Manor Park author bears witness to Canada’s role in ‘very important arc’ of world history
In his nearly 40 years with Global Affairs Canada, Geoff White was around for some critical moments in world history. His career spanned the collapse of the Soviet Union to the rise of ‘populism’, emblemized for many by the election of former U.S. President Donald Trump.
Some of the events Geoff participated in had the white-knuckle flavour of a spy thriller. Others involved long, “monastic” periods at his desk, poring over the details of bilateral agreements.
Yet whether electrifying or dry, all were critical moments in history that had a big, and in some cases ongoing, impact on the life of Canadians.
“I feel my career followed this very important arc in world history,” says the long-time Manor Park resident, ruminating over a coffee on Beechwood Ave. with a copy of his recently-published memoir, Working for Canada–A pilgrimage in foreign affairs from the new world order to the new populism, its pages peppered with coloured sticky notes.
“It was a period of the rise of the liberal international order–free trade and open markets and a greater emphasis on democratic values,” he continues.
“That basically was the consensus for a period of roughly 30 years until it ground to a halt with the skepticism that developed over multinationalism and, in particular, with the arrival on the scene of Donald Trump.”
NAFTA, Russian airspace and ‘extraordinary rendition’
Geoff says he started working on his book virtually the day of his retirement in 2018. It’s not hard to understand why. He has a lot to talk about.
- In the early 1990s, he had an insider’s view of the deliberations of the new North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He credits the decision to publicize every detail of every aspect the agreement as soon as it was signed with the generally quick acceptance of the deal by Canadians.
- During the early days of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reign, after Canada had banned the country’s planes from its airspace, he squared off against hard-nosed Russian negotiators in a Moscow hotel that had earlier been taken over gangsters.
- In 2009, Geoff found himself upbraided in South Africa on his first day in the country, a victim of the “esoteric” rules of diplomacy.
- In 2006, he received a call from Air Transat reporting that one of its flights was being followed by U.S. fighter jets. As the plane approached Mexican airspace, Geoff was forced to make a fraught decision in the hopes of sparing a man unjustly placed on the U.S. no-fly list.
- By shining light on the situation, he might have helped avoid a situation similar to that of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who in the early 2000s was detained during a stop-over in New York and accused of being a terrorist based on faulty information. Instead of returning him to Canada, U.S. authorities used “extraordinary rendition” (essentially, abduction) to send him to Syria where he was tortured before eventually being released without charge.
Along with recounting excitement and intrigue, Geoff’s goal is to illustrate the grinding, detail-oriented and “fascinating” work involved with how Canada manages its relations with other countries.
“One of the things my book really tries to do is reveal the kinds of work that people who work for [Global Affairs] really do,” he says. “To demystify, to a certain extent, and show the real nature of that work.”
While Geoff describes the timing of his career as “very fortunate”, he admits to being surprised, and dismayed, by how countries have increasingly turned away from globalism and adopted protectionist stances.
He notes China as a key example. The opening of markets there by Chinese Communist Party Leader Deng Xiaoping seemed to coincide with a more democratic vision and nascent individual freedoms. All reforms have since been harshly reversed by China’s current leader Xi Jinping.
Geoff admits the world seems to have entered a new era where globalism has been unravelling and the entire liberalism worldview seems to be undermined.
He acknowledges there are rational reasons behind this, that open markets have not increased wealth worldwide everywhere. But he also remains optimistic that some of the beneficial aspects of the previous 40 years will be restored.
“At a certain point, there may be a realization that we need to be returning to a strong multilateral system in which trade agreements will be respected,” he says. “The fundamental mechanism of trade systems will be seen as something worth preserving.”