Sandra McCardell: “We should run countries like a girl, and be ambassadors like a girl!”

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Sandra McCardell, responsible for the Canadian high commissions in Mauritius and South Africa.

Sandra McCardell, responsible for the Canadian high commissions in Mauritius and South Africa.

Weekly got hold of Pretoria-based Canadian diplomat Sandra McCardell, responsible for the Canadian high commissions in Mauritius and South Africa, to talk about sexist comments, immigration, Porlwi by Nature, Mauritian students and… whether the land of maple syrup plans to pour more money into our economy any time soon. 

In the context of your country’s 150th anniversary, what would you say is your biggest achievement as a country, if you could choose one thing, and one thing only?
(Laughs) It’s difficult to choose just one achievement in 150 years. If I have to, I’ll go for what we have done internationally to help secure peace and safety. We see ourselves as a middle power. We believe in a world where the values of democracy and good governance are respected. Canadians are particularly proud of our former prime minister, Lester Bowles Pearson (1897-1972) and the Nobel Peace Prize that he won for his work to resolve the Suez Canal Crisis. We have always worked for an international system of rules where all countries are treated fairly. 

Is Mauritius treated fairly right now? We’re referring specifically to the Chagos issue…
The Chagos issue belongs to the parties that are involved in it. It’s for them to solve it. It’s not something that we are directly involved in. 

What is your involvement with Mauritius, then?
Canada sees Mauritius as a country with which we share similar values. We both have a dual identity – we are both bilingual, and members of the commonwealth as well as of La Francophonie. I had a discussion with your president about how Canada and Mauritius can work together on issues like climate change and women’s empowerment, which is something that Canada is very focused on. 

We just had a heated debate in Mauritius about women’s empowerment and gender equality. Tell us, would Canadians be upset if a politician was accused of asking questions “like a girl?”
They certainly should! A large group of a Canadians would understand that it’s a very inappropriate comment to make, but I don’t want to idealise my country by saying that such a comment would be unheard of. It should be unheard of, though! Saying things like asking questions like a girl, or running or throwing like a girl, all of that needs to stop. I think that we are getting there. In fact, I think that we should run countries like a girl, and be ambassadors like a girl. It should be a positive thing!  

Is there anything Canada does better than Mauritius when it comes to gender equality?
There is no country in the world that has solved the issue of gender inequality. All of us are learning, but Canada certainly considers that women are a key to economic growth. We see that as a political point. Canada has adapted a feminist International Assistance Policy to advance gender equality. We’ve been very clear that our role is to uplift women. We haven’t actually fully achieved it ourselves yet, but we are working on it and we think that others should too. 

When we speak about equality, the question of gay rights also crops up. Canada is making headlines right now because of your government’s decision to compensate victims of discrimination financially. 
Yes, and that is a very new initiative! Canada needs to go further when it comes to respecting the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Bisexual and Queer (LGTBQ) people, and this is a step that we are taking to make sure that we are going further. Mauritius also needs to go further, as do other countries to make sure that everybody’s rights are respected.

Is Mauritius respecting everybody’s rights now?
I had a discussion with members of the Young Queer Alliance at our reception for Canada’s 150th anniversary. They indicated that there are errors that they want to address. We had a discussions about the challenges that LGTBQ people face in society as well as within their families. But they also said that although Mauritius is not where they want it to be, they do acknowledge that, compared to most of the rest of the African continent, Mauritius is far ahead in many aspects. I think that it’s a good sign that an organisation like that exists here and that they are undertaking activities to support LGTBQ people. Internationally, Canada is more concerned about countries where LGTBQ people are actively persecuted. 

But the Criminal Code here still bans gay sex…
Obviously, my country has its own views on whether that should be the case. We allow gay marriages. I think that says it all!

How do you as a diplomat go about defending gay rights, and human rights in general, while at the same time showing respect for the traditions that exist in the countries you are a guest in?
It’s a challenge! In some countries, our opinions differ hugely. The question then is whether it is more effective to have conversations with leaders in private, or to make public statements. The goal is to achieve results. In some cases, public statements might not be the most effective way, but sometimes they are. What we look at in particular is how to work with local organisations. What isn’t helpful is for the discussion to become about us – us being foreigners, westerners and members of the developed world coming in and criticising from the outside. What works best is when you work with citizens in the country that have an association and are advocating their human rights to be respected. Then, we support them because they are directly affected by the situation, they are voters in their country and they are the ones who understand the local culture. 

Let’s talk about education. Some are under the impression that it’s becoming more difficult for Mauritian graduates of Canadian universities to establish themselves in your country…
I don’t think it’s becoming more difficult! Our educational ties are strong. Right now, Mauritius is number 7 in terms of the number of students coming to Canada from African countries. It has been growing a lot in the last years. That is something that we want to encourage. We do feel that we can offer Mauritians high-quality education. Moreover, Mauritians tend to get comfortable in Canada very quickly although, admittedly, our climate doesn’t work for everybody. (Laughs) We are a country of immigrants and we do have a programme that allows students to stay in Canada. There are internship programmes that work well. However, I think that all countries that receive students from Africa are conscious that taking the best and brightest out of the continent is not at all in line with our development policy. It doesn’t make sense to talk about the need to build up other countries’ economies and then lure bright young people away from there. 

So, are you becoming more like the UK, which has a policy of telling graduates to “go back home and help their countries” after they graduate instead of building a life in your country?
I wouldn’t say that it’s harder than it used to be to come to Canada. I would say that, in some ways, that circuit of coming and going is perhaps a bit easier than before. The global flow of people around the world is happening more smoothly than it used to. There are a lot of Canadian-Mauritians who used to live in Canada and have opened businesses in Mauritius now. I also understand that Mauritius is interested in developing into an educational hub. That would also be a good way of keeping young people on the continent. We are fully aware that Africa needs its people to come back.

But what about Mauritians who want some international work experience in Canada, before eventually going back home? Does your labour market have anything to offer them?
Our economy is generally doing relatively well, although all countries have been struggling a bit since 2008. But, in general, we are doing well, being a natural resource-based country. We have our mining, oil and gas industries. We are developing a stronger ICT sector. We are also working on renewable energy as a complement to oil and gas. 

Apart from education, what are your plans for Mauritius as our Canadian high commissioner?
What brought me here right now is that we sponsored Porlwi By Nature. We had a speaker coming over to talk about sustainable cities, among other things. I’ve also been hearing a lot about what is going on here when it comes to innovation and Mauritius acting as a gateway to Africa. It’s an area that I look forward to exploring. The education segment is doing well but we are looking into developing partnerships with Mauritius when it comes to areas like climate change and the environment.

Mauritius has banned the use of plastic bags – is there any other immediate measure that Canada has taken that we should consider?
Good for Mauritius – we haven’t done that yet! Canada has large tracks of water so we are obviously interested in maintaining the drinkability of water. There are lots of ways to do it. Reducing plastic is one way of doing it, and reducing industrial pollution into water is another. Right now, we’ve formed a group with the UK to reduce the use of coal. That is our newest initiative between government, companies and NGOs. We are also having a large debate about materialism and consumption, about how much the climate is affected by it. Every country in the world has signed the Paris agreement except for one [the US – Ed.]. Just one! It’s important to have a debate among countries about climate change.

But is it fair to discuss climate change with developing countries that often have more immediate and pressing problems to deal with?
That is why it’s up to the more developed countries to support them. You can’t ask countries that are trying to fund their healthcare and education to care for environmental issues; nor can you ask them to forego economic development or job creation. After the Paris agreement, Canada contributed 2.65 billion dollars to helping developing states respond to climate change. There are ways of being smart about it, ways to work towards job creation and economic development in an environmentally-friendly way. It’s not an easy path, but it is a discussion that we need to have. 

How about having a political discussion? Politically, Mauritius finds itself in an interesting situation right now. We have a by-election coming up soon…
I wouldn’t be able to comment on the political situation here.

How about commenting on our legislation instead? Mauritius is looking into introducing a law for regulating the financing of political parties. 
In Canada, we do have laws that limit and restrict political donations. We also require transparency in the origin of the donations. That is certainly an important part of ensuring transparency in the political system. But it’s not a new law; it forms part of our system. 

Speaking about money, what commitments have you made to Mauritius in terms of financial assistance?
Mauritius is too wealthy for us to provide bilateral economic assistance, so we don’t. There is around 40,000 dollars coming in through other development mechanisms. Through our embassy fund, we give money to civil society and organisations here. This year, we focused on the environment. We’ve also put $2.5 billion into a green climate fund, from which Mauritius received $300,000. 

Any plans on making us happy by increasing that sum?
Not right now! We’re keeping it stable. 

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