James Hill has worked and lived in many places around the world in the diplomatic corps, serving most recently as Deputy Head of Mission at the Canadian embassy in Afghanistan — but no matter where he has gone, he is proud to have come from Weyburn, and still identifies the city as his hometown.
The son of Ken and Caroline Hill, he recently spent some time visiting family in Weyburn before heading back to Ottawa to get his next assignment with External Affairs, Trade and Development, having completed an 18-month posting in Kabul.
He was first made aware of serving Canada overseas when a friend wrote a foreign service exam and urged James to do as well; first he worked at some other position, including teaching English in Japan, before he decided to follow suit in 1989.
“In the beginning, you want to go everywhere. After a while, that’s not an attraction,” said James. “I’ve been really lucky in my assignments.”
His first foreign assignment was to the embassy in Iran, where he arrived about seven years after the hostage incident involving the Canadian ambassador of the day; since then, he has served in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Kosovo; back in Brazil and then Mozambique, a brief assignment in Libya and then most recently Afghanistan, which lasted about four months longer than it was supposed to, and was the most intense location in terms of security.
Calling his first posting “exotic”, James said of Iran, “It was a fascinating place. It was a period of relative good relations between Canada and Iran.”
He was there from 1990 to 1993, and he feels fortunate he was able to spend that time there because Canada has since closed its embassy there.
“My interfaces was with bilateral missions or NGOs (non-government organizations) and the international community,” said James.
One of the things James loves about his job is that he has been able to interact with the local community.
“Other than Afghanistan, which was an anomaly, you live and work with the culture you’re working in. You’re visiting, in a sense, even if it’s a three-month visit,” said James, adding his effectiveness in a particular country is related to how well he can interact with the local community.
“You can’t help but learn something,” he added, saying the exposure to the culture and politics of the country “makes the whole life experience very rewarding. You leave a little bit of yourself in each one of these places.”
He said he’s been able to go back and visit some of his former assignment locations to see how things have changed, or to visit friends he made while living there earlier. The biggest change that has impacted on him are advances in technology, so now through such devices as Skype he can keep in better contact with friends and contacts in the countries he’s worked in.
“If you look at my Facebook page, you can see what friends I have; I don’t think 40 years ago you would’ve been able to do that. When you said goodbye to a place, you said goodbye without the hope of ever going back there again,” said James.
His assignments in Rio “happened by circumstance”, he said, as first he went there to open a Canadian trade office in Rio, and later was there as the Consul General, which is the equivalent of ambassador, the highest position one can have at the embassy.
These assignments worked particularly well for him as he spoke Portuguese, so he was able to interact with the local culture on a much more personal level.
While growing up in Weyburn, it never occurred to him that he might one day be working in a place like Rio de Janeiro, representing Canada.
“I always knew there was a bigger world out there,” he said. “It just seemed like a natural evolution” to end up in a diplomatic position like this.
Knowing a language of the culture you’re working with gives you an understanding of their perspective on the world, and “it’s not the same as ours. I suppose language is the key to the culture; once you understand the culture, the ability to work with them is much more interesting.”
Of all the places he’s served in, his posting in Iran “in a diplomatic sense made a big impact on me. The politics aside, it’s a fascinating country; the people are cultured and engaging, and they have an amazing history.”
Asked what places he might want to work in, James said the United States would be an interesting country to be assigned to.
As far as what he might say to a student considering his or her future career, he said the diplomatic corps is but one of hundreds of options out there if one wants an international flavour to their career, far more than there used to be.
James said there is “a lot of day-to-day grunt work” when working overseas with External Affairs, but there are also some extraordinary moments when he finds himself wondering, “How did I get here?”
Asked if he was aware of his Canadian identity when he’s serving in another country, he noted one is acutely aware of the freedoms and privileges one has as a Canadian when exposed to other countries.
“Despite our challenges here, they are minimal. We live in an exceptional environment in terms of the rights we have, the options and the choices you make as an individual. Canada is one of a handful of countries that gives citizens a quality of life. You’re very cognizant of that, and I value that immensely,” said James.
As far as missing Canada when he’s abroad, he chuckled and said, “Because I represent the Canadian government in my job, I don’t miss it. I live it every day. I miss friends and family who are distant, but when I’m overseas, I read about what’s going on. I read three to four Canadian papers every day, and I feel as informed of what’s going on as when I lived in Ottawa. That’s also an evolution of the last decade.”
Besides valuing being Canadian, he said he also places a lot of value in being from Weyburn.
“What gives you the ability to do anything is the education and upbringing in your formative years. The quality of the education makes options available to you,” he said, adding he always tells people about his hometown of Weyburn.
Sometimes when he tells people that, they’ll pull out their laptop and bring it up on the Internet as they try to figure out where he’s from.
The one message he would want students from Weyburn to realize is, “if you’re from Weyburn, you can go anywhere you want to — and it’s as valuable to stay here as to go elsewhere.”