: And you told me your dad was an engineer, but it took you awhile to figure out he didn’t actually drive the trains.
Kumar Gupta: That is indeed true. Of course, if you work for the railways the engineering...engineer is sort of a double, double used term.
David Morrison: Right. So you go off and become an engineer with a strong commitment to the environment and the NGO sector. Talk to us about those your early decisions you made and where they took you.
Kumar Gupta: Well, I always found science and engineering interesting, so it was a very natural career path. However, as I made my way through undergrad, I became involved with an NGO, a Queen’s based NGO, Queen’s University, a Queen’s project on international development, which sent a range of students, principally engineering students, to Ghana and Bolivia, And I'm doing a, I'll say quote “help the locals” in actual fact we went there to learn. And that one rapidly figured that out. And that’s where I learned that there are bigger questions in the world than, you know, developing the next soap, the best Proctor and Gamble and so at that stage there was a shift away from the technical side more toward the policy side and the international side.
David Morrison: And I mean you’ve had a great career—you’ve kind of become an Africanist, you’ve been a head of mission, you’re currently in the minister’s office and I want to get to some of those topics, but, did you, was it always going to be after the NGO sector? Did you always have your sights set on foreign affairs or did you look at other options?
Kumar Gupta: Well in fact, in between my undergrad and master’s I spent a couple of years working with the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) in Peru on water supply and sanitation projects and out of that came a commitment of passion to development and the civil society side of the house. So in actual fact government was not really in the cards until later. And you’re...you’re correct in saying I’ve done a number of posts with this department in Africa so there’s an African element, but I would say that I also have like a commitment to Latin America. It’s another interesting part of the world.
David Morrison: What was the process that led you to write the foreign service exam and where did you write it?
Kumar Gupta: It was the process and I see this in a lot of younger colleagues of many, many unsuccessful applications. And you know just a word to our folks and colleagues who are with us, it is very normal. I kept all my applications to refer back for once I got callbacks, which I got none. And it was one and a half to two inches thick.
David Morrison: And you were replying to NGOs and to other places to work and not having any success.
Kumar Gupta: The usual…CARE, Oxfam, I spoke multiple languages, I had worked abroad for a few years and so it was very disheartening and then fortunately that is natural in the nature of this process. So eventually I said, “okay I’m going to write the foreign service exam” and again more quotes out of as a why not, I’ll write the exam. And I wrote the exam in Moncton where my parents were living at the time and it was interesting because there were three people in the room that I wrote in and subsequently colleagues in the department who wrote it in larger, you know, Vancouver or Montréal, Toronto said that typically there was a couple hundred people.
David Morrison: Right.
Kumar Gupta: So a very different dynamic I think.
David Morrison: Yeah I wrote it in London also with a massive room full of people, but our trajectories are a little bit the same— I was sort of captivated by Africa following my undergrad and applied to every entity I could think of and I still have all of their rejection letters. So I ended up in graduate school.
Kumar Gupta: At least they were kind enough to send you rejection letters.
David Morrison: I recently came across a pamphlet that CIDA had put out in those days called Looking for Work in International Development to help people just like myself and I was never successful. Anyhow, you joined the foreign service and because of your deep commitment to Africa and your interest in Latin America they sent you to New York.
Kumar Gupta: So much for the best laid out plans. Although it’s interesting one of my mentors told me you have a commitment to development learn about Africa. You’re going to learn so much about these issues in New York. And he was absolutely right. You know, I mean from a diplomatic perspective, I don’t want to say New York is central, but many, many issues transit through there and it was an enormous learning opportunity.
David Morrison: And how long were you there?
Kumar Gupta: Four years.
David Morrison: Since then there’s been a number of headquarters incarnations, but you have been to Ethiopia working on the African Union, London where you were involved in public affairs. And then I want you to talk to us about the pathway that led you to become the head of a one-person one Canadian office in Zambia.
Kumar Gupta: I wouldn’t say it was such a deliberate pathway. It was a new office that the Africa branch had decided to downsize the embassies in Rwanda and Zambia to one person offices. And it's a really, it was a remarkable experience. It was the true one Canadian for Zambians and probably a similar configuration in Rwanda. And I have to say that professionally that was an amazing experience.
David Morrison: You were how many years into the department?
Kumar Gupta: I was about 10 or 11 years.
David Morrison: And you’re...you’re a head of mission or head of office at that, I don’t know.
Kumar Gupta: Yeah, it was a FS3 position head of office and I had a head of mission in Tanzania one country over. But you wind up doing everything. As you know I’m a political officer by origins as it were. And you learn consular administration, trade as well as of course their bread and butter of your political trade. And there’s no such thing as an eye, that’s such an eye opening experience. And also quite frankly every single diplomat in that country was my counterpart. It’s a lot of fun.
David Morrison: Right. And then you were transferred next door to Zimbabwe as head of mission.
Kumar Gupta: Well the opportunity arose in and for my quote since they identified that as a worthwhile opportunity, a good fit. And it was really another incredible experience. It was, I should say culturally Zambia and Zimbabwe are similar, they’re not identical, but they’re similar. And so it is a very logical continuation of that southern Africa experience it was also a very different experience in that in Zambia we have enormous ...enormous commercial interests. Our mining interests in that country are in the billions. In Zimbabwe it’s a very different relationship at that time. We see waning days of the Mugabe regime. So it was not, you know, of which we were very critical and very concerned about the rule of law, good governance, democracy, that those kinds of issues. So and we had and still have sanctions against senior members of that regime. So of course it was not exactly.
David Morrison: It’s not a linear progression from...
Kumar Gupta: Not in that sense.
David Morrison: Yeah. But we do have a historic relationship with Zimbabwe I think. And I must say there are few modern case studies that strike one as so tragic frankly as the downward trajectory of that country. Talk to us about what it was like when you lived there and how the transition that is now happening came about.
Kumar Gupta: On the one hand Zimbabweans are wonderful, wonderful people and you can’t, that of course will put a smile on your face every single day. On the other hand you see how they mistreated the experiences they have. And one of my colleagues at the mission, one of our local staff, she has two daughters. I won’t name any names of course. One is a teenager and one is maybe four or five now and like it’s a very typical scenario that she had made plans for her teenage daughter to essentially get out of Zimbabwe, study abroad and build a life somewhere else. She had not made such plans for her younger daughter because she thought, well you know what, things will turn around by then.
David Morrison: Things will have changed by then. Yeah.
Kumar Gupta: And then she started making plans for her second daughter. And that was a very poignant and upsetting conversation for me. I also remember at one stage we were in rural Zimbabwe seeing a humanitarian program for the Zimbabweans who were suffering from malnutrition. And there was a woman in the village, a village elder, she is probably 60. And my goodness she spoke magnificent English, long, just such a rich vocabulary. If I ever have to play Scrabble I want her on my team. And then at one stage the chaperone asked her to speak the local language through translators, which was fine, but what struck me is that this woman lived in rural Zimbabwe, she would have been educated decades ago and yet she has this incredible, incredible vocabulary and command of English. And what really was upsetting is when us in Harare days later would interact with the youth and they didn’t have the same.
David Morrison: They didn’t have the same...
Kumar Gupta: That’s concerning.
David Morrison: So the thing that I’ve always puzzled on. I mean I know the stock answer, but...but I want your answer. The thing that I’ve puzzled on is the regional or continental posture toward Zimbabwe in all of the years, in all of its difficult years. And I note that with Venezuela, a country with which I am personally much more familiar, and the coming into being of the Lima group that was really the neighbouring countries saying enough we will not, despite Latin American solidarity, we will not tolerate what the government is doing to the people of Venezuela. And so we’re going to isolate. In the case of Zimbabwe that never really happened. And I know the stock answer is because of the esteem within which or with which President Mugabe was held because of his contribution to the independence struggle. Do you have any reflections on that question and what it says about the country, or the region, or leadership?
Kumar Gupta: Well one thing that crosses my mind is that Zimbabwe is a very, very young country compared to some of those countries in South America.
David Morrison: Fair enough.
Kumar Gupta: In fact older than Canada. If you on average many of the countries of Africa that got independence in the 1960s, maybe the 70s, Zimbabwe in 1980—very, very late—and if you consider the lifting of apartheid independence South Africa in 1994, Namibia in 1990. So these are very, very young countries. And some of them, I don’t want to say all, but some of them, especially in the Saddiq region have a similar history of liberation from the...
David Morrison: From colonial.
Kumar Gupta: Yeah exactly. And so there’s a common narrative. And I think (and this is speculation because I can, I’m obviously more familiar with Zimbabwe than some of the neighboring countries) there’s a commonality of situation. Historically, I think you know how they’ve dealt with it, currently, the current situation is certainly not identical, not common. So I suspect that they said, “well Robert Mugabe is the last living liberation leader in the continent ”— technically not true, but one of the most vocal. And that is the esteem. But also we all had our liberation leaders. And we would never treat our leaders in a similar way.
David Morrison: Sure.
Kumar Gupta: But it also relates to a common political context.
David Morrison: Right, absolutely. Ethiopia, Zambia, Zimbabwe any particular experience that stands out as the most rewarding?
Kumar Gupta: I would say in Zambia we had three foci:. One was...one was child marriage, number two was the rights of gay and lesbian persons and lastly was our commercial interest in the country. And certainly the one that meant the most to me was the child marriage issue. And when you would meet a former child bride who would talk about their experiences. It was absolutely, it was heartbreaking to hear them.
David Morrison: Harrowing.
Kumar Gupta: But then this is a person who has escaped that situation, is hopefully rebuilding her life. There’s hope, there’s optimism, but it made me think of how important that work is.
David Morrison: Right, every now and again we do get those human interactions that kind of reinforce why we signed up in the first place. I think it’s probably fair to say those are fewer in Ottawa, than they are at the pointy end of the organization. But I remember the same kinds of personal experiences from my time in Cuba a long time ago. I want to shift now, Kumar, and talk about your experience in the department as a visible minority more and more common, but perhaps not quite so common when you joined. And has being a visible minority shaped, or how has it shaped your experience at Global Affairs?
Kumar Gupta: That’s a tough question because obviously being a visible minority is inherent to who I am. And so it’s inherent to how I’ve been shaped and it’s an ongoing process, of course. One element that I find kind of interesting is that my very first assignment was our permanent mission to New York (PRMNY) and it was myself and we have every year of course the junior advisers, which are five or six people who joined, my friends who joined around the same time. And it was amazing we had myself, another officer of Vietnamese origin, a colleague and friend of St. Lucian origin, one of the other officers who was of Cree origin. It goes on and on, literally behind the Canada desk you, it was a lot of perplexed (looks). That’s Canada. And that brought me a lot of pride, because yes, that is Canada.
David Morrison: Right. And you told me a story once about your presentation of credentials in Zimbabwe where there was a bit of a mistaken identity.
Kumar Gupta: Indeed, I had just presented credentials to Robert Mugabe as is of course the norm and the custom there, you will step outside of the meeting or whatever and you do a short statement to the media. And of course the media immediately turned to the political counsellor, thinking he was the new head of mission and he very politely ushered them in my direction and set them straight. But that was wonderful, set a great tone that this is, the...this is the....
David Morrison: …face of Canada…
Kumar Gupta: face of Canada in 2015…
David Morrison: … the face of Canadian diplomacy. We’re pushing up on time, but I do want to ask you about your current job, which is in the minister’s office, Minister Freeland’s office. Up on the 10th floor. Many of us wonder what it’s like to work there, day in, day out. You’ve been doing it for a year, one year, just on. You can’t see because it’s a podcast, but there was a one-year gesture that Kumar made. What’s been your greatest surprise about working within the minister’s office? What’s different?
Kumar Gupta: I think I won’t say it’s a surprise, but a very stark reminder. There’s the very classic truism that is presented to, I’ll say, young officers, but to all of us fearless advice and loyal implementation. And really the rubber hits the pavement in the minister’s office in that context. It’s so very important that we do provide our best advice to the minister’s office. And of course once we have a decision from the minister , we implement and what you...what you see or what I’m seeing that is maybe additional context from previous jobs is the challenges that the minister and her team have in assessing not the challenge of assessing the advice, of course they can do that, but in the context of weighing the options and the consequences. There are some decisions that are very easy and that’s fine. That’s not why any of us earn the big bucks, especially them. But then there are many decisions that are not easy. There are many decisions that you know it’s a menu of bad choices and we will provide that menu not because we enjoy it, but because that’s the world we live in. And we do, of course, provide the frank advice around the consequences of each of those choices, provide that advice and then...and then the minister will make her decision.
David Morrison: I mean I’ve been struck in my current, or from my current vantage point by exactly the same thing almost by definition if an issue of substance gets to the deputy minister of foreign affairs or the minister of foreign affairs. It’s a hard issue with no obvious answer. And so the, I just completely agree with what you say. The quality and the thought behind options presented and often there are three suboptimal courses of action, all with consequences that you actually don’t want. So the art of choosing between suboptimal paths certainly requires us, I think, to do our very best in being certain we we’ve given things the thought, but most days I think, boy I’m glad it’s not me that has to take that decision. Well Kumar, I could talk to you forever, but we’re bumping up on time, so let me just say thank you and good luck in your upcoming year.
Kumar Gupta: Well thank you very much for having me.
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