Remembering Ken Taylor

Remembering Ken Taylor: ‘An unconventional diplomat’

Oysters, martinis, and effective diplomacy. A colleague remembers former diplomat Ken Taylor

October 15, 2015

Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador to Iran, briefs a reporter on the current conditions in Iran one week before leaving Iran with six Americans in a 1980 file photo. Taylor, who sheltered six U.S. citizens during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, has died, says a family friend THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Peter BreggPeter Bregg/CP

On news of the death of Ken Taylor, at 81, I called Colin Robertson, another former Canadian diplomat, who served under Taylor in the early 1980s in New York, soon after Taylor became a hero for his role in hiding six Americans in Tehran during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979. Robertson, who lives in Ottawa now and works with the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, spoke about Taylor’s glory days following the “Canadian Caper.”

Q: What were your thoughts on hearing that your old boss had died?

A: Ken was a great Canadian patriot, a hero, but Ken was also really cool. I first met him when I was posted to New York in 1980, and he had of course already performed the great “Canadian Caper” in Tehran, and the government had appointed him our consul general there, partly because of his celebrity, the magnetism Ken had, and the importance of New York to the diplomatic establishment.

Q: So it was a good fit.

A: He took the town by storm. Anywhere he went. Even before he arrived, we saw it. Americans everywhere would thank us for what we’d done. Sending Ken to New York was exactly the right thing. He fit right into that highly cosmopolitan city, but he was still proudly Canadian. We had issues he was able to advance.

Q: What was he like to work under?

A: He was an unconventional diplomat, certainly for that era. First of all, he didn’t wear the classic blue suit; he always was always in a fashionable suit that suited him. Of course, he had that great hair, all the curls, and then the dark glasses that were his signature. Always a smile on his face. He was always approachable and personable. He had no desk in his office. He had a coffee table. You’d sit around it and deal with issues.

Q: He must have made quite an impression on you as a new guy.

A: I traveled with him as a junior officer. In his briefcase, there was always a novel—Bonfire of the Vanities—or a magazine—Sports Illustrated. It wasn’t the heavy-duty stuff. I remember him teasing me. I was traveling with a copy of Foreign Affairs. He said, “Colin, you gotta lighten up.”

There’s one episode that really sticks with me. We were traveling up to Yale, where he had a series of speeches to give. We didn’t take the car. He said, no, let’s take the train, because we could go to the bar car and have a martini. After we’d had oysters at Grand Central Station. And we talked. He pointed out that it was really important to understand the society as a whole if you were going to be a good diplomat. It wasn’t straight politics, or economics, or trade; it was understanding the culture in which you were working and having an empathy for it.

Q: You saw that in his way of doing diplomacy?

A: Ken had empathy for everybody, including the Iranian people. Remember, this was a time where the Iranians were not terribly popular, because of what had happened to the United States. He had a way—his own gentle way—of encouraging Americans that while they might have a disagreement with the Ayatollah and ruling elite in Iran, the Iranian people had great affection for America, and never break those links.

Q: And you feel that was effective, not just a nice way of looking at the world?

A: Ken defied the traditional norms of diplomacy, but he always achieved what we set out to. He was remarkably effective. As a boss, you couldn’t help but like him. He left it to you to get the job done. He wasn’t a micro-manager in any sense. He traveled a great deal because he was in great demand. But when he was there, it was just fun and interesting and you learned the craft. This how he did business. I’ve talked to people who were with him in Tehran, and before, and this is how he was. He created a sense of team around a shared purpose.

Comments Off on Remembering Ken Taylor

Ballistic Missile Defence

May 8, 2014 7:20 pm

Ottawa quietly taking another look at ballistic missile defence

Vassy-Kapelos By Parliamentary Correspondent

Watch above: Vassy Kapelos explains how the Canadian government is re-visiting the the idea of joining a ballistic missile defence program.

It’s an age-old debate in Canada, and it’s now being quietly re-visited.

For months, the senate committee on national security and defence has been studying the possibility of joining a NATO/U.S.-led ballistic missile defense program.

The last time Ottawa looked at the possibility, in 2005, they opted out, but sources say this time there could be a different outcome.

“You can just get a sense from the questioning that this is something that the government wants to consider,” said NDP defense critic Jack Harris.

Harris questioned the government on the issue during question period on Thursday, asking directly if the government will participate in the U.S. ballistic missile defence program.

Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Defence James Bezan responded by noting in the past Canada has declined to participate in ballistic missile defence programs.

“We’ll continue to monitor international developments and also continue to ensure both the safety and security of Canadians both at home and abroad,” Bezan said.

Bezan also noted House and Senate committees are studying the issue.

“We’ll have some collaboration and discussions and make a recommendation and report back to the House of Commons,” Bezan said.

So what has prompted another look at ballistic missile defense? With threats from North Korea, Iran and even Russia, proponents say it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario where a missile aimed for the U.S. instead ends up heading towards Canada.

“From a Canadian perspective, the threat has improved such that we are potentially vulnerable, particularly cities like Saskatoon, Edmonton – the cities closer to the border,” said former diplomat Colin Robertson.

Robertson says Canada currently has a seat at the table when allies talk about potential threats.

But, “when it actually comes time to make the decision to launch a missile, unlike the Europeans, Japanese, Australians – we have to leave the room,” Robertson said.

WATCH: Responding to a report from Global News, NDP MP Jack Harris questioned the federal government over it’s willingness to re-enter a NATO- or U.S.-led ballistic missile defence program (May 08)

Critics aren’t convinced there’s a need to join a program.

Steven Staples is President of the Rideau Institute. He argues there’s little proof the missile defense technology even works. “It’s incredibly complicated – what they’re basically trying to do is hit a bullet with a bullet – in space, “Staples said.

Staples also points to cost as an issue; early estimates peg the price of joining a program at $500 million, that could always rise.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Minister of Defense Rob Nicholson told Global News “we look forward to reviewing the report from the Senate committee.”

Comments Off on Ballistic Missile Defence

On the Keystone XL punt

April 20, 2014 9:27 am

Canada should focus on next U.S. administration for Keystone: former diplomat

By Staff  Global News

After the United States, yet again, pressed the pause button on rendering a decision on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, the time has come for Canada to start focusing its efforts on the people who might form the next administration, said Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat.

“Let’s start targeting who’s likely to be the next president of the United States,” he said in an interview on The West Block with Tom Clark. “It’s not that you ignore this administration — there’s still work we can get done with this administration — but we need to look forward. We know who the likely candidates will be. We need to educate them on Canada so we don’t have a president again who doesn’t appreciate the strategic importance of Canada.”

READ MORE: Keystone XL pipeline hit by another delay

The proposed pipeline hit yet another delay this long weekend, when the U.S. State Department effectively paralyzed the project, saying it needs more time to prepare its recommendation to President Barack Obama.

Officials said they need to assess the impact of a court battle in Nebraska that could force a change in the pipeline’s planned route, and so extended the deadline for government agencies to comment, punting the decision past the November mid-terms.

The Prime Minister’s Office was quick to voice its disappointment of the decision, saying the decision was politically motivated.

Robertson, who was at the State Department two days before the move was announced, agreed, saying he has no doubt the move was taken under direction from the White House.

READ MORE: Albertans invited to testify at US hearings on Keystone XL pipeline

“They made the political calculation that as they go into what’s going to be a very difficult November election for the Democrats and the president,” he said. “Everybody understands, the positioning is pretty clear on both sides. This is a political decision, made for political reasons, everything to do with the mid-terms.”

The news from the State Department came just two days after 10 Nobel laureates, including former president Jimmy Carter, signed a letter urging Obama to reject the pipeline proposal.

While ex-presidents and Nobel laureates can try with all their might to influence the president’s decision, their attempts won’t likely be successful, said David Jacobson, former U.S. ambassador to Canada.

“You’d be a fool not to respect Nobel laureates, but I think everybody understands that the only Nobel laureate that’s really going to have a voice in this is one of the last winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, and that’s Barack Obama,” Jacobson said in an interview with Tom Clark.

“There’s a process that’s going on … and I’m not sure letters like the one that came from President Carter and the other Nobel laureates is really going to have all that much impact on the process.”

Signing that letter, Carter became the first former president to come out against Keystone XL.

The Prime Minister’s Office quickly swung back, cautioning the United States to remember 1979, when the oil supply dipped following the Iranian revolution, sparking global panic.

With files from The Canadian Press

Comments Off on On the Keystone XL punt