On Being an Ambassador to Norway

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Our aim is to interview ambassadors to Denmark, Norway and Sweden, coming from the top ten countries on our readership list. First out is the Canadian ambassador to Norway, Ambassador Artur Wilczynski.

We interviewed Ambassador Artur Wilczynski on the 12th January 2016.

Why did you decide to join the Foreign Service?

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I wanted to be in the Foreign Service for many years, but I am fairly new to it.   I joined in the Foreign Ministry in Canada in 2010. I’ve had a very diverse career. I spent many years working as a political advisor on Parliament Hill, and then I joined the public service at the Department of Canadian Heritage, which administers culture, sports and human rights. Actually that is when I started to work with Norway, back in 1999.

Both Norway and Canada were members of International Network on Cultural Policy. We were working on an instrument on cultural diversity at UNESCO. In fact, one of my colleagues, Åse Valle, still works with the Norwegian ministry of Culture. We’ve been in touch for many years. I worked then at Public Safety Canada. I was the Director General of International Affairs and Border Policy.  Much of my work was on counterterrorism and security questions.  Since I wanted to do this international work for the foreign ministry, I competed for a position – and won.

I was pulled into the foreign ministry and became the Director General, Security and Intelligence. I did that job for four years before I was named as an ambassador.

 

What exactly is your job, and what issues do you address daily as ambassador?

Part of my job is to understand the full range of policies and issues that different countries face, and trying to explain them back to Canada

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and to Canadians and my colleagues in various ministries. I have used my experience from my job in Public Safety in Canada a lot here. You cannot be anywhere in Europe today without appreciating some of the challenges of border management. My job at Public Safety was to look at how we work in particular with the United States. Canada and the United States work as partners to balance security and prosperity issues for the benefit of our populations. It’s a different context from Europe. You support a free flow of movement of people to ensure you have economic prosperity. In Canada and the United States the case of economy and security is very closely intertwined. And it’s the same thing in Europe. Your economies are very closely intertwined with free movement of people and goods. The challenge is to understand how to manage or deal with that, not just in EU but all of Europe. My job is to watch and to listen and to share experiences if they are relevant. My background has been helpful.

How is it to be the Canadian Ambassador to Norway?

The job is different on different issues. It’s never the same thing, and that’s why I like it. It’s a great job. It’s a fantastic job. It’s a huge, huge privilege to serve as an ambassador, particularly serving as an ambassador here in Norway.

Broadly speaking, there are a number of parts to my job. The first part of it is that I am the official representative of my government here in Norway.  I need to speak with an official capacity with the Norwegian government. I am working with your foreign ministry and different parts of your government. For example regarding oil energy and defense, I am the main interlocutor in Norway for Canada on these questions.
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But I am also a broader spokesperson for Canada and Canadian issues. I try to talk directly to Norwegians, to have public speaking events, to meet with different communities and businesses, to raise awareness about Canada with Norwegians. That’s an important part of my job. Business promotion is an important part. I was actually surprised by how big the trading relations are between Canada and Norway; billions of dollars. Much of it is in natural resources, nickel and metal derivatives but also oil and gas sectors, both in services and commodities, and defense is an important part of the economic relationships. Your pension fund has invested heavily in Canada, but also Canadian companies have invested here in Norway.

So being here to support that process and answer questions is also a part of my duties. I am here to provide service to Canadians, so when Canadians come to Norway, or live in Norway, it is important to help them when they come to the embassy. Many Canadians come to Norway for sport and adventures, and sometimes these adventurous people take risks. And when people take risks, they get hurt, and they hope somebody can be there to help them. When people experience difficult situations they need help, and we are here to provide consular service.

Also I am the manager. I’ve got 25 people working at the embassy, so it’s not a small unit. It’s a good size group. I’ve got six Canadians, and 19 Norwegians or people of different nationalities living in Norway. It’s my job to provide a good workplace and give directions and guidance to do a good job for the embassy.

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Foreign Service has its highlights and challenges. Can you give us examples of both from your tenure as the Canadian Ambassador to Norway?

A lot! One of the things I have loved the most so far in Norway is engaging with young people. Last year, about this time, I was asked by Arctic Frontiers, a big conference in Tromso, if I would be a mentor for the Emerging leaders’ program. The Emerging leaders’ program is a group of about 35 young people from across the Arctic region, a good number of them Norwegians, but also people from Germany, Russia, Canada, Finland and Asia.

Minister of Foreign Affairs, Borge Brende at Arctic Frontiers Conference 2016
Minister of Foreign Affairs, Borge Brende at Arctic Frontiers Conference 2016

It was the first time I was invited, and we met up in Svolvaer, Lofoten islands. The purpose of it for them was eventually to make a presentation to Foreign Minister Brende – of their vision of the Arctic. I was providing the guidance and helped these bright and intelligent people with how to communicate and how to speak to senior officials. How they should present their cases, whether it was about some technical issues or around complex issues associated with health care. How do you package these issues in a way that public policy and politicians and bureaucrats can understand what to do with it? For me that was a wonderful highlight, actually a start of a number of activities that I’ve done here in Norway since that with young people.

So I have done events around a group called Alarga, which supports young immigrants and people of diverse backgrounds. I have done a presentation for them about what diversity means, how to integrate and things such as that.

I worked with the Young Ambassadors Program in Oslo. Young Ambassadors is a group of about 30 – 35 eager, young Norwegian high school students, who are looking for leadership positions. It’s a group that helps them to network, helps them to expose themselves to people with different perspectives and give them guidance. So all this is a few instances that I have been able to work with young people.

I was also invited to speak to a Jewish youth organization here in Norway. Engaging with young people, I think has been the biggest highlight. I get a lot of energy from that.

It’s incredibly nice to be here. Norway is one of the best places in the world to live. Are there challenges?

Managing a small team of employees can be challenging. When you’re new and you’re learning, you make mistakes. Some people are forgiving, other people are less. In my opinion there are no challenges that affect the relationship between Canada and Norway. We have a really good relationship. If anything, I think we take each other for granted. When people in Norway think about North America, they think about our big neighbor in the south, US. My job is to help them to think about Canada.

Minister of Education and Research, Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, giving a presentgation at Transatlantic Sciensce Week
Minister of Education and Research, Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, giving a presentgation at Transatlantic Science Week

It’s interesting. I was recently in Boston, as a part of this job, to a conference that the Research council of Norway and a number of other organizers called Trans-Atlantic Science Week. It was a trilateral conference; Canada, the US and Norway. It was interesting how the Norwegians were talking about how they could do more business in the United States. The Americans emphasized that the American and the Norwegian business culture were very different. And as a Canadian citizen, living next door to the Americans, I know there is a difference, and I think Norwegians would be more at home doing business in Canada. I think we are more similar. I don’t think there is the same kind of raw individualism in Norway and Canada as there is in the US. And I think that affects the way that we behave, the way we interact. The history of the US compared to the history of Canada and Norway is very different.

The Canadian history is around accommodation. We’re the ones who did not rebel against the British crown. We maintained the British crown. America’s moto is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Ours is peace order and good government. And I think that is more like the system in Scandinavia and Norway. National environments are also something we hold in common, in terms of our overall culture.

I encouraged those businesses, saying it was a challenge to work in the US and said, ‘Come to Canada’.

What events and areas of work have defined your Interaction with the Norwegian government

It’s a wide range of issues. The most recent one is to counter violent extremism and terrorism. We brought some officials from Canada and had good meetings with police and various officials here in Norway and had a public event on the issue. I had good meeting with the Minister of justice and security on these issues and recently did a presentation to the Norwegian Defense College. Another one that’s quite significant, we had our Deputy Minister of international development here last summer, talking about education and international cooperation on education.

Minister of justice and security, Anders Anundsen
Minister of justice and security, Anders Anundsen

Also another very important issue that we spent a lot of time on, particularly over the past couple of months, was climate. Canada had a change of government, so climate issues have been quite central for my new government, and meeting with the Environment minister before Paris was another area of interaction.

Is there one experience, person, or event in Norway that has greatly influenced your decisions or your policies, and if so, in what way?

The short answer would be ‘no’. But what’s very interesting here is the general approach to how things get done. And I think there are some interesting models here that I think are useful for Canadians to consider. I am for example very impressed with how the political and economic calendar here in Norway get coordinated with the NHO (the main representative organization for Norwegian employers with companies ranging from small family-owned businesses to multi-national companies) annual conference, and how you get business leaders and government coming together and talking about what they think are strategical challenges for the country. And to do that in a format that’s interactive, where you have thousands of people in an audience, from the CEO of Statoil to the Prime Minister; from the Crown Prince to dozens of ambassadors. For me, that is a very interesting model.

Director General of the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise, Kristin Skogen Lund, and leader of the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions, Gerd Kristiansen at the Remix Conference
Director General of the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise, Kristin Skogen Lund, and leader of the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions, Gerd Kristiansen at the Remix Conference

I have been there last year, and also this year.  To see how this happens is very interesting.

Then it is interesting to see how the talking gets translated into doing, and also what does not get translated. For example, last year a presentation was about Norway’s population going to be seven million people. How do you get ready for that? How do you make sure your infrastructure is working? Make sure you have the jobs required for your people? How do you prepare yourselves? It is interesting that the fact that media covers it substantially and in depth and analytically, demonstrates the level of political maturity and sophistication which is really quite interesting. I think in Canada we’ve got many different kinds of dialogues that take place. Canada is a huge country with ten million square kilometers. We’re also a federation with two languages, very diverse. We pull in 250,000 immigrants every year from around the world, because we need it and we want it. It’s part of our identity. So how you develop public policy in that environment is interesting. I think that is one of the areas where your government really is trying to be far more consultative and engaged in terms of reaching out to different actors. The new government has talked about changing the relationship with the indigenous peoples in Canada fundamentally.  It is being more engaged in dialogue with provincial and territorial governments. Relationship and dialogue are really important for the new government. See how countries like Norway do that. That’s interesting for us, something we can learn from.

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What does Canada stand to learn from Norway? And vice versa?

I think another area where many Canadians have looked to Norway has been how you have managed to sustain a cooperative benefit for your whole society from the natural resources that you’ve extracted; the State pension fund. The decisions that were made many years ago have left Norway with an incredible legacy. And I think that kind of political consensus around something as fundamental as what to do with that asset has been really, really interesting. And I know that in Canada the assets which has been managed for about the same number of years in terms of being in the oil and gas industry, and it’s been an incredible benefit for people right across the country, and it’s been a particular benefit to people in Alberta, Newfoundland, Labrador and Saskatchewan. But we don’t have the same scope and collective legacy in terms of the pension fund like Norway has, even if Canada is a much more diverse country. I think there are lessons to learn.

Oslo commuter rail
Oslo commuter rail

Every day I also marvel at the infrastructure you have, as a part of what you have invested. I almost never drive in this city. I take the metro, which is 50 meters from my front door, and I can go anywhere. I walk in the city, I cycle. There is really no reason to drive. That kind of infrastructure is great. And Oslo is not a huge city; 650,000 people. My hometown, Ottawa, with one million people doesn’t have near this kind of public transit system, and this kind of supported transport system I think is something we can learn from.

Snow in Norway winter wonder land
Snow in Norway winter wonder land

What Norway can learn from Canada? I must say this is a bit of a joke, but actually I’m half serious: The way you clear your streets in Oslo during winter time. I love your transport system, but the snow – I don’t. Put salt down! Take better care of the roads in winter. If you take care of the side roads the same way you take care of the cross country ski slopes in Nordmarka, I would be happy. I fell a couple of times, and I have friends and colleagues who have broken bones. I understand the resistance to salt, but I think it is sometimes overstated. I try to figure out what cost more; number of people with broken bones or environment issues.

I think one area where we could share information is how we manage migration and immigration. I myself am a refugee to Canada. I was born in Poland and because of various political issues that were taking place during the communist system, we ended up in Canada. People like me are not particularly exceptional in our system. I have colleagues who have been born in other parts of the world, came to Canada and ended up representing us. We don’t have that same angst, I feel, about our national identity – who we are as result of people coming to Canada. I think that is something we can share.

Diversity of youth in Norway
Diversity of youth in Norway

I was in Bergen in the summer. It is an organization called STL. In English it stands for Religious Minority and Lifestance Communities. It’s a government agency. I met with the leadership of this group. There was Somali community, Bosnians, people from the Mormon community. It was interesting to listen to one man with Somali background. “Can someone who looks like me ever have their children really considered Norwegians?” he asked. “They speak Norwegian. They were born here. They went to school here. Are they Norwegians?” And as a Canadian I find that a strange question. It is in this area I think we can work together, and I see some potential between Canada and Norway.

How do you facilitate the exchange between Canada and Norway?

There are lots of tools at my disposal. One that I have taken to use a lot is social media. Social media has become an increasingly important

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part of the diplomatic toolkit. So whether it is on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or others, it has almost turned into a reflex. If I do an event or take a picture, I tweet about it and try to make connections between Canadian and Norwegian experiences. For example at the end of the NHO conference, a big chunk of it was called Remix, about the possibilities within the sharing economy. And we do a lot of that in Canada. So I was tagging social projects in Canada. So during the two nights we actually learned from each other, trying to connect. A lot of it is old fashioned, as when I report back to my colleagues what Norway is doing on issues x or y, or when I meet with Norwegian officials, I explain Canada’s position, and I do as many public speaking engagements as I can handle.

For example at the Oslo Chamber of Commerce I did a presentation on the new Canadian government. So I explained what Canada is like, what the electoral system is like, what the results were and what differences to expect. So it’s a combination of those kinds of issues.

I also talk as much as I can with journalists and media, but then I come back to what I’ve said before, that we take each other for granted. That’s a challenge because unless it is a problem, there isn’t necessarily a high degree of interest. So we’ve got to find new innovative ways to get people’s attention.

I also do YouTube videos. We did a session with the Norwegian Research Council about exchange between our two countries. But when trying to get attention and raise the profile, I did something with my colleagues from the research council. They invited me to go swimming in the fjord. I jumped into the fjord, temperature was four degrees Celsius. I screamed a little bit, but then I used it for social media, because it is somewhat tough to get attention. So sometimes you got to do things that are a little different just to get the message across.

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So I am going to a hockey game here in Norway and tweeted about hockey and sports and what’s interesting. I do that because it is a way to raise awareness of the work that the embassy does; some of the political work, sugar it a little and put a little public policy in there.

What kind of misconceptions do Norwegians have of Canada? And vice versa?

Norwegians don’t know a lot about Canada. It’s not that what they know is wrong, but they don’t know a whole lot more than it is north, it’s big, it’s cold and they play hockey. Perhaps what they don’t know is that Canada is an economic powerhouse, that we’ve got a diversity of industries, great services, diverse population with a complicated history, that we’ve got a lot of common with Norway and that we have similar values in the way that we are taking care of each other, and having an active and constructive role in the world and the standard stuff – the sports, the winter. It’s nice that we know that about each other.

But to take the time to know what shared history we have, which is significant, is also important. The first European settlement in North America was a Viking settlement in L’Anse aux Meadows in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. And having spent time on the west coast of Norway, and having spent time in Newfoundland and Labrador, there are remarkable things that we have in common; the fishing heritage, the North Atlantic, and that should bind us more together. But I think because of the migration and so many Norwegians at the turn of the last century came to the US, means that a lot of Norwegians, when they look across the Atlantic, they’re looking further south, and they should keep in their gaze that there are 400,000 Canadians with Norwegian ancestors. That’s a very big number, and we’ve got Norwegian clubs in British Columbia, through the prairies, in Toronto and in Montreal.

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Don’t forget the history from WW2 about Little Norway. After the war many Norwegians settled in Ontario, and Toronto, and a number of Canadian men came back with memories of Norway, so I think there is a deep history, but just a lack of knowledge. And that’s a part of my job to try to get those stories out.

Also Canadians have stereotypical knowledge about Norway and Norwegians. They think of the fjords and the Northern Lights. They don’t have so much understanding of how the society is managed or know the role of sharing that the people here has, the collective sense of responsibility for one another.

The great role that Norway plays internationally in terms of being a bridge builder between peoples; a country with such a small population being able to do so. And I think Norway has leveraged itself in a very interesting way. There’s a lot to be said about good offices, and you have a very skilled and talented group of people, who work in your foreign ministry, and work in public sector here in Norway. The role that they play everywhere from the Middle East to Colombia, Sri Lanka, to South Sudan and lots of different hard places, has been important. It has been good and demonstrates that Norway brings a kind of balanced, fair approach that is essential. And there are so many different actors who trust Norway, for it does not have that colonial history with that baggage that many of the European powers have. And I think Norway has capitalized on it. It’s done good work, but I think also this has helped Norway and Norwegian interests.

How do you feel Canada is represented abroad, and are there any elements of Canadian foreign policy that you would want to change?

It’s not up to me to change Canadian foreign policy. It’s my job to go and implement it. I was appointed by a conservative government and now I will implement the policy of a liberal government. That’s my job. I’ve been in professional public servant for 25 years. It’s my job to provide advice, and that’s between me and my bosses back in Ottawa, whether I am here or there and I give them the benefit of my advice and my experience and knowledge. They make the decisions, and I implement the instructions that they provide.

On entertaining visitors, coming to Norway, what are your best/worse experiences?
We haven’t had a lot of visitors so far. My parents came twice. They came when we first arrived, and it was fantastic, because the protocol here was so nice. They included my parents in some events, around my presentation of credentials. They couldn’t come to the Palace, but there was a reception afterwards where my parents were invited to. For me that was so special and meant a lot to me and a lot to my parents. My parents sacrificed a lot for me. They left their country. They took a little boy across the Atlantic and had to put up with me for decades, and to have them to experience that was wonderful.

When you bring people to Norway, you always send them to experience Norway’s nature, but also to experience the culture. I love places like the Vigeland’s Park. I like taking them down to the Opera House, the combination of nature and culture which coexist so nicely here. I live here together with my husband. When people come visit us, and friends come, that is really important.  It says a lot about what kind of country Norway is, how accepting it is of human rights and people relations, which is something that doesn’t happen everywhere.

I’ll tell you the places I go regularly to eat. There’s a great restaurant up at Frognerseteren with a view of the city. I love bringing people there. I must say I find it less touristic than going down to Aker Brygge. They have fish, game. It’s a different menu and located so pretty. There’s a good sushi restaurant at Majorstuen, near the Frogner Park. I like Theatercafeen. It’s more and more cosmopolitan in Oslo. Chinese food I haven’t found yet, but Thai is great and Indian is great.

Saint Mary's University, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Students, consider Canadian universities!

This is my first posting. I am learning to know my colleagues and seeing what that do and how they do it. I am learning from the colleagues at the embassy and I am learning from the people of the foreign ministry and trying to prioritize, because there are lots of different things you can do. So the first year you try to be everywhere all the time. Some things are good – some things are not so good. Now I have met some good friends and have some good connections with local expats living here and Norwegians, who have been remarkably generous about my husband and I. It’s been great!

And to young people, considering where to study, I just want to mention that there are great universities in Canada!

On Being an Ambassador to Norway, Ambassador Artur Wilczynski was interviewed by Tor Kjolberg

All portrait photos of Ambassador Artur Wilcztnski by Tor Kjolberg