It must have been a perverse element in my nature, but I have to admit that the KGB provided me with a lot of light relief. Apart from the ubiquitous mics in the wall to which we addressed frequent epithets as an antidote to frustration, I found in my own case that frequently the KGB ‘goons’, as we called them, would put me under intensive surveillance. (…)
I recall on one occasion accompanying Les Castors de Sherbrooke to Smolensk for a hockey game. This was back in the days when the only Canadian teams visiting Russia were amateurs – and not very good ones at that – whom the Soviet squads routinely gobbled up and spit out without a hiccup. The team, including myself, went for a walk in the afternoon through downtown Smolensk where, as usual on my out of town trips, I was accompanied by my shadows. One persistent fellow followed me into a department store, keeping a distance of about fifty feet. I sauntered along until he was passing a table of lingerie, at which point I suddenly turned and retraced my steps. The Soviet goons all seemed to have a pathological fear of being confronted by their quarry. This fellow was faced with the choice of either meeting me face to face or of feigning profound interest in women’s undergarments. He, of course, chose the panties and bras. I thought it only reasonable to give him adequate time to make a selection, so I stopped immediately behind him and waited there for some two or three minutes. He didn’t move a muscle for the entire period, at the conclusion of which I muttered into his ear in Russian, “amateur”, and moved on.
I as the sole pale face, with uncalloused hands, in this sea of tribesmen and warriors, would make an impromptu speech praising the Afghans for their resilience and ferocious resistance to the Soviet occupiers, and encouraging them to even greater efforts. Following my rather insipid discourse, two or three Afghans would rise and in succession deliver themselves of impassioned harangues with all the skill of master orators for which their race is so well known. The assemblage, inert to this point, would suddenly come to life and, with every few sentences uttered, spring to their feet and break into the chant, “God is Great!” The gist of their message always tended to be the same, that is, “Don’t send us food! Don’t give us sympathy! Don’t bother about medicine! Send us guns, guns and more guns! (…)
I myself felt intimidated – and we were supposedly on the same side. At the time, I felt absolutely nothing in common with the fighters in the circle around me and was under no illusion that our alliance was anything other than one of momentary convenience. Ironically, some twenty-five years later it was much the same band of mujahideen we had been exhorting to rise up and annihilate the Soviet occupiers who were engaged in deadly combat once again, this time against the occupying armies of the West.
“Beel”, he said, “Come”. The speaker was Mikhail Gorbachev, lately President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It was past eleven in the evening at the Palliser Hotel in Calgary in March of 1993, the end of the first full day of a ten-day cross-Canada tour. Typical of each day to come, the program had included public appearances, meetings with the media, an official lunch and dinner. Now it was time to relax and recover from the lengthy flight from Moscow via Vancouver. Or so I thought!
Summoned into the presidential suite along with the other nine members of his entourage, all of us expected to say a hasty good night. That was not to be. Without missing a beat the President bade us all sit down at the large dining table, myself at his right hand. He thought for a moment, then said in Russian, “We need whiskey,” whereupon I ordered up a couple of jugs of the finest from room service. The party went on till 1:30 a.m. and included a number of folksongs lustily belted out by all, including the President. If the rest of us were droopy-eyed by the time we were released, not so with Gorbachev himself. A man of prodigious energy, he was the life of the party, one moment holding forth on the incredible productivity of Canadian agriculture, the next challenging one or other of his tablemates over criticism that he had been too soft on demonstrators in the last days of the Union.
This was to be the pattern throughout the journey. Indeed, on the flight from Moscow as everyone else was sleeping, he sat wide-eyed and insisted on grilling me on all manner of themes related to Canadian politics and the economy. The schedule each day was full, to the point of being hectic, but this did not alter the midnight routine. “Beel, come!” Then, “Sit.” Gorbachev did not speak English except for a few words. And so I ended up at his side each night, surrounded by former members of the Soviet Politburo and senior bureaucracy, listening with the greatest of fascination to the jokes about Brezhnev’s daughter, the nastiest of comments about Boris Yeltsin, newly acceded President of the Russian Republic and principal player in engineering an end to the Union, and so on. Yeltsin was due to visit Vancouver in a couple of weeks and to stay in the same presidential accommodation as Gorbachev. Said Gorbachev to me, holding his nose, “Better open the windows wide and air the place out. Very smelly.”
On the evening of October 30, I attended an outdoor reception at the residence of the local UNICEF representative. As I was schmoozing in the garden, the host called me over to introduce me to the person he was talking to. I didn’t catch the person’s name, but we chatted for a few minutes after stumbling on the fact that he was of Russian descent and that I had served in Moscow. I excused myself and moved on. Another colleague standing nearby asked me, “Do you know whom you were talking to?” “No,” I said, “I missed the name.” “Well,” he replied, “that was Peter Ustinov!”
The next morning, Ustinov was sitting in an office in the compound at No. 1 Safdarjung Road, where he was to interview Prime Minister Gandhi for Irish television. As Mrs. Gandhi was making her way to the interview, she was suddenly gunned down by her Sikh bodyguards. She died shortly thereafter in the National Hospital. (…)
The cremation took place at dusk in the beautiful park on the banks of the Yamuna River near the same Raj Ghat where the funeral rites of Mahatma Gandhi had years before been held. Foreign dignitaries were mobilised at a designated spot and transported by bus to the cremation site. In true Indian fashion, we were all packed rather chaotically into the transport, with more people standing than sitting. I found myself with the Japanese Prime Minister on one side, and a tiny lady on the other who couldn’t reach a strap to hold onto, and so relied on me to keep her on her feet. It was Mother Teresa.
Ongoing drama was provided throughout our time in Cuba by the frequent hijackings of airliners from the U.S. to Cuba by various disgruntled types, ranging from criminals to Black Panthers to the mentally deranged. Given our own challenges in moving to and from Canada, it became something of a sick joke to us to wonder if we might book seats on Air Hijacker. If an Air Canada flight should appear at the airport, why should we not be able to take advantage of the direct flight home? Included in the list of the dozens seized was a 747 en route from New York to Puerto Rico in 1971. The 747’s were in their infancy at that point and Fidel (Castro), with his ever-inquisitive mind, made a point of personally going on board this behemoth of the skies to check it out. The situation was serious enough that at the beginning of 1970 the Canadian government proposed to Cuba the negotiation of an anti-hijacking agreement. (…)
I have often reflected in these latter years on my own role as cold warrior in Cuba. I was not focused at the time on the horrendous atrocities committed on the peoples of Chile, Guatemala, Argentina, Brazil and elsewhere, on the subversion of democracy, or on the substantive part played by the CIA. The extent of these activities, the violations of international law and the moral depravity attached to them have only become more fully revealed in recent years. I also was barely aware of the CIA’s concerted efforts to assassinate Fidel. Why they were not part of my focus I simply don’t know and have no excuse for this. Had I been fully briefed on them, would I have acted differently? Would I have assisted the Agency so enthusiastically? In all truthfulness, I have to admit that it would probably not have changed things much. While a moral issue for me these many years later, it was not at the time. In those days, I, like many of my colleagues, was so caught up in the whole Cold War mindset that I was prepared do almost anything for the cause.
One of the few times in my diplomatic career that I felt myself at considerable personal risk was in the summer of 1982 when I made two journeys to Tehran. Diplomatic relations between our two countries were in suspense as a result of the so-called ‘Canadian Caper’ when Ambassador Ken Taylor and his crew had spirited six Americans out of Iran, much to the fury of Ayatollah Khomeini and his fellow revolutionaries. (…)
At the Foreign Ministry I was ushered past military checkpoints and offices filled with sombre secretaries in black chadors to the Bureau for the Americas and Europe. The whole atmosphere was bleak, like the rest of the city where economic activity seemed to have been frozen by the Revolution. Construction cranes towered over the city – all of them inactive. The Director General, who was to serve as my principal contact throughout, was a young, intense and rather fierce looking man about twenty-five years of age by the name of Sadr. I was given to understand that his main qualification for the job was the fact that he had been one of the student leaders of the Revolutionary Guard in the takeover of the U.S. embassy. In the crazy disturbed world of Iranian politics, this seemed logical enough. I expected a good dressing down and was not disappointed. (…)
I just plugged my ears and let him get on with the rant. I reasoned that it was as well to let the Iranians purge themselves of the venom and vitriol in their spleen. My young interlocutor did a good job of this. He began his diatribe more or less at the beginning of the universe and then, as in a James Michener novel, worked his way through the glorious history of the Persian peoples and their empire, right up to the contemporary, godless perfidy of Canada, the ‘little Satan’. With my somewhat warped sense of humour, I found the whole thing a little bit funny and had to restrain myself from smiling on one or two occasions at malevolent descriptions of the Canadian government that even our parliamentary opposition might have found difficult to swallow! We were, Dr. Sadr said, puppets of the U.S., collaborators in counter-revolutionary activity and, what was beyond the pale, purveyors of Zionist influence. The Foreign Ministry, he said, took particular offence at Ambassador Taylor’s ‘betrayal’ since the Ministry had been putting trust in him as an intermediary.
I find amusing, reading through journals I kept at the time, the number of references to the territory’s insufferable colonial society. Even as head of the Canadian mission, I frequently felt insulted by the rudeness and superior airs put on by some of the snobbish Brits with whom we interacted or found ourselves sitting beside at dinner. These were the last vestiges of a colonial mentality and, indeed, totally out of keeping with the grand hospitality I had enjoyed earlier as a student in Glasgow. One could only imagine what the ambiance must have been like during the peak period of British rule in India, Malaya, South Africa and elsewhere in the Empire. During our first year in Hong Kong, my reaction was simply to seethe inwardly and keep it to myself. The solution, I learned, was to preempt the insult by acting a bit overbearing myself and pointedly ignoring those who would be rude. In those days, I felt little remorse over the prospect of the Hong Kong British getting their comeuppance from the Chinese who, in their own way, could be equally insufferable when they chose. As Sir Philip Haddon-Cave, the Finance Secretary, pointed out to me shortly after our arrival, “Don’t be fooled. When you look at a small Chinese boy selling widgets on the street, just remember: when he looks at you, he thanks God he wasn’t born a round-eye!”
The hypocrisy of Britain’s last governor, Christopher Patten, in raising the flag of democracy and becoming teary-eyed over the ‘abandonment’ of the Hong Kong Chinese as he took his departure was something I found unfortunate. The colony existed through most of its colonial history under iron-fisted British rule and with scarcely a shred of political democracy. (…)
The sudden influx of so-called ‘boat people’ from Vietnam in their thousands shortly after our arrival triggered a crisis in which Canada became intimately involved. (…)The exodus quickly turned into a humanitarian crisis of major proportions. The sight of freighters grounded off the Hong Kong coast, overloaded with human cargo, stranded for months, and of small boats loaded with refugees with harrowing tales of encounters with weather and pirates clutched at the heartstrings. The refugee issue became a political football in Canada. I pitched in, strongly supporting Canadian humanitarian intervention. Over a relatively short period, our immigration section was ordered to come up with many thousands of refugees and move them to Canada. This was over and above the already large number of Chinese applicants for normal immigration visas. The task was Herculean, although made lighter by a drastic loosening of the criteria for selection. It came down basically to a question of if you had a head and most of the necessary appendages, you qualified. Our people, with section head John MacLachlan at the helm, did a tremendous job. The main role I played, apart from lobbying my own government, was having my photo occasionally taken for the media kissing babies aboard chartered aircraft about to depart for Vancouver.
I have to admit though that I never did reach the point where I felt myself fully at home in the world of External. I was neither sophisticated, overly intellectual nor from the side of the tracks that many of my colleagues came from. My background was very modest. For the family I grew up in, having sufficient resources to go out and buy Sunday dinner was a rare treat. My mother, with whom I always felt great affinity, was always most comfortable in the back pew of the church, away from the limelight. Those genes she must have passed on to me. There were others among our class of ’61 who came from similar modest origins, but who nevertheless easily made the jump. I never did.
As such I always carried inside me something of an inferiority complex, and this was to stick with me throughout the career. Years later as ambassador, there was always a part of me that was quite out of place in the world of the affluent and the urbane – and indeed the often superficial – in which ambassadors move. (…) Indeed, when I finally left the Service twenty-seven years later, there was nothing I welcomed more than the opportunity to move back into the relative obscurity of the last pew.
Photo: Bill with his parents and siblings, David and Mary, at the family home in Niagara Falls, early 1950s.