LGBTory was pleased to interview Canada’s Ambassador to Norway, Artur Wilczynski, about his experience as an out gay married man in Canada’s diplomatic corps.
Ambassador Wilczynski was born in Poland to a family that had fled the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Poland to seek shelter in the Soviet Union, but returned to Poland after the war to rebuild their lives. In 1968, at the age of two, he and his family were forced to leave the country along with thousands of other Polish Jews following the 1967 Six Day War. While awaiting transit in Italy, his family was sponsored as refugees by relatives in Canada and they settled in Montréal in 1969.
Ambassador Wilczynski has a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Carleton University, as well as a Master of Arts, International Relations from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs where he focused his studies on terrorism and intelligence.
He was appointed Ambassador to Norway in 2014 by Prime Minister Harper. Prior to that post, he was Director General of the International Security and Intelligence Bureau at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development. His responsibilities included counter-terrorism, combating transnational organized crime, human smuggling and international defence relations. From 2010 to 2012, he was the Departmental Security Officer, and responsible for the security of Canadian missions abroad. Prior to that he worked as Director General of International Affairs and Border Policy, Director General of Strategic Policy, Planning and Research at Public Safety Canada, and Director of International Relations at the Department of Canadian Heritage
Ambassador Wilczynski is married to Randy Stocker, his partner of 29 years. He spoke to us via email from their home in Oslo.
LGBTory: You are an openly-gay man who has risen to the upper echelons of the Canadian civil service. You were Director General of Security & Intelligence at the Department of Global Affairs before being appointed as Ambassador to Norway. This is quite a change from a generation ago when, well into the 1980s, LGBT people in the federal civil service were considered security risks, placed under surveillance by the RCMP, denied security clearance or forced to resign. Do you see yourself as a pioneer for LGBT rights in this respect?
A.W.: Times have changed over the years that I have been in public service. When I first started I did not know many other out gay men. My first job in the federal government was as a Co-Op student with the Department of Health and Welfare. I knew one other gay man at the time – but he was closeted. When I ran into him at a bar in 1985, he was clearly distressed that someone from the office recognized him. I never really knew how to be in the closet. In that sense I was lucky. All of my bosses in government have been remarkably supportive. As someone who has worked many years in the national security area, I also felt welcome. I have worked with hundreds of men and women in policing, intelligence and the military and have never felt ostracized or isolated. So, no – I don’t really see myself as an LGBT rights pioneer. I see myself as someone who has been very lucky to have experienced a 30-year career as an openly gay man.
LGBTory: Has being an openly-gay married man ever been an obstacle or created problems for you as a diplomat? Are there foreign diplomatic postings that you aspire to that would be closed to you because of local attitudes towards LGBT people?
A.W.: I have had to be more discreet about my sexual orientation depending on the situation. It is about being appropriate to the circumstance you are in. I have had to visit countries where people face the death penalty for same sex relations – so for personal safety reasons, when there, I simply didn’t speak about my sexual orientation. Unfortunately, the reality is that there are some countries that would not agree to my being posted there because of my sexual orientation. They would not accept my husband and I despite the fact we have been together for 29 years. I have no interest in being posted to a country where I cannot be my authentic self. I have no interest in pretending to be a bachelor, or asking my husband to pretend he is staff. Compromising who I am so I can get a job in a country that is overtly homophobic is simply not acceptable to me. That is my choice. I know others who do make that decision and I respect it. We all live our lives the way we choose and make decisions that are in our own and our families’ best interests.
LGBTory: It must still be unusual to be a gay married ambassador. How have you and your husband been received in Norway?
A.W.: Norway has been remarkably welcoming and accepting. We have been embraced by the local LGBT community and made wonderful friendships here. Randy and I are invited to Norwegian events together. I just returned from a visit to Canada with the Crown Prince and Crown Princess of Norway – and had a chance to speak with them about how welcoming their country has been to us. Just a couple of months ago, King Harald gave a speech in which he directly spoke about how Norway is a country where everyone is free to love who they choose. Over 300 people attended the Embassy’s Oslo LGBT Pride celebrations this past summer. Cabinet ministers, the President of the Parliament and Deputy Mayor of Oslo attended. My husband and I have also been interviewed on national television here where we showed how our two countries share a commitment to promoting LGBT equality at home and around the world. The welcome to Norway has been fantastic.
LGBTory: Spouses of diplomats often have specific roles and duties at the Embassy and in the diplomatic community. Has your husband had any unique experiences as a gay man in that culture?
Randy chooses what he likes to do. The roles of spouses have changed over time. There is no expectation that as my husband and partner he attend events – even those that I host. But he has come to a number of them that were exceptional. We attended a lunch hosted by the King and Queen where we sat with them and happily engaged in a conversation about art and culture. We attended the Diplomatic Royal Ball. We also attended the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony last year at Oslo City Hall. Randy met Jay Leno who was the MC for the Nobel concert and had a chance to chat with Leno about cars – something he loves to do. We were also both invited to Arctic Norway as part of a visit sponsored by the Norwegian government. So yes – we had some remarkable experiences as a gay couple here in Norway and feel privileged that we had the chance to participate.
LGBTory: You came to Canada as a young child with your family as refugees from Communist Poland, and you have been a vocal advocate for accepting refugees to Canada. What role do you see Canada playing in helping LGBT refugees who are persecuted overseas?
A.W.: I think Canada already plays an important role in providing safety and security to people who are persecuted because of their sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. We work together with LGBT organizations and with the UNHCR to help people flee countries where their lives are in danger because of who they are and who they love. Unfortunately, there is a global need for safe havens for LGBT persons fleeing violence and persecution from places where they have no recourse to justice. We need to continue playing that role – but also to act as advocates for equality and inclusion. We have an important voice to use about combatting all forms of discrimination – including against LGBT persons. We as individuals in positions of privilege have platforms to speak about equality and we need to use them too. Here in Norway, I have worked with LGBT asylum seekers. I have worked with activists from sub-Saharan Africa to make sure that their stories are heard and shared. As a Canadian Ambassador I work with them as an ally and a friend who can help raise awareness and show that countries such as Canada not only tolerate LGBT persons – but we send them out as Ambassadors representing all Canadians.
LGBTory: Does the Canadian government have an obligation to speak out against foreign governments that oppress their own LGBT citizens?
A.W.: I think that we have a responsibility to work in partnership with local LGBT communities around the world to develop strategies that advance their human rights. For a number of years now, we have been speaking out in favour of all human rights. We reiterate that all human beings are born free, in dignity and rights. Taking that positive role is always appropriate. I have, however, heard from some activists in certain countries that harsh international criticism against their government’s homophobic policies has led to backlash against LGBT persons. I think governments have a responsibility to understand the consequences of their actions. We have a responsibility to protect the safety and security of vulnerable populations and to understand that our role as governments is different than that of individuals or non-governmental organizations. We should use all the tools of diplomacy that are open to us. We should choose the measure that is appropriate and effective. Sometimes that means open and formal condemnation of a foreign government’s actions. Other times it means meeting face to face behind closed doors to express concern and disagreement. In either case, it is important to work together with local actors to understand and appreciate the potential consequences of our actions on their wellbeing. Yes, we need to defend and communicate our values. But we need to do so in a manner that avoids harming the people we are trying to support.
LGBTory: What is Canada’s role in advocating for LGBT rights in international forums like the UN and the Commonwealth?
A.W.: I think Canada has continuously spoken up about our values of inclusion and respect for diversity. We have been vocal proponents for decriminalization of LGBT persons and same sex relations. We have been proponents of equality for LGBT persons at the bilateral level and at multilateral institutions such as the UN and the Commonwealth and I expect we will continue to do so.
LGBTory: What advice do you have for young LGBT people considering careers in the foreign service?
A.W.: Do it! Apply for a job in the public service and at Global Affairs. It has been one of the most enriching parts of my life. I have been remarkably privileged and lucky with the experiences that I have had. In terms of advice – I would tell people to be themselves. Each one of us has our own path and our individual dreams and priorities. Work in the foreign service enables you to experience our world in a unique way. You see the good, the bad, the exciting and the dull. You get to represent your country around the world. As LGBT persons, we have a responsibility to show the world that we are everywhere and that we deserve respect. As a member of Canada’s foreign service you will have a chance to do so. Also, if you do join, know that you will have a supportive workplace and colleagues. We truly have a global network. Are there practical challenges with a foreign service career? Absolutely. It’s not easy moving every few years. Are some countries difficult postings for LGBT staff? Yes – without a doubt. But know that you can make a difference in the lives of people around the world – all people. You should also know that you will have my support. I am always happy to share my experiences and answer questions about this incredible experience.