University of Toronto

Innis Alumni & Friends

Mark McDowell

Class of 1990 – Innis

Canada’s Man in Myanmar

“As someone who has been called an “unconventional diplomat,” he naturally chose Innis for what he described as its “off-beat and counter-culture” reputation.”

It is a long journey from being an Innis College student to serving as Canada’s first-ever envoy in one of the most challenging parts of the world, but long-time diplomat Mark McDowell (BA INNIS 1988) is up to the task. Earlier this year, Mark was appointed as Canada’s first resident ambassador in the newly-opened embassy in Rangoon, Myanmar. After nearly three decades of very limited contact between Canada and Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), an Innis alumnus will be leading the push toward warmer ties and a new era of engagement between the two countries.

The roots of Mark’s abiding interest in global affairs and social justice can be traced to his time as an undergraduate student at Innis College. As someone who has been called an “unconventional diplomat,” he naturally chose Innis for what he described as its “off-beat and counter-culture” reputation. Innis and its programs also provided fertile ground to cultivate his budding enthusiasm for film, urban studies, and the environment. A fellow Innisian, his like-minded older brother Scott (BA Innis 1978) had also urged Mark to attend Innis and take advantage of its progressive, free-thinking milieu.

Despite being on the other side of the world, Mark has always preserved an indelible connection to his alma mater: even after 30 odd years, he still maintains friendships forged while a student at Innis College. He is in regular contact with fellow Innis grads, Daniel Garber (BA 1990 INNIS) a writer, editor and film critic in Toronto and Derek Archer (profiled in “Alumni Q & A Spotlight”), a doctor at Trillium Health Partners.

Mark fondly recalls his time at Innis as one full of dynamic students and forward-thinking faculty, “epic” social events, punk and new-wave music parties, and the local student-gathering hub known affectionately as The Pit. As a commuter student in first year, he spent a lot of time at Innis, even working in the Innis College Library and moonlighting as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant close to campus.
He took his time completing his undergraduate degree, making extended trips to Europe and Asia, where he immersed himself in the culture and language of both settings (he now speaks five languages fluently, including Chinese and Indonesian). Mark calls these international adventures “invaluable,” helping to spawn a burgeoning fascination with the rapidly evolving global landscape of the late Cold War era of the 1980s.

Taking a typically non-linear, circuitous (what he calls “crooked”) academic path, Mark never set out to work in diplomacy. Through his interests and passions, patterns quickly formed and the path became a bit clearer; he was driven by social justice issues, human rights, and the environment. A genuine and deep-rooted concern in these issues, coupled with his curiosity for China and Southeast Asia, eventually led him to serious considerations of a career in diplomacy. The 1980s were a time of massive, unprecedented transformation in China, and Mark felt an urge to be in the middle of the action.

After completing his MA in East Asian Studies at UofT, his diplomatic career was officially launched. He joined External Affairs and International Trade Canada in 1994 and quickly obtained a posting as a foreign service officer in New York City. Then, it was off to Taipei where he served for another four years, before ending up in Bangkok. He eventually decided to return to school, receiving his MPA from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard in 2008. With an opportunity to carry out research on contemporary issues in Burma, Mark stayed on at Harvard as a Research Fellow.

After three years of running the Embassy’s Public Diplomacy program in Beijing, Foreign Affairs came calling again. With such extensive experience in the region and an impressive record of service, Mark was named Canada’s first-ever resident Ambassador to Myanmar in the spring of 2013. Known as a social media innovator and long-time advocate of better ties with Myanmar, Mark has been tasked with the challenging job of championing a nearly non-existent economic relationship with the impoverished but resource-rich state. The former military dictatorship that has ruled Myanmar for nearly three decades has been rapidly evolving into a partial democracy since late in 2010 when it held its first elections in almost 20 years.

Mark calls the break-neck evolution of Myanmar “astonishing,” adding that the pace of the transformation has taken everyone off-guard.

“It makes for a fascinating environment to work and live in. Imagine – I’m working with former Burmese political activists that have been in exile for 20 plus years and now they are serving in senior government positions.”

He has called the accelerated pace of change in the emerging democracy “even faster and more comprehensive” than anything China has witnessed in the last 20 years.

Despite obvious economic and political challenges in the years ahead, not to mention brewing communal and inter-ethnic tensions, Mark is hopeful that Myanmar will prosper: “Five years ago, no one would think Burma would be at this stage. It’s quite an incredible transformation, but it’s by no means complete.”

He hopes that through his work and this recent Western rapprochement with Myanmar, more attention will be paid to Southeast Asia, and in particular to this fascinating, quickly-evolving country. Mark McDowell relishes his role as one of the principal actors on this high-stakes, global stage: “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

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