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Innis Alumni & Friends

Mark McDowell, Canada’s 1st ambassador to Burma, speaks to students at Innis College

Canada’s first resident ambassador to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, recently returned to Innis College to address students from a wide variety of disciplines across the University. At his only public appearance while in Canada, Ambassador McDowell shared some of his earliest adventures as an undergraduate student activist at UofT to his current work heading up Canada’s diplomatic mission in Myanmar.

The two-time UofT graduate (BA 1988 INNIS, MA 1990) reminded students that his abiding interest in Southeast Asia, and in particular Myanmar, was largely shaped by his experiences as an undergraduate student studying history and philosophy in the heart of the world’s most cosmopolitan city. “I had a typical undergrad existence, working in the Innis Library and a Chinese restaurant nearby, but my decisions were always steered by a keen eye to social justice, especially in the global context.”

He urged students to explore the world, take measured risks and avoid a prescribed, linear path to completing a degree. “In the middle of my studies, I found myself living at a friend’s place in Germany, sleeping on a couch for four months. It was probably one of the most important and fruitful experiences of my life.” The Ambassador still speaks German, one of five languages he commands, including Mandarin and Indonesian. He calls these experiences “fascinating detours” as ideal stepping stones on his “crooked path” to diplomacy. “Students today seem much more career-oriented and they think a lot more actively and realistically about life after university. But you really can’t predict where you will end up and you shouldn’t keep a narrow view of your possibilities.”

For students, the talk provided a rare window into the evolution of a diplomat’s career, as well as affording access to someone intimately involved in shaping Canada’s engagement with this important part of the world. A newly-emerging country, Myanmar has just recently arrived on the world stage after nearly three decades of economic and political isolation. Appointed in March 2013, Ambassador McDowell’s objectives in the country are ambitious. He not only has the difficult task of leading the push toward warmer ties with Myanmar, but he also has to contend with the everyday challenges of opening a full-service Canadian embassy in Yangon, the first of its kind.

Following the intimate talk, students were eager to hear about the Ambassador’s approach to dealing with the difficulties of over-intervention, his noted use of social media in diplomacy and about Canada’s role in supporting Myanmar’s economic and political evolution. For many, including 4th year student Jasmine Denike, hearing from one of their own who is doing critical, high-stakes work abroad, provided a source of pride and inspiration. “As someone who has done such remarkable things all over the world, coming back to Innis College has a great impact on us as current students, knowing that there are so many possibilities after graduation.”

Janet Paterson, Principal of Innis College, was equal in her praise. “We are immensely proud of Ambassador’s McDowell’s accomplishments and especially gratified that he took the time to speak to students at the College. They were so clearly inspired by his story and the commitment and passion he shows for his work.”

Click here to read Ambassador McDowell’s alumnus profile.

You can follow the ambassador and embassy of Canada in Yangon at www.facebook.com/canadainburma.


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