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2018 Issue 1: The Water Issue

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Career Q&A: James Lambert

Career Q&A: James Lambert

[James Lambert]Q: Your work has led you all around the world, for a variety of different purposes. What sparked your interest in politics and public service, and what route did your pursue to achieve that?

I guess my interest in the world beyond Canada began when I was quite young. In the year of Canada’s Centennial, our family moved to Barbados where my father had been asked to rewrite the taxation law for the newly-independent country.

It was an amazing experience for a nine-year old, including sun, sea and immersion in a rigorous British education system. It also opened my eyes to the good fortune that we as Canadians had, as well as showing me directly the difference Canada could make in the world. I remember meeting Canada’s High Commissioner to Barbados (then resident in Trinidad and Tobago) when he came to the island to celebrate that very special Canada Day in 1967. I was impressed by his kind of Austin Powers ‘60’s cool.

Universities and their students were much less “global” a few decades ago. When I came to Queen’s from Vancouver in 1975, I was one of a small number of out-of-province students. International students were also much less common than today. My first interests were history and languages, both of which have served me well in my career. In my intermediate Spanish class, I met a very good friend whose father was serving as Canadian Ambassador in Latin America. The stories told of a life in a foreign service family, including in a continent characterized by military governments and immense inequality, further spurred my interest in diplomacy.

I began to focus my studies more specifically around the history of diplomacy and Canadian diplomacy in particular. After a gap year (then not so common) spent working and travelling abroad, I returned to do my MA at the Norman Paterson School of International affairs at Carleton U in Ottawa. That gave me great exposure to issues of the day, and, more usefully, provided an introduction to thesis supervisors who were actually working in the field of international relations, either with government or in NGOs. (An important takeaway for me was that it is always advantageous to study where academic quality is complemented by exposure to policy or business practitioners).

I got into the foreign service on my third try at the FS Exam (persistence pays, and you learn the drill) and walked into the Pearson Building as a junior diplomat on June 16, 1982, nervous and unaware of the amazing experiences and friendships that would follow.

Q: Describe the arc of your career. Do you think you made a difference? Would you recommend the foreign service to a new Queen’s grad?

Much of my career has been spent in Latin America, though I did also have fascinating assignments in Japan and most recently as Ambassador to the Netherlands. Evidently my time spent in developing a regional expertise in Latin American Affairs along with language and inter-cultural understanding was helpful -- not only in advancing on this trajectory in Foreign Affairs, but in preparing me for my second career at the Organization of American States.

At times I have been frustrated that Canada has not seized hold of its identity in our hemisphere (beyond Nafta). Trade, investment, tourism ties and shared security risks give us common cause, as do significant domestic diaspora populations drawn from the Caribbean and Latin America. But, our national narrative remains strongly trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific.

This is not to say, however, that Canada has not made a difference in the Americas. As a young Foreign Service officer I contributed to a distinct Canadian approach toward Central America and Cuba, which avoided some of the ideological excesses that were still playing out in the latter years of the Cold War. Returning to the region in the early 2000’s, first as Deputy Chief of Mission in Mexico and then as Ambassador to Guatemala and El Salvador, I was able to make connections with Canadian experts that were very relevant to local needs.

Through their generous commitment, Canada greatly assisted the strengthening of Mexico’s electoral authorities in the period leading up to the historic elections in 2000 that ended 71 years of single-party domination. There and in Central America, we addressed underlying questions of equity and discrimination and particularly advanced health and education in the meso-american region. We worked to strengthen the representation of women, indigenous peoples, and engaged civil society as legitimate participants in addressing chronically corrupt, elite-driven political structures.

Certainly advancing Canadian economic, security and consular interests was an important part of the job both in the Americas and in Europe where my mission in the Netherlands was at the leading edge of Canada’s efforts to negotiate a 21st century trade agreement.

I served at the same time in The Hague as Ambassador to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), coinciding with the discovery and elimination in Libya and Syria of large caches of undeclared weapons. Canada played a key role in facilitating the elimination of these stockpiles, and as a result I was invited to accompany Director General Ahmet Uzumcu in 2013 when he travelled to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the Organization.

Many careers today demand an international engagement and present an opportunity to live and work around the world. The foreign service is not a singular as it once was. I would certainly encourage students to look for opportunities abroad, whether in government, international organizations, business or NGOs. Everywhere I go, I find Canadians leading international enterprises, bringing our game and our values to the world community.

That said, the foreign service, whether as a political officer, trade commissioner, development or immigration expert, still offers an unparalleled opportunity to not only see the world and participate in its evolution, but to contribute to the wellbeing of Canada and Canadians.

Q: Degrees within the liberal arts are often criticized for a perceived lack of opportunity. Have you ever found this to be true?

Not in my own experience, nor that of my two kids who also studied politics and languages. Now in their mid-twenties, they are employed in fascinating private-sector careers in Tokyo and London, England. I can’t overstate the value of foreign language learning to almost any career. In addition to French and English, my career offered me the opportunity to master both Spanish (which I had started at Queen’s) and Japanese. The additional degree of inter-cultural comfort this provides, both to yourself and your foreign counterparts, makes a significant difference.

Also, though I may not remember all the details of the history courses I took at Queen’s, the organizational skills acquired, were priceless. In particular, quick and coherent written expression learned in Kingston served me very well as a diplomat and public servant.

Q: Were there any non-academic experiences you had that defined and shaped, not only your Queen’s experience, but your life after graduation as well?

I am an amateur musician (jazz guitar) and sports enthusiast (tennis and skiing). Having non-academic and non-work related interests is key to maintaining balance and focus. The people I met as a result of my extra-curricular interests were among the most interesting, and their own circles of contacts and connections enriched my understanding of all the countries where I was assigned.

Q: Relating to your academic career, were there any experiences or individuals who helped shape your academic pursuits and interests?

Political science professor David Cox gave me an introduction to the basic concepts of international relations and Canadian foreign policy in particular. He ended up ably assisting the redoubtable MP for Kingston and the Islands, Flora MacDonald, when she served as Canada’s first woman foreign minister under PM Joe Clark.

More particularly, Professor Geoff Smith, who taught American foreign relations in the history department, inspired my own personal interest in diplomacy. He encouraged me to look beyond the self-congratulatory narrative that Canada had developed about its international engagement to see the real amalgam of ideals and self-interest that underpins and propels policy. Prof. Smith took the time to orient my onward studies and wrote kind letters of recommendation. As a Queen’s basketball coach, he also modelled an excellent balance in his own interests and pursuits.

Q: Looking back now, what would you tell yourself on your convocation day about the future?

The time spent at Queen’s has equipped you to engage the world. Seize the opportunities and don’t be afraid to take risks. You will learn from your mistakes, and if you keep your eyes open, from the mistakes of others. Small kindnesses matter. Your reputation gets formed early and is hard to change. Finally, you have a responsibility to teach others, particularly if you want your influence to outlive you.


James Lambert (Artsci'79 [History]) is the Secretary for Hemispheric Affairs (SHA) of the Organization of American States (since Oct. 1, 2015). This Secretariat coordinates organizational responses to major hemispheric challenges. Programs such as the Summits of the Americas and others that support good governance in the region fall under his responsibility. SHA also manages public diplomacy for the OAS, including strengthening cultural programs through the Art Museum of the Americas and the Columbus Memorial Library.

Before joining the OAS in 2015, he served for 33 years as a Canadian diplomat and Ambassador.

As a leading expert on Latin America and the Caribbean in the Government of Canada, Lambert served in Costa Rica, Japan, and Mexico, before becoming Ambassador to Guatemala and El Salvador in 2002.

In Ottawa he held positions of Director General of Latin America and the Caribbean and Director General of Public Diplomacy.

Between 2010 and 2015, he was appointed Canadian Ambassador to the Kingdom of the Netherlands and Permanent Representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

From The Hague he was also accredited to the international criminal and judicial institutions based in that city and worked with them to advance the agenda of global peace and justice.

[cover of Alumni Review 2016 Issue 3]