Century Vision

New Canadian Ambassador Ian G. McKay looks forward to even stronger bilateral ties


In April of this year, Ian G. McKay was appointed as Canada’s Ambassador to Japan. As a native of British Columbia, the province that looks out toward the Indo-Pacific region, McKay is an ideal person to be guiding Canada–Japan relations.

His background in the political and business ties between the two countries is also long and distinguished. In the early part of his career, he spent 12 years in Japan as managing director of EuroBrokers Investment Inc., Japan. McKay’s career spans in various finance roles in New York, Tokyo and London, as well as key political and economic development roles at the municipal, provincial and federal levels. In 2018, he was appointed as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy to Japan to assist in the final negotiations for the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Most recently, he served for three years as the founding CEO of Invest in Canada, the investment promotion agency that helps global businesses invest in Canada.

In April 2019: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Ian McKay, CEO of Invest in Canada

McKay is no stranger to Japan. He speaks Japanese, has travelled around much of the country both professionally and personally, but admits to not having seen the island of Shikoku yet — something he plans to rectify during his term as Ambassador. A golf and food enthusiast, he is looking forward to being able to indulge in both pursuits as time allows. 

The Canadian recently had the chance to meet McKay at the Embassy of Canada in Tokyo to discuss his early priorities, the challenges and opportunities that he sees in the years ahead and some of the most pressing issues facing Canada and Japan.

How does your long experience with Japan help you in your role as Ambassador?

I think so much of what we do as diplomats, at the formal level, has rules and protocols and preordained requirements. I think, in my case in Japan, being able to speak in Japanese in between the moments of protocol and formal meetings about my time living in Hokkaido, Yamaguchi, Ibaraki and of course, in Tokyo in the 80s and 90s, is important. I think my Japanese friends, government and business stakeholders may find it easier to relate to the fact that I have over 40 years of personal experience here. So I think it’s an advantage for sure.

What are your main priorities for the beginning of your term?

We have an outstanding Embassy team here. The bilateral relationship between Canada and Japan is ever evolving. So in my early days, it’s really about understanding how well our capacity within the embassy here is aligned with our mandate and that will set us up for the next several years.

What do you see as the greatest oppor­tuni­ties and challenges that you’re going to face?

Well, I think the opportunities are becoming more and more self-evident. These days, looking at the 21st century, both Japan and Canada have committed to net zero economies by 2050, and there are abundant opportunities for Canada to be a really good partner with Japan with trade and investment opportunities. We will be focussed together on the development of technologies and clean and renewable energy solutions to help Japan and Canada get to net zero. I look at how we’ve always been a reliable exporter of energy to Japan, but now we’re looking at how can hydrogen and ammonia and other renewable or biomass energy solutions come to the fore. And I think that’s a really strong opportunity for Canada and Japan.

The flip side of all those opportunities is that they’re challenging objectives to have, but I think we’re going to do pretty well on them. And some of the challenges relate to the region that we’re in: Canada is an Indo-Pacific nation, and Japan is right at the crux of the Indo-Pacific area. So I think our challenges are going to be how we work together with some of the issues that are bubbling up in the Indo-Pacific.

How would you like to help develop stronger trade ties between Canada and Japan?

From the Canadian perspective, we have to make sure we continue to demonstrate that we’re a reliable trade partner, and reliable in terms of playing by the rules. That means maintaining very high trade standards with our free trade agreement, but also being reliable in our ability to efficiently get our energy and agriculture products in particular to Japan. I think over the Covid period, our experience was very, very good. Canada went out of its way to prove to Japan that when they needed energy, food supplies, agriculture and seafood and we delivered without any hiccups. That is going to be really important for us going forward, to continue to demonstrate Canada is reliable, and I think in turn that will boost our trade and investment portfolio.

What do you see as the most pressing issues that are facing Canada and Japan?  

I think it’s our joint engagement in the Indo-Pacific. Canada has deployed naval, air force and human assets in the region, to help Japan and help the United States. Being a key contributor to a multilateral approach to regional stability is increasingly being recognized at the highest levels in Japan. And I think that that will define how we work together in the 21st century to a great extent.

It’s also important to recognize that at the G7 in the UK, in May of this year, Canada and Japan signed a bilateral declaration of how we would work together to strengthen our own Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy which contains six key priorities that we’ve agreed to work on together. And it really provides a roadmap for me in my role to further the bilateral relationship. The six priorities that are identified in the document are:

  • rule of law
  • security
  • global health
  • energy
  • trade
  • climate change

So if you pick each of those apart, you can find ways in which Canada is already engaging with Japan, and where we can double down and further engage in bilateral and multilateral issues. And I think that’s going to be an important roadmap for me and my early days, as we formulate a plan to strengthen the relationship.

Prime Ministers Yoshihide Suga and Justin Trudeau at the G7 Carbis Bay summit in June 2021

What do you think about China having recently applied to join the CPTPP? 

First of all, there are 11 countries in the CPTPP. Canada and Japan are part of that founding 11-member group, and we should always take pride and satisfaction that others are trying to join this trade bloc. It proves that it’s working, and it’s successful. The UK is the first country to formally be in the accession process. With respect to China, any comment goes for any country that would purport to join the trade agreement. One of the things we did in the original CPTPP was make sure that it was as uncompromising in its high standards as any free trade deal in the Asia Pacific. We fought very hard to get those high standards. So for any country who’s looking to knock on the door, or get into the CPTPP, we would all just remind them that you’ve got to be able to demonstrate that you understand those high standards, that you’ve got a track record that shows you can meet them and that you can demonstrate a commitment going forward to continue to meet them.

From the Canadian perspective, we have to make sure we continue to demonstrate that we’re a reliable trade partner.

What are some of the major events on the near horizon for Canada–Japan ties? 

Canada and Japan have a series of bilateral, high-level political dialogues relating to our economic cooperation or military cooperation and our respective roles in multilateral organizations to which we both belong. For the past 20 months those series of engagements have been virtual. Both sides have expressed a really strong interest in starting to do them in person. This is the year that Japan’s officials are meant to travel to Canada. So in the near term, we’re really hoping we can start to reengage in person-to-person, face-to-face meetings. And those are really important stage setters. As both countries have recently held elections, we really want those meetings to take the form that they used to have. Because they’re very important in setting the agenda for my work, for my counterparts’ work in Ottawa. And so in the near term, that’s what we’re focused on making sure happens.

What are some of the things that are lost in these virtual sessions? 

Whether sessions are virtual or in person, there’s always a solid agenda. And all the agenda items get worked through, and they’re very efficient programs. But I’ll be frank: I think you miss out a lot on the non-agenda items that are part of a discussion — in the corridors, or at a dinner. You often find things that weren’t on the agenda that needed to be discussed. And so I am a believer that in-person meetings are important, and that they need to be brought back to the fore. Of course, we’ll only do that when it’s safe, and the travel regulations allow us to do it.

What would you like to have accomplished by the end of your term?

There are a number of things. I would like to be able to say that Canada is paying more attention to Japan, and Japan is paying more attention to Canada at the business and political level. That’s just a starting point. I would like to be able to say that our conventional trade and investment files have continued to increase, whether it’s energy, agricultural, seafood, consumer products or technology.

I really hope that Japan can look to Canada as a source of innovation. 

One thing that has really caught my attention, and I’m trying to raise it to the attention of our friends in Japan, is the extraordinary growth and prevalence of technology and innovation in Canada. And I think Japan — whether it’s at a macro level with the trading companies or SMEs, or even through the digital government agenda they’re trying to pursue — I really hope that Japan can look to Canada as a source of innovation. I want them to see our technology ecosystems, in different parts of the country, as places where they can invest, source, partner and bring some of those technologies home. And I’m not certain that Japan has viewed Canada as a technology hub, at least not until very recent years. I really hope we can make great strides in raising the awareness here, both at the business and political level, on what is an extraordinary story in Canada: our rapidly emerging and world class technology ecosystems. 

How would you be looking to help increase that awareness?

There are a couple of ways that I’d like to talk about it in Japan to make the story resonate. One is that every country likes to talk about their technology platforms, ecosystems, start-ups and unicorns that are being developed. In Canada’s case, I like to talk about how it is a product of some very long-term significant policy frameworks that Canada has embraced over decades. And the first on that list is immigration. The fact that our borders are open and that every year we strive to bring in one per cent of our population from around the world is, in my view, maybe the number one reason why we have such strong start-ups and such a strong technology community. So there’s an absolute correlation between our immigration policy and our truly global technology success.

And I also like to talk about the fact that the Government of Canada — successive governments — has invested in research institutes, technology research centres and universities to recruit and train the homegrown talent to be the best in class in technology. And I think when it’s talked about in those terms, it’s more than just a tagline that we have good technology. It’s a broader story of why Canada has emerged. In fact, Toronto, I think, is the second-biggest tech center in North America after Silicon Valley. And that’s an extraordinary accomplishment for Canada.

We need to build a broader, deeper, more sophisticated base of Japanophiles in Canada.

How can the Embassy and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan continue to help one another? 

As Canadians in Japan, the Embassy and the CCCJ need to share information and stay in contact. I will go out of my way with any Canadian stakeholders in Japan, or Japanese stakeholders who have a presence in Canada, to make sure they’re aware of the chamber and how they can assist and encourage them to become members, because I think it’s an important organization. It has been tough for the networking platforms to remain relevant during a Covid pandemic so I think that it is important that we support each other, share information, data and networks to really bring the Canadian story back through the CCCJ, and amongst other channels.

What do you think Canadians can learn from Japan? 

Even though Canada is an Indo-Pacific nation, most of the country — apart from British Columbia — is not facing the Indo-Pacific. If we’re going to be serious as a player, economically, politically, strategically and militarily in this region, we need to know more about it, and Japan is arguably our closest partner in the region. The perspective that Japan has on geopolitical issues and economic issues in this region is more sophisticated than that of many other countries’ perspectives. We can really learn from their enormous history and their engagement with the region. Canada has a front row seat here in Japan.

What’s your message to the Canada–Japan community?

We’ve got a great partnership. Canada and Japan have more than 90 years of diplomatic relationships, and our trade relationships have been great. I think it’s important for Canadian individuals, companies and educational organizations to focus hard on building inter-generational Japanese expertise, through exchange programs, internships and research and academic exchanges. We have to really double down on that: we need to build a broader, deeper, more sophisticated base of Japanophiles in Canada. This needs to happen at the political level, the business level, the student level and the cultural level. I don’t we think should ever take our eye off the ball. 

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