Dhaka Courier

The First of Friends

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Canadian High Commissioner to Bangladesh Benoit Préfontaine. Photo: UNB

Bangladesh has been one of the largest aid recipients from Canada for decades with over $4 billion coming since 1972. Today, Canada’s international development assistance in Bangladesh is focused on basic education, employment skills, primary healthcare and improving governance.

Canada says Bangladesh is among the countries where their development projects have been the most successful. With a limited resource base, Bangladesh, in the last 15 years, has witnessed one of the fastest reductions in poverty anywhere in the world. This is well-understood in Canada.

In an exclusive interview with the Dhaka Courier, Canadian High Commissioner to Bangladesh Benoit Préfontaine has said Bangladesh needs two things to be able to create more jobs and continue to grow maintaining the current growth trend.

Of the two things, according to High Commissioner Préfontaine, one is skilled workers and another is infrastructure.

“I think, there’s a lack of infrastructure which is slowing down Bangladesh’s ability to grow further, to develop and to get industrialized,” he said adding that infrastructure does not just mean power and gas connections rather it means roads, railways, airports and everything that is needed to move products and people.

The High Commissioner said it is a big area where some Canadian companies would eventually be able to play a role in accelerating those efforts on infrastructure front.

Current State of Relationship

The big picture is that things are going very well, said the High Commissioner terming Bangladesh-Canada relations “very strong and very productive.”

High Commissioner Préfontaine arrived in Bangladesh at the beginning of Rohingya crisis in 2017 and Rohingya issue, in fact, dominated in the early days of his two years assignment in Dhaka.

“The relationship remains strong. But I would say the focus has shifted from bilateral issues more to the multilateral issues,” said the Canadian diplomat.

The biggest challenge for him has been to make sure that his government does not forget the importance of Bangladesh-Canada bilateral relationship amid Rohingya crisis.

He could successfully convey everybody in his government that they cannot just look the relationship through the prism of Rohingya crisis.

“There’s much more that needs to happen between our countries aside from the Rohingya crisis. This is how I’ve been trying to make a difference reminding everyone that the story of Bangladesh is not just Rohingya but there’re so many other things happening in the country,” said High Commissioner Préfontaine.

Trade: An Exciting Area

The Canadian High Commissioner finds trade cooperation as an exciting area. For many Bangladeshis, especially the young people, there is a big fear that there will not be adequate jobs for them.

“When I look at what Canada can do to support continued economic growth and creation of jobs, I quickly come to the conclusion that there has to be private sector-led development in your country,” he said putting much emphasis on knowledge-based skilled workforce, more investment and more trade between the two countries.

For the first time ever, the Canadian High Commission here appointed a trade commissioner who spends all of the time speaking with Canadian companies about doing business, investment, finding Bangladeshi partners, bringing technology and education; skill development and Canadian curricula that would be useful in Bangladesh.

“To answer your question (on trade issue), I would say, we’re seeing results already,” said the High Commissioner mentioning that Canadian exports to Bangladesh have exceeded $1 billion mark in 2019.

Likewise, Bangladesh exports to Canada for January-October already exceed last year’s total, setting a new record.

He said this is a phenomenal increase and an all-time record and this is significant for them. It means that in South and South East Asia, Bangladesh is now one of the major markets for Canada.

“What we think now is that it is necessary to broaden in new sectors to have more investment and more joint ventures. These will be mutually beneficial for both of our countries,” said the High Commissioner mentioning that the year 2019 has been the best year ever and it is the beginning of a positive trend that will continue.

Rohingyas Unlikely to Move

The Canadian High Commissioner thinks that Rohingyas are unlikely to move in a large number back to Myanmar, their place of origin, as they hear all the time that conditions just are not conducive to a safe, dignified and voluntary return. “And so I think this is going to take time.”

The diplomat said they have to be realistic and most of the Rohingyas, if not vast majority will remain in Bangladesh for a long time. “We need to take care of them while they are here waiting to go home.”

Responding to a question, the High Commissioner said the solution to the Rohingya crisis lies in Myanmar and mentioned that genocide does not happen in a week rather it gets built up over a long time.

“This will take time to undo (as Myanmar doesn’t recognize Rohingyas as their citizens). And it has to come from within Myanmar not from the International community. The Rohingyas belong to Rakhine and this is why it will take time, I am afraid, before it’s safe for Rohingyas to go home,” the High Commissioner explained.

Canada and ICJ

Canada and the Netherlands jointly called upon all States Parties to the Genocide Convention to support The Gambia in its efforts to address the alleged acts of genocide committed against Rohingyas by Myanmar.

In a joint statement, the two countries welcomed The Gambia’s application against Myanmar before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the alleged violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention).

“That’s a strong case that has been put forward,” said the Canadian High Commissioner adding that they consider, what happened in August 2017, was a genocide and they will respect the decision of the UN court and other international bodies.

He said Canada is very supportive of the Rohingya and also feels lots of solidarity with the government of Bangladesh which is the government on the frontline hosting such a huge population.

Canada recognizes the immense generosity that the people and government of Bangladesh have demonstrated in welcoming Rohingya refugees and in keeping their borders open to those seeking refuge.

Responding to a question on the host community, the High Commissioner said this is an area where they are working gradually with all the partners and NGOs to mitigate the impact.

He said they understand the Bangladesh government measures to preserve the security in Cox’s Bazar and they are trying to do their best to ensure that both the host community around the camps and Rohingyas community can live side by side in harmony, help each other and do the best during difficult situation. “We’ll be there to help both the communities.”

Unfinished Task

The Canadian High Commissioner said what he is trying to do in the next six-eight months is to work on the education front which could be one of the important pillars of Canada-Bangladesh relationship.

He said many students are going to Canada right now to study and he thinks this will help Canadian companies find people who know well about Canada and who can help introduce Canadian companies in Bangladesh market.

The High Commissioner wants Canadian researchers to come and work with Bangladeshi universities and students exchange programmes so that they can come and spend a semester, year or even whole undergraduate degree in Bangladesh eventually.

“This kind of linkages I’m encouraging – university-to-university and college-to-college. I’m hoping that I’ll have enough time to get something concrete (on this),” he said.

People-to-People Ties

The High Commissioner said it is vital to have more movement between Bangladesh and Canada and more people-to-people contact.

“Few positive things happened recently,” he said mentioning that in October 2019 the Canadian government lifted travel advisory which had been in place since the Holey Artisan Bakery tragedy.

The Canadian diplomat said the gates are open now and Canadian citizens can come here and companies can send their employees.

“So, I expect a large increase,” he said adding that he, likewise, is hoping more Bangladeshis will continue visiting Canada to study, work, immigrate and visit their relatives as movement of people is important.

The Canadian High Commissioner laid emphasis on more collaboration between Canadian and Bangladeshi institutions.

“There’s a big need in this country for advanced skills. Not just for PhD scholars, I think in many technical disciplines, Canadian colleges would be able to come here and help educate a lot of workers to immediately find work in Bangladesh industry,” he said.

While he is here, the Canadian High Commissioner said, it would be fantastic if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits Bangladesh. “I know, he’s (Mr Trudeau) very interested in Bangladesh.”

  • Benoit Préfontaine
  • Interview
  • Canada
  • The First of Friends
  • Vol 36
  • Issue 26
  • AKM Moinuddin
  • DhakaCourier

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