Transcript – Episode 6: Chat with Craig Kowalik

David Morrison: Hey Craig, thanks for stopping by. For all GAC Files listeners Craig has just confessed that he's come here straight from his cottage and that's why he is wearing his wife's sockettes, which are very fashionable. Craig, it occurred to me as I was...I was thinking about today that you and I have gotten to know each other reasonably well over the past number of months as you've been spearheading the mission of the future project which I hope we can talk about at the end. And also you were in Venezuela as chargé until about Christmas Eve I believe. So we'll get to that story as well. But as is too often the case with someone with whom one works closely I don't actually know very much about you. So I wanted to ask you to begin at the beginning by telling us where you're from and how you first got involved in the public service.

Craig Kowalik: Great, Thanks David for the opportunity to be here. And I must say that sometimes when I speak French these days, it’s a mix of French and Spanish that comes out of my mouth, so I will speak mostly in English. I'm Ottawa born and raised. I was born in West. I was born in Ottawa but grew up in the West Carleton – so sort of in between Kanata and Dunrobin. And my mom is an interior decorator and so she's the creative side of my family and my dad was a program...a computer programmer. One of the first I think in the field really. And so he's the more linear side of my brain.

David Morrison: I remember when you were meeting Minister Freeland she was curious about your name and whether your...your surname Kowalik and whether it's Ukrainian.

Craig Kowalik: Yeah, so it is Ukrainian Kowalik's I think the more Polish version and I'm Ukrainian descent, four generations back, so quite a ways back.

David Morrison: Okay.

Craig Kowalik: And so my dad grew up in Winnipeg...

David Morrison: Right.

Craig Kowalik: Where many other Ukrainian Canadians do...have.

David Morrison: And so you went to public school out west of Ottawa. Were you always going to join the, you know sort of the company town, join the public service or did you consider other or you worked for an NGO?

Craig Kowalik: I worked for an NGO for a while yes I remember my world issues class, where in OAC at the time, so Grade 13 at the time, I remember I had a really inspirational high school teacher who had quit his banker's job in Toronto because he wasn't satisfied, he wasn't happy with work and he wanted to teach kids about the world. And so I spent a lot of time with him in that class and was inspired about the world from him and so from there I knew I wanted to work in international affairs but I never imagined quite honestly that I'd become part of the Foreign Ministry or the institutionalized aspect of it.

David Morrison: Did your siblings also do or do you have siblings?

Craig Kowalik: Yeah I have a brother who is 7 years older than me and he's an artist and an organic farmer. So very different passes.

David Morrison: Okay you finished high school went on to do some postsecondary education and then what. What did you study in university?

Craig Kowalik: So I did study international development at the University of Guelph and then I did an MA at Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

David Morrison: A tried and true path...

Craig Kowalik: Yes

David Morrison: For...for folks in this building. But...but you didn't come straight to the building or straight to what was then DFAIT, I guess. You worked for an NGO.

Craig Kowalik: Yeah, so I was super lucky to get hired on by an NGO called the Parliamentary Center. It's still operational today and was different when I worked for it. It was a bit bigger in its Ottawa presence, it's a bit leaner now and more present overseas, but basically it's been around for decades and it works to strengthen the capacity of parliaments to do their jobs around the world. So the projects I worked on were mostly in developing, exclusively in developing countries, in Haiti and Cambodia and China. So it was an organization that received at that time you know 80...80 or 90 percent of its funding from the then Canadian International Development Agency. So part of...part of our governance and democracy promotion tools around the world.

David Morrison: So Parliamentary Centre executed CIDA projects.

Craig Kowalik: Yup.

David Morrison: And did you get to go visit these projects?

Craig Kowalik: Yeah on a regular basis. So the one we had with Cambodia I visited quite a few times and then the one we had with Haiti I also had the opportunity to visit, as well as a few we had in Africa. So you know I got to see at a young age, a young point in my career sort of A to Z in terms of... because when you work for an NGO you have to do really everything. On the one hand you get to meet with presidents. I remember I met the president...I had the opportunity to meet the President of Senegal and then and then the next minute you know you''re doing photocopying or whatever. It was a really good training ground to understand the range of different tasks that someone can do in an organization and in a very flat organization. So it's good for that.

David Morrison: And it's...and it's as you point out still around. I didn't realize that's where you had worked. But there was a celebration of 50 years or 40...50 years.

Craig Kowalik: 50 years.

David Morrison: So it's been dispensing governance expertise for a long time. What made you make the transition to the government side of things? All those...all the time in the NGO were you just dying to cross the street?

Craig Kowalik: I loved the NGO world. But I knew and I was getting at that point to do some work on the policy side of things because of course those organizations were helping to shape and increasing maturity on the part of I think the Government of Canada in promoting democracy overseas or whatever terms you want to use promoting good governance. And at the time there was thought being given to creating a new foundation to do that work that possibly would be more involved with political parties and sharing those kinds of models with the world. And so I knew I wanted to do policy work. And I was luckily hired into a position that was to do just that in our foreign ministry at the time. So it was to look at well how do we promote democracy overseas with the range of tools we have, whether it be development or...or political diplomacy etc. So I came in to do that policy work and I was really excited to do that because I wanted to...I wanted to shape Canada's policy around supporting something that I felt was really important.

David Morrison: And so you, you joined, you spent a couple of years doing that and then went to PCO?

Craig Kowalik: No, I did go to PCO eventually, but I yeah I did democracy promotion policy for a couple of years and then I...I had an opportunity to work on Canada's G8 summits where Muskoka and Toronto and on the policy side of things again, so supporting our sherpa at the time Len Edwards and preparing for that summit and delivering the summit, which was just fascinating to see summitry...

David Morrison: Back when it was a G8.

Craig Kowalik: Yeah and you know the conversations around the table then were obviously different than the conversations at our most recent summit but an incredible opportunity to see leaders engage on issues that matter to us. So I got to do that and then I...and then I went to PCO from there to the Privy Council Office from there.

David Morrison: What did you do at PCO?

Craig Kowalik: I worked in our foreign defense policy secretariat on...on Europe and G8 and G20.

David Morrison: OK.

Craig Kowalik: So I...I, you know, it was an exciting time because we had the euro crisis going on or an intense part of the euro crisis going on and we had many G20 summits taking place on a, you know, on a yearly basis.

David Morrison: And then it gets really interesting. If my notes are correct because you then left I guess on a...on a...on a leave, but joined the personal staff of Prince Charles. Tell us...tell us, you know, how did that happen and what was it like?

Craig Kowalik: I think it happened because I was in the right place at the right time. But what I ended up doing was to be seconded on behalf of our government to Clarence House, which is the household of his Royal Highness, well their Royal Highness is the Prince of Whales... Whales and the Duchess of Cornwall. And so I was based technically out of our mission, our embassy in the United Kingdom, our High Commission, but as an attaché and seconded to the household.

David Morrison: I see.

Craig Kowalik: And it was...

David Morrison: And is it a formal program that... they don't always have a Canadian there.

Craig Kowalik: Not always, so they've had other...other private secretaries, which is the role I fulfilled there, filled by other people from the Commonwealth. So there had been an Australian before me and a New Zealander before me and so on, but there had never been a Canadian his Royal Highnesses household. So it was the first opportunity for that and it was just amazing. I did that for two years and we were just exploring or going forth with another round of that. I'm happy to say, so.

David Morrison: Oh good...good. I know Amy Baker who...who many listeners will know she...she served in the personal staff for the or the staff at least of Queen Rania of Jordan. So there are these opportunities, not common, but...but tell us...tell us more, what was that like? Like where did you go to work every day?

Craig Kowalik: So I went to work Clarence House, which is a physical location just off of Green Park in downtown London not far from Buckingham Palace. And his royal highness has offices of his principal secretary, the private secretaries rather are...are all there. So every day I went there to his house.

David Morrison: What did you do?

Craig Kowalik: So...

David Morrison: Because obviously Prince Charles travels...

Craig Kowalik: Yeah.

David Morrison: receives...receives guests. So I guess...I guess the question is, how is it like or not like being on the staff of a minister or prime minister?

Craig Kowalik: I've never worked in the staff of a prime minister or...or a minister on their political staff. But I would say it's probably similar in the sense that you have a leader with a tremendous amount of influence. His own institutional roles, lots of different aspects to his role. That's what was so fascinating about working for his royal highness, because, you know, he has so many different hats that he wears on a given day, let alone a given week that you have to keep up...keep up with them all and give him the best advice you can to make sure he...he...he...he does what he wants to with those roles. So I was his adviser for Commonwealth Affairs. So his engagement with the Commonwealth as an institution, the Commonwealth... the countries that make up the Commonwealth as well as the realms which is somewhat antiquated term of saying, you know, the countries where her majesty is head of state or the monarch at present where he will be the heir to that.

David Morrison: Did you travel in that capacity?

Craig Kowalik: Yup. So, I had...I had the pleasure of accompanying his Royal Heigness to Colombia.

David Morrison: Did you get to go on the yacht?

Craig Kowalik: Pardon me.

David Morrison: Did you get to go on the yacht?

Craig Kowalik: No yacht, no yacht visits. Oh wait a second I went on...I went on the UK, her majesty's UK flagship, which I've forgotten the name of, in which his Royal Highness would be very unhappy with me forgetting. But I did have the pleasure of accompanying him on that ship. We visited a First World War commemoration of the battle of Gallipoli.

David Morrison: Oh wow.

Craig Kowalik: Which was the 100 or so anniversary of that. And so I travelled with his Royal Highness there as well as to Sri Lanka for a Commonwealth summit and then the profound honor of supporting his, their royal highness... Royal Highness's tour to Canada.

David Morrison: Oh boy!

Craig Kowalik: In 2014, so I was here. So seeing things from that perspective there, getting to be part of a royal visit to one's own country it was just an amazing experience.

David Morrison: And...and did that...I don't recall the visit but it, did it take you across Canada?

Craig Kowalik: It took us to Winnipeg and then to the east coast as well. So yeah.

David Morrison: So, you know, you'll... you'll obviously be characteristically discreet but you must tell us what's your favorite anecdote or is it really like it's portrayed in the crown. And how... what do you...what do you take away from...from those couple of years? I mean just in terms of the role of the monarchy or the role of that particular monarchy?

Craig Kowalik: Yeah well I have to say that I...I am, I developed a deep appreciation for the passion and commitment of his Royal Highness to issues that he cares about.

David Morrison: Right.

Craig Kowalik: I didn't know what I was getting into when I accepted the job fully, but I walked away from it feeling like I made some really important contributions by supporting him to things that I really care about too, like sustainable development, like making sure we get our cities built in ways that are good for humans. Things like that, those were my main...that was my main takeaway is that I got to contribute to things I care about in a way that I never imagined...

David Morrison: Sure.

Craig Kowalik: and in a way that you can't, you know, from a job in a foreign ministry or at an NGO.

David Morrison: Yeah, very cool. So speaking of which, you came out of that that assignment and ended up in Caracas at a historic time for Venezuela and a historic time for Canada's relationships with...with Venezuela. Now went in under Ambassador Ben Rowswell?

Craig Kowalik: Yeah, that's right.

David Morrison: And...and overlapped with him for a year. Was that right?

Craig Kowalik: Yeah, so he was there for a year before he departed on regular terms from his assignment and then I stayed on for about six months until I had to leave his temporary replacement chargé.

David Morrison: So, just so that everybody fully understands the ambassador came out in the summer of 2017 in the regular rotation and then we were unsuccessful in getting agrément for the successor and so Craig was left holding the bag. So before we get to the...the way that ended, tell me about living there as the, I guess head of the political section, at a time when almost on a daily basis the freedoms of this once democratic country were being curtailed. And this is...this is a wealthy country, the world's second largest proven reserves of oil. A leader in the region in many respects went through a leadership transition from Hugo Chavez to President Maduro and then with the decline in oil prices things got quite bad very quickly. So what was that like cover?

Craig Kowalik: Well I would say that it was fascinating in the sense that politics moves at a speed unimaginable someone in another, in other countries, so the politics matter so much there in the sense that they're making a difference. Each day is making a difference to the future of Venezuelans.

David Morrison: And it's immediate right, because it's all on social media, it's all in your face every day.

Craig Kowalik: Yeah it's more on social media there than I would say here in the sense that Venezuelans while many of them at least are very active on social media. Yeah, it's all happening in real time. And so many events are happening in such a small amount of time.

David Morrison: Right.

Craig Kowalik: So the pace is incredible, so fascinating from that perspective. I mean what better job could you design in terms of being someone that's asked to follow politics, when politics are moving at that speed in importance. But I mean it was was also very very tough…

David Morrison: Right.

Craig Kowalik: To be there, just as a human being...

David Morrison: Sure.

Craig Kowalik: And to see challenges...

David Morrison: You had a young baby at this time?

Craig Kowalik: I did, I had a young a...

David Morrison: A newborn almost.

Craig Kowalik: A newborn when I first arrived. He's 2 years old now and I mean that of course changes the lens of anyone, being a father. And so things, you know, you see things differently on the ground and you see people really suffering. And that's...that's...that's tough to see.

David Morrison: Sure. Sure. So you're there about six months as chargé. And this period, I know mostly from the Ottawa end, but it coincides with a pretty dramatic deterioration in Canada's relations with Venezuela. Given Minister Freeland's leadership role within the Lima group and the sanctions that we imposed in the fall of 2017. All of this builds to the day or the evening when. Tell us how it happened you're called in, you''re... how did they tell you that you...that you were being expelled.

Craig Kowalik: Yes. normally... normally we would receive a diplomatic note or we would be called in. I had been called in on several occasions before I received the news about being declared persona non grata, but not for that reason. And so...

David Morrison: Just general spanking.

Craig Kowalik: Yup, exactly and so I was taking my dog... I was going to give my dog a bath and I just checked my phone before I did so and my colleagues on WhatsApp were saying have you seen the news, and you better... you better check it out. And so I learned about what was taking place or was going to take place to me via...via social media.

David Morrison: Right...right. And when they said check the news were they referring to tweets or had the government actually issued something?

Craig Kowalik: The...the Constituent Assembly had issued a statement saying that I had been made persona non grata and they had made that statement to the press for the first time. And my Brazilian counterpart, well the Brazilian ambassador, a fully accredited ambassador was also being made persona non grata at that moment. So we went together.

David Morrison: you actually then physically went to the foreign ministry?

Craig Kowalik: No I still didn't get a chance to go to the Foreign Ministry. I wasn't invited to go to the foreign ministry. I had a series of conversations with my counterpart in the Foreign Ministry about my situation. And we ended up staying a few more days before we had to leave with very very short notice.

David Morrison: Oh I...I recall because it was the I think the 23 of December and...and we decided here that we would declare the...the Venezuelan ambassador was out of town, but we would declare the chargé a persona non grata or we declared that the ambassador persona non grata and asked the chargé to leave. And all of that played out on...on Christmas Eve and over the... over the succeeding days. So, then you ended up at least apocryphally sort of living in your parents basement. Which... which was I'm glad to say is no longer going on. But Minister Freeland I know and many others were very appreciative of your...your efforts throughout the fall and then...and then you know bearing the...or paying the price, I guess for paying the price personally. I remember you trying to sell your car and didn't know what to do with your dog and you had your young son on behalf of the department, thank you. And...and I do hope that while I'm not optimistic that we're going anywhere in terms of improved relations with Venezuela quickly, but...but over the long term I hope that we are able eventually to normalize relations. And maybe at some point you get a chance to go back. You are going to the region though. Craig about to be posted to Colombia. Colombia elected a new president yesterday. So historic period closing in Colombia with the transition from to a more stable situation and now an entirely new government and an entirely new line of business for you. to us about your decision to pursue a job on the development side.

Craig Kowalik: Yes, so I have the...a chance lead our development cooperation program with Colombia. It's an amazing opportunity because I think as I said at the outset of this of this podcast, I started off by studying international development and I did that because I wanted to make a difference in the world. And it''s, you know, just a great next step to be able to be still engaged in the region, right next door to where I was last and being able to keep trying to speak Spanish, but to do it in a way that hopefully builds...builds on the great work that's been done between Canada and Colombia for over four years on the development side of things.

David Morrison: And some of the more innovative stuff that has... that that program in particular, in a post amalgamate...amalgamation phase has been able create. There's, you know, I can't imagine a more fascinating place to try to do stabilization development and get some economic growth going than in...than in Colombia today. Just before I let you go. Talk to me briefly about the mission of the future project that we've had you work on for the past number of months.

Craig Kowalik: Yeah, it's been a great way to land back here because it's a project that is challengingly asking us to think ahead, not just to tomorrow, not just to five years from now, but to really ask ourselves, well as imperfect as it is to do, what will 20 years look like from now. And of course we don't know what 20 years will look like from now with any degree of certainty but we can probably say hey you know here are three different scenarios of what it might look like. And then so as an organization that's going to need to continue to be engaged in the world and represented abroad. What challenges does that present for us as an organization?

David Morrison: So we have we have been torturing Craig was having a crystal ball that will perfectly predict what the world looks like in 2038 and what Canada's mission network abroad will need to be like in order to meet those challenges. So Craig's lead a really innovative initiative over the past number of months. The results of which I hope will be preliminary results will be out in August. So hard to do, but...but really important when we think of the world becoming less stable, more violent and yet we do know that Canada is going to need missions and it's going to need diplomats as well as trade commissioners and development people. Any concluding thoughts on...on that project?

Craig Kowalik: Just that...just that we've just got started. I mean this is...this is a project that I think is maybe going to need to be something we do continuously, right. And in a more methodical way that's...that's what I would say. And secondly the world does look like it's heading in more difficult directions. When you look at what's going on today, but there's lots of things happening that could enable us to be better prepared to respond. If we plan right.

David Morrison: Right...right... right. OK well maybe more on that later. It is true that we have the same kinds of embassies and high commissions now that we did and we did you know 70 or 75 years ago. And the question that fit for future purpose? So Craig thanks for coming by all the best in in Colombia.

Craig Kowalik: Thank you.

David Morrison: Ok. Bye.

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