The UB Post sat down with David Sproule, who has been serving as the Canadian ambassador to Mongolia since September 2017, to converse about the bilateral relations between Mongolia and Canada, the embassy’s recent operations and more.
You are from a region with a similar climate as Mongolia. How is the winter here for you?
This is around the time winter begins where I grew up in Alberta, Canada. The days are about the same length, the topography is very similar in terms of the Taiga, and people start to look like the people here in Mongolia in terms of their dress as they start to wear more for the winter coming along.
Alberta has very clear days with blue skies and it’s usually very sunny. That is a great thing because I lived in places where it is quite dark and dreary during the winter. Mongolia and Canada, Alberta in particular, don’t have that.
How do you spend your free time? Alberta has high mountains just like Mongolia. Do you like to explore nature during your free time? Have you had the opportunity to travel around Mongolia yet?
Yes. I’m a runner so during my spare time, I like to run around the city, including the National Garden Park. I’m quite active in the arts community and attend many art exhibitions and public events that the art community sponsors. Whenever I get the opportunity, I try to get out of the capital to see things in the countryside. I’ve been to Khentii a couple of times, also went to Dornod, Darkhan, Erdenet, Bulgan and South Gobi. I want to get to the west of Mongolia in the near future. It’s getting a little bit cold now but maybe I’ll get to do that before winter fully comes.
Prior to arriving here, where did you get information about Mongolia? What was your impression of Mongolia before arriving and has it changed?
My impressions of Mongolia was very much shaped by the things I learned in school and my own reading about the country, particularly about Chinggis Khaan, who had such a huge and long-lasting impact on the history, including European history. The next strong impression was my fascination with Mongolia's geography between very two large and powerful countries – Russia and China. I was very interested in how it had managed to maintain its independence, at least its formal independence, given the historical pressures and I’ve been able to learn a little more about that.
I think the third strong impression is that I wanted to learn more about how Mongolia had come out from the communist era when it was so closely tied into the soviet walk, its development of democratic institutions and also its adoption of a free market economy.
I’m very interested in sports and I couldn’t help but notice that in international competitions, including the Olympics, Mongolians were really good at wrestling, judo, and archery. I always wondered how such a small country (in terms of population) could be so successful and assumed that you have a very sporty and athletic people in this country.
I’d like to add that another thing I’ve notice that Mongolians are so skilled at is weightlifting. You got some very powerful men and women in this country.
How elaborate were the reading materials that you used in school to study about Mongolia?
We didn’t have a dedicated syllabus or course for and on Mongolia per se but when we studied about Asia and history of back when Chinggis Khaan was conquering so many countries, we learned about him. It was also part of our study of leaders from the past or the great conquers. Obviously, we learned about Chinggis Khaan, Alexander the Great, and historical figures Julius Caesar, and other monumental historical figures. What was fascinating to everyone about Chinggis Khaan is that he was really the paramount Asian conqueror. Most of the rest we studied about were from Europe, so it was fascinating.
We didn’t have the internet so we read a lot of books about Chinggis Khaan. There’s so many illusions about him. Even in our language, when we talk about powerful and fierce leaders, Chinggis Khaan always comes out. Naturally, you want to find out more about him.
You received a special award for your service in Afghanistan. Have you had the opportunity to meet Mongolian peacekeepers at the time?
I served as ambassador of Canada to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. It was a little bit before Mongolian peacekeepers became very active in Afghanistan. But that being said, I’m very pleased that Mongolia has been such an active and supportive member of the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. It gives me an opportunity to meet Mongolians who served there and have a lot to talk about.
How would you describe the current bilateral relations between Mongolia and Canada? What kinds of projects and programs are you carrying out here?
I think it’s very good and always getting better. As you know, Canada is, in terms of the commercial side, the largest investor in mining in Mongolia, which is its major industry. For that reason alone, on an economic basis, our relations is very important. Canada has also been active in terms of a third neighbor partner as Mongolia has welcomed democratic institutions and free market economy.
Another area that I would say Canada has been active is the development field. We have major programs to assist Mongolia in developing the oversight and regulation of its mining industry so that it is environmentally friendly and that it maximizes the benefits to Mongolians through things such as revenue collection and the imposition of royalties. These prograns can oversee a regulatory structure to efficiently manage the natural resources.
We’re putting a lot of emphasis on programs to assist women and girls, which is a dominant feature development policy. Canada believes that this is a resource the world possesses that can be usefully taken advantage of for the good of the country and ensuring that women and girls are empowered and get opportunities that in the past, often times, they did not. I would have to say this isn’t as large as our multimillion dollar development programs but it is really important in the people-people sense and that is our Canada Fund for Local Initiatives. Through this program, we support about 10 to 15 projects per year and each project gets from about 15,000 CAD or so to 40,000 CAD. They are particularly aimed at small projects such as helping out medical clinics or developing a cooperative in a province where people will be able to effectively sustain themselves economically, or environmental awareness among young people, or more awareness building among youth, particularly women.
We’ve been doing these projects for almost 21 years. Even before we had an embassy here, which came 10 years ago, we were coming here and developing these projects. It is grassroots programs that are helping average people and giving them, what we like to say in English, “a leg up” that they might otherwise not get.
We have another program that is very exciting. Together with the UNDP, we are assisting the Mongolian government in developing civil service. We believe that it will be an important asset for Mongolia to improve its governance so that there is established, not constantly changing, expertise below the political level that will remain in place and working transparently whenever a government comes into power. That civil service will go to very high senior levels so that it can provide the kind of neural, professional, incorruptible service that Mongolians would like.
We have a program to assist youth ice hockey. We have brought over some equipment, including skates, paddings, hockey sticks and helmets, and we are bringing a whole container worth in the next couple of months, which will include hundreds of pairs of skates, sticks, and pads. We see this as a natural connection between our countries.
Mongolia has some excellent hockey players but has not been able to pursue ice hockey as actively since the end of the socialist era when Russia, or the Soviet Union, was so active here. This sport is really thriving back again and we would like to help it because Canadian boys and girls love their hockey and I think Mongolian boys and girls love their hockey and want a lot more opportunities to play it. We’ll see if we can be helpful in that regard.
We’re seeing if we can bring some coaches from Canada with experience in teaching young children play hockey. When we do this, we’re always learning from Mongolians too. There’s a lot of similarities with the youth, climate, the conditions for ice, and Mongolians and Canadians like contact sport.
Currently, Steppe Arena LLC is working to build an Olympic-level ice rink in Mongolia. Has the company approached the embassy for a potential cooperation? Would the Canadian Embassy be interested in assisting this project?
We’re going to concentrate on helping youth hockey. We will be very pleased if Mongolia is able to build an indoor ice rink because it will really enhance opportunities to develop ice hockey. There may well be some Canadian input into the project. We don’t know but all efforts are focused on youth hockey for now. We’re very supportive of the initiative and we hope that those who are planning will succeed in opening an arena very soon.
What is the embassy doing in regard to the 45th anniversary of the diplomatic relations of Mongolia and Canada?
We’ve had a celebratory reception kindly hosted by the government of Mongolia and we will have another one at the end of this month. We also have had some arts initiatives. We’re going to have a very special arts exhibition by a very talented Canadian photographer to coincide with the end of the month reception. We’re looking into organizing an essay competition for youth on topics about Canada and Mongolia. We did one last year and it was very successful. We will probably have an ice hockey competition – Canada versus Mongolia – this year, where I will present a trophy at the end. By the way, the Mongolian side won last year.
We will continue last year’s events for celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary of becoming a nation. We’re developing a small international area of trees and park benches here in Ulaanbaatar, which is called Maple Grove.
There’s something linked to our 45th year, but something in our 45th year that we think is pretty special and we’re putting a lot of effort into it, assisting as an embassy. We have a remarkable eye surgeon from British Columbia, Hugh Parsons, from the Laurel Foundation who has developed a program to not only provide eye care and surgery in techniques Mongolia has not had up until now – things like cornea and retina – but also to train Mongolian doctors in these techniques. This project is aimed to enhance eye care and surgery in Mongolia with a special emphasis on providing medical eye care outside of the capital. This has burgeoned into the involvement of many doctors and nurses from Canada and the donation of very sophisticated equipment for surgeries. We’re cooperating with the Ministry of Health in this regard. We are also cooperating with the Ministry of Finance in terms of bringing equipment over. This is perhaps our proudest grassroots programs and it really isn’t a government program but just Canadians helping Mongolians – average Canadians who have made a connection with this country and want to do something special.
I’d like to mention another Canadian who has been here for some years and is doing some wonderful work. Her name is Julie Veloo of the Veloo Foundation. This foundation has done quite a number of projects but the one that I have spent some time seeing and assisting along with others from private sectors is a kindergarten for children who live in the ger district on the edge of Ulaanchuluut dumpsite. More than 200 children go to this kindergarten and they are given three meals a day as they engage in kindergarten activities, and even given clothing. Some of the parents got employment at the kindergarten to assist in terms of childcare. It’s a remarkable contribution.
We’re also considering bringing Canadian throat singers maybe some time next year. They’re usually indigenous people, most of whom are singers from the north. Mongolia is known for its throat singers so I think it would be really interesting for them to come and collaborate, compare techniques, exchange ideas, and perform for each other. Many of our throat singers are women.
What are your future plans for broadening Mongolia and Canada’s bilateral relations?
We hope to increase the amount of business we do. We’re a big investor but we’d like to sell more products, expertise and knowhow, and be providers of equipment and services, particularly in junction with your very dynamic mining industry. I would like to see Canada develop programs which bring average Canadians with average Mongolians a lot closer and increase the number of tourists. We’ve got some real collaboration to do in terms of professional civil service development. I think we have a lot of opportunities to assist in fields for women and girls, which is a big priority for Canada.
I see that we can increase significantly the awareness of our two countries’ cultures which are distinct but still have a lot of commonalities. We have a very significant military program for Mongolian soldiers. Some of them are about sharing our expertise in peacekeeping but also other areas. Even now, we’re doing some police training for Mongolians. We’ve had military training for a long time in Mongolia but not so much of police training which we had a few weeks ago.
I think Canada can be Mongolia's most important third neighbor.