Jonathan Fried, LLB 1977

Alumnus Jonathan Fried, LLB 1977, Coordinator for International Economic Relations at Global Affairs Canada on life in government service— and the life-changing  Japanese tsunami

Formerly: Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the WTO; Ambassador of Canada to Japan; Executive Director for Canada, Ireland and the Caribbean at the International Monetary Fund; Senior Foreign Policy Adviser to the Prime Minister and Head of the Canada-United States Secretariat, Privy Council Office; Senior Assistant Deputy Minister for the Department of Finance, member of the Board of Directors of EDC and Canada's deputy for the G-7; academic, multilateral trade negotiation and public international law expert

Interview by Lucianna Ciccocioppo / Photography by Rémi Thériault

From the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Nexus.

Lucianna Ciccocioppo: Welcome home! You’ve recently returned to Canada from Geneva. What’s a typical day like for you at Global Affairs Canada?

Jonathan Fried: I'm not sure there's any such thing as a typical day. If today is a good example, I just returned from a meeting that was a bit of a postmortem or a follow-up to the recently concluded G7 summit hosted by Italy, where trade and climate change were prominent among the issues debated. I'll go from here to provide an overview briefing to over 40 outgoing Canadian ambassadors that are heading off to their postings to help ensure that they carry this kind of perspective with them.

Lucianna: And conducting media interviews for your alumni magazine.

Jonathan Fried: The highlight of my week. That's just one day. Each day is different.

Lucianna: What were some of the top challenges you faced over the span of your career?

Jonathan Fried: The top three would include—number one, being central to the NAFTA negotiations as the Chief Counsel for Canada, working together with supporting ministers and chief negotiators to craft an agreement that ultimately comprised 2,000 pages, 22 different working groups and chapters, on subjects ranging from agriculture to industrial safety inspection to cross-border trade and services, ensuring consistency across all of the subjects covered. In addition, we were working in three languages under tremendous time pressures because we were anxious to conclude the negotiations within the period authorized by US trade promotion authority, which in those days was called Fast Track Authority, with US and Mexican counterparts, and reporting constantly both to our own and the other two governments. Further, we were marshaling legal talents from across government, getting input from provinces, from business, and from others outside government. It was a major, major challenge under severe time constraints.

Number two, at the time I was Ambassador in Tokyo we responded to the tsunami and the following nuclear consequences. It was a tremendous personal and professional challenge.

If there were a third, it's not a particular event as much as a particular role. I had the privilege of serving as the Senior Foreign Policy Adviser to Prime Minister Martin and then for the first five months of Prime Minister Harper's tenure. The closest equivalent familiar to people in the media would be the US National Security Adviser, where each day required one to be on top of every world event and its possible consequences for Canada and for Canadians. And, in fact, in the first days of Prime Minister Martin's administration— I hope it wasn't a foreshadowing of Japan—we had the challenge of the big tsunami that affected Southeast Asia through to Sri Lanka and south Asia, and the emergency response that had to be marshaled in response to that.

Lucianna: Take us back to when you were Ambassador in Japan, and the tsunami struck. What happened?

Jonathan Fried: The tsunami's centre was offshore and was centered about 250-300 kilometres northeast of Tokyo. It was the fourth-largest earthquake ever recorded, and thus its shock waves and ripple effects were felt in Tokyo itself. It was a dreary, cold afternoon with mixed snow and rain, past 2:00 pm in Tokyo. We were in our embassy offices. The building shook significantly. We knew it was an earthquake; we immediately evacuated. The tremors lasted for a good five minutes, which is an extraordinary length. My first and foremost responsibility was to account for and ensure the safety of all staff. We marshaled everyone outside.

Second, and of course, immediately thereafter, we had to ensure that the families were safe and sound, whether kids at school or spouses at home. Then, while getting as much information as one could from the local authorities, and getting an engineer to tell us whether it was safe to go back in to the building at all, we had to immediately start finding out about Canadian citizens in the affected region. And we had to communicate all of this, at the same time, back to authorities in Canada. In those circumstances, you don't really have time to think about how you're feeling. You have to maintain a very cool head and just go about what is most important, which are almost concentric circles of your staff, their families and Canadians.

We were allowed back into our building two or three hours later. On the fourth, fifth and sixth floors—it's a six storey building—bookcases had been thrown over, computers were on the floor, pictures had fallen off the wall, things were broken. And that's 200 kilometres away. Imagine the impact at the epicentre.

Interestingly enough, Japan—being in the seismic region on the other side of the Ring of Fire that also affects the west coast of North America, such as the San Francisco earthquake of 1906—is well-prepared for these things. So very few injuries or fatalities are attributable to the earthquake itself.

The real damage—and it was a massive proportion—came from the resulting tsunami. Japan is a volcanic archipelago, like Norway and other countries in Scandinavia, with a heavily indented coastline, with mountains coming right down to the coast, that funnels the waves into even bigger channels. So the waves that came in reached, in some areas, as far as 10 kilometres inland. Then, within a day, the flooding and resulting accident at the Fukushima nuclear facility unfolded, which meant in addition to dealing with the tsunami, we had to then take account of and be totally on top of what the possible consequences were in the midst of international media that may have been exaggerating or magnifying the potential threat.

You don't do that all by yourself. We had tremendous support, including an emergency task force assembled in Ottawa, which included our nuclear safety authorities. We shared information, of course, with our closest friends and allies, the Japanese and also the American, British, Australian and New Zealand representatives and authorities. Within 48 hours, we were able to install radiation detectors both within our embassy and just outside to ensure that whatever alleged fallout was drifting across the country remained at very safe levels, so that we could advise our citizens and our business people that it was safe.

We monitored a constant flow of information regarding water quality and food quality. And all of this was going on while we deployed teams out to the affected region to locate and offer assistance and evacuate, if necessary, Canadians who were there. There were about 500 living in that region. Many were long-term residents, intermarried or well-established business people. Some were young exchange teachers; some were longstanding missionaries.

Some chose to stay where they were outside the very core exclusion zone. Some we assisted to bring back through Tokyo and onward from there, whether to elsewhere in Japan or out of the country. One Canadian tragically passed away, a Catholic missionary who had been residing in Japan for some 50 years doing very noble work, including not only at the church but also teaching kindergarten and working with death row prisoners at the time of the tsunami. He was safely in his church, but then he insisted to his colleagues that he go down to the coast to the kindergarten class to see if his kids were all right. And in the second wave of the tsunami, he ended up a little too close, had a heart attack and died—with his passport in his breast pocket.

It took us about a week to locate the last Canadian, a young fellow who was working in a fairly rural area. By sending our people around to every evacuation centre, we found his details posted on a bulletin board, and were able to locate and assist him. Canada, of course, offered whatever assistance it could to the Japanese. We received thousands of blankets within a day and a half. We ended up recruiting—willingly—a local soccer team to help distribute them.

I visited the evacuation centres about 10 or 12 times over the ensuing weeks and months. We put together a food bag-type soup kitchen at one of them, with good Canadian cuisine to give them a little taste of home while they were living in the gymnasium.

I am fairly proud of what we were able to do. That period was life-changing for me, both in terms of the ongoing threat, and doing what one can in the face of the massive human tragedy. We actually had volunteer staff, both from Ottawa and other parts of the world. We set up a phone bank to respond to people calling from all over the world: "You know, my friend Joe was living in Japan. Do you know anything about him?"

I put calls straight through to the worried parents directly. I briefed Prime Minister Harper every day, as he took a very personal interest to ensure that all was being done well.

Lucianna: As a graduate of the Faculty of Law in 1977, how was Canada perceived internationally then, and how might it have changed today?

Jonathan Fried: At that time, and even before, the law school had a wonderful tradition of leadership in international law, from Ron Macdonald through to my mentor and professor, Gerald Morris, and of course with Bill Graham subsequently. The scholarship and thoughtfulness of Canada's role in the world and the role of law in supporting that was prominent in the curriculum.

In the late ’70s, you had a couple things I think. You had the heritage of the Lester Pearson vocation of Canada's strong belief in multilateralism and the United Nations, peace keeping and human rights. It was a period—although the treaty wasn't concluded yet—where Canada was very active in addressing the challenge of acid rain, anticipating I think what we see today as a pervasive concern about the international environment: sea, air, water, and soil, both in the bilateral and multilateral context: for example, Canada was prominent in law of the sea negotiations. Economic and trade issues were less prominent. We hadn't started any free trade negotiations then. The so-called Uruguay round of multilateral trade negotiations hadn't started, so Canada was viewed as a noble middle power with noble objectives which was, I think, a fine motivation for study in those days of such topics as human rights, the environment, and the UN and peace keeping.

The law school had a very healthy international perspective. What's obviously evolved since is the increasing prominence of trade, economic, investment and financial aspects, encompassing intellectual property, telecommunications, and so on. Not that we've left these other issues behind, but we've expanded our awareness and the scope of the international dimensions of virtually every subject of legal regulation.

Canada today remains, and is seen as, a voice that reflects humanist values, a voice that believes in a rules-based system. We're supporters, obviously, of the Paris Accord on climate change, supporters of the WTO, supporters of the robust UN anchor to a human rights system, which is also paralleled at the OAS and other regional organizations.

So I think the vocation has remained the same. We've ended up looking through that lens at how to bring those values to additional areas.

Lucianna: Did you foresee this type of career when you graduated from law school?

Jonathan Fried: International law was in those days, and I think it still is, an elective. Nobody gets a job in international law, but you're edified by having your world view rounded out. So, after law school, I returned to my home province of Alberta and studied for admission to the bar. I thought I was headed towards a good traditional private practice, but felt just a bit restless, so I asked for a year off, which I was granted, to go back to school and do an LLM at Columbia University. I thought that would be the last time I'd be able to dabble and play.

I took everything international there was to take before what I expected to be a return to private practice in Alberta. Through I guess an ironic accident of timing, my very same mentor—Gerry Morris—had taken ill midway through my LLM year and it was then Dean Marty Friedland spoke to me and said, "This is only for a year, but you're doing so well in your studies now and knowing your passion for the area, would you mind coming back and being a visiting professor for a year to take on the international courses?"

This was a unique privilege and opportunity, and as good as one might be as a student, you learn much more having to prepare to teach somebody else. So I'd say I learned about as much preparing for my year of teaching as I did in my three years of law school plus my LLM year. But I felt somewhat pretentious, purporting to offer insights on international law without ever having practiced it. It was at that point that I turned to look at opportunities where one could apply one's skills, and that's when I joined the government.

Lucianna: What do you love most about what you do?

Jonathan Fried: I wake up every morning proud to represent Canada. I've never had any doubt about what we stand for as a country through successive governments, and I guess if you add up my years of public service, it's been evenly balanced in working under Liberal and Conservative governments. Internationally, there's a great deal of consistency in how Canada approaches the world and looks at the world. That's number one.

Number two, I think looking at the challenges facing the world, whether it's the environment, or the economy, or security, almost all of these big problems cannot be solved by nations acting alone but rather require some form of international cooperation. Therefore, if one can contribute in whatever small way to address some of these major challenges, one feels that one's making a contribution.

Some might say, "Oh, the United Nations moves so slowly and is subject to inaction, and look at how many trade disputes we have,” and so on. But in the grand sweep of history, the progress we've made in the postwar period in building international institutions, in bringing countries together for common goals, is absolutely remarkable in the 70 years since the creation of the United Nations.

I'm a kid in a candy store even 36 years after joining the government.