Her Excellency Ambassador Immaculate N Wambua, Kenya High Commissioner to Canada, in the Woodyard on Wednesday. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Ambassadors from more than 20 nations spent two days in Yellowknife this week as they began a 10-day tour of northern Canada.
Diplomats from Austria to Zimbabwe will head on to Whitehorse, Iqaluit, Dawson City, Old Crow, Inuvik, Ulukhaktok, Cambridge Bay, Resolute, Pond Inlet and Kuujuaq before the trip wraps up on June 15.
“It’s beyond my description,” said Kanji Yamanouchi, Japan’s ambassador to Canada, as he sampled the output of Yellowknife’s NWT Brewing Co at the Woodyard brewpub on Wednesday.
“Of course, I’ve read many books and I’ve seen many photos, but in just two days? A big difference,” he said of his understanding of the North. “Seeing is believing.”
The tour is arranged by the Canadian government every couple of years. Since the early 1970s, leaders of consecutive federal governments have argued that taking the world’s ambassadors to the North is an important means of educating the international community about the territories.
Canada also uses the trips to focus on reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, while discussing trade opportunities, or challenges like climate change, around which countries could partner up.
The climate was at the front of multiple ambassadors’ minds during Wednesday’s brewpub lunch, having earlier visited a section of road ruined by permafrost heave – a concept entirely foreign, for example, to an equatorial African nation like Kenya.
“I didn’t know about permafrost,” said Kenya’s high commissioner to Canada, Immaculate Wambua. “Because of climate change, the whole infrastructure is ruined – and that is very interesting knowledge to learn.”
Kenyans experience climate change more in the alteration of their seasons, Wambua said, with longer spells of dry weather and little rain.
“Some of us really want to come to the North to learn about Canada and how, especially in the North, they are dealing with climate change,” she said, calling the territories “the fridge of the world.”
Eamonn McKee, Ireland’s ambassador to Canada, said the benefits to his embassy – and nation – of a trip like this are twofold.
“One, you get to see a part of Canada that you wouldn’t normally see. It’s a hugely insightful, revelatory trip,” he told Cabin Radio.
“The second thing is we meet people, we get to know them, we spend some time with them, and they’re on our database, on our books. There’s the analysis, the perception and the understanding of a major part of Canada, and then there’s the practical application, where we’re helping to develop our presence and build relations. It’s enormously valuable.”
Yamanouchi – who marvelled at the Northwest Territories alone being “probably more than three times as big as Japan” – gave examples of what practical consequences of this trip might look like.
“In order to understand Canada, we have to understand the northern territories. You are at the forefront of facing this global warming, and global warming is about everybody. Japan is proud of producing new technology and new methods to address global warming,” he said.
“You are also very rich in critical minerals with great potential. It may be safe to say that Japanese companies are interested in those critical minerals.”
Yamanouchi said ambassadors had received a briefing from the NWT government about the territory’s energy needs and concerns. He thinks small modular reactors – tiny nuclear plants – are a possible solution, though he added they are not yet proven, and said Japanese companies Hitachi and Mitsubishi have an interest on that front.
“Hitachi already has a contract with Ontario. Saskatchewan is now seeking small modular reactors, and Saskatchewan could be a good model for the Northwest Territories,” he said, comparing their climates.
Wambua said Kenya, too, is looking to nurture economic partnerships through this kind of travel.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine highlighted to many Kenyans their previous reliance on Ukraine and Russia for grain, she said, and now the country wants to find other sources. A trip to Saskatchewan last year suggested possibilities for trade not only in grain, but also in potash for use as fertilizer.
“That is a very keen interest for us,” she said.
The trip also holds a cultural dimension. Prior to lunch, ambassadors spent time with Sahtu Dene Elder Be’sha Blondin at the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation’s Yellowknife healing camp.
“What I’m really looking forward to is being exposed to and learning from the Indigenous perspective,” said McKee.
“They have a perspective on the world that is different from ours but that, in some ways, echoes ancient Gaelic Irish society. It’s going to be really interesting to see how people like the Dene and the Inuit – who have been here for millennia – have lived here and adjusted. And what do they make of us?”
“When you look at their beadwork, their clothing, it’s just like some of the communities in Africa,” said Wambua. “I have some good beadwork that resonates very well with what the Indigenous people have locally.”
Like Yamanouchi, McKee marvelled at the scale of the North.
“Forty-five thousand people is a small Irish town,” he said, “spread over an area that would stretch from the Nordics across Europe as far as the gulf. It is different in scale, but the issues we face are all the same.”
Of the week ahead, he said: “We will learn an awful lot more. We’re just picking up stuff every single day.”
Diplomats on the trip: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, European Union, Haïti, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Kenya, Kuwait, Lithuania, Mali, New Zealand, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Switzerland, Zimbabwe, Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat.