May 2011

Canadians Abroad

Embracing diversity: From Peru to West Africa with a Canadian Trade Commissioner

By Heather Ednie

Carlos Rojas-Arbulù with wife Melanie Monette at the Bandia animal reserve, Thies region, Senegal | Photo courtesy of Carlos Rojas-Arbulù

After 12 years with the federal government’s Trade Commissioner Service (TCS), Carlos Rojas-Arbulù is living a dream that began when he was a child in Peru. “I recall a black-and-white news broadcast of the Secretary General of the United Nations, Javier Perez de Cuellar, commenting on the aftermath of the Falkland Islands conflict between Argentina and the United Kingdom,” he says. “At 12 years of age, I could not grasp the meaning or importance of this, but the image stayed with me for years. It has contributed to the choices I have made thus far and influenced my path.” Today, Rojas-Arbulùύ is a Canadian diplomat and works out of Senegal as the Commercial Counsellor and Senior Trade Commissioner (West Africa) at the Canadian Embassy in Senegal, relishing learning about life in different parts of the world.

Setting down the road

In the late 1980s, Rojas-Arbulùύ moved with his family to Montreal, Quebec. Fresh out of Concordia University in 1997 where he majored in political science, Rojas-Arbulùύ first worked as a business development representative for a Canadian private sector company in Nicaragua before launching his career with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada as a junior trade officer in the Canadian Embassy in Peru. “It was exciting to explore the sounds, food, music and sights of Nicaragua and Peru,” he recalls. “It brought me face to face with my multicultural heritage, as seen from outside Canada.”

Between 2000 and 2005, Rojas-Arbulù’s career with the TCS in Ottawa allowed him to travel extensively through Mexico and Central America. In 2005, he was posted to Central America as a Canadian diplomat working as a senior trade commissioner (first secretary) at the Canadian Embassy in Guatemala, where he was responsible for the commercial and investment program.

In 2007, Rojas-Arbulùύ returned to Ottawa to step into the role of Deputy Director, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and National Contact Point for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. “I began to get interested in the complexities, challenges and opportunities around Canadian mining investment overseas,” he says, explaining his decision to take the job in Ottawa, “particularly because there were several cross-cutting themes being touched upon that challenged the traditional trade commissioner way of thinking and approach to promoting business. In other words, it is a more holistic and coherent approach to supporting Canadian investment overseas, including venturing into areas such as governance, transparency, sustainable development, security and human rights.”

With over 150 locations globally, the TCS often works closely with members of the Canadian minerals industry. For example, Natural Resources Canada estimates Canadian mining investment in Africa to be around $23 billion dollars, over $4 billion of which is in West Africa (and even more when factoring in investments in oil and gas). As such, Rojas-Arbulù’s team works continuously with Canadian exploration and mining companies and suppliers of equipment and services. “My work will involve facilitating the exchange of knowledge, experiences and lessons learned in the mining industry between Canada and the local government and, increasingly, advising companies on CSR best practices and standards, as it is an emerging area of work for the TCS in Africa,” he says. “At other times, it may involve matching the demand with the supply, to put Canadian companies in contact with potential customers.”

Keeping priorities straight

Rojas-Arbulù’s wife Melanie goes with him when he is posted to work overseas, as do their two dogs, Lupita and Harry. Although they truly enjoy the experience such relocation offers, it comes with its challenges. “There is a lot of work involved in preparing for a posting overseas and this has an impact on our family’s obligations and routine,” he says, adding that often it is who you are leaving behind that makes it a tough decision. “Leaving an assignment after several years is never easy, as you grow attached to your colleagues, friends and surroundings.

In Melanie’s case, she has had to leave her employment in Canada twice (as a counsellor for children who are victims of sexual abuse and their families) and find new employment abroad or work remotely. “She’s tough and I admire her courage and perseverance,” says Rojas-Arbulù. “Her previous working experiences in Brazil with the Canadian International Development Agency and in Guatemala with the United Nations, has no doubt been instrumental in helping our family cherish this latest adventure in Senegal.”

Moving away from family is also tough, but Rojas-Arbulùύ thanks technology and the occasional trip to Montreal or his family’s visits to Senegal for smoothing things over. “One way of ensuring my family has what it needs is to keep my priorities straight,” he adds. “Family comes first, work comes second. In other words, being available to my family is important to keep the balance in our lives.”

Delighting in diversity

Rojas-Arbulùύ is proud of his heritage and sees it as an asset. “I am Canadian and I was born in Lima, so I am Peruvian too,” he states. “I speak multiple languages – I’m what you call a neo-Quebecois/Canadian/Peruvian. Canada is a very multicultural country, an open and tolerant society. People from many different ethnic and religious backgrounds call themselves Canadians and call Canada their home, while remaining proud of their heritage.”

Having such a diversity of international experience has taught Rojas-Arbulùύ the most important trait to bring to any new site, job or location – an open mind. “Every time I have lived or worked abroad, the experience has been different,” he explains. “It can be exhilarating because you must find a way to adapt, to make it work for you, and you have to learn the ropes gradually and incrementally. A great lesson for me when I first landed in Senegal, for example, was that it is the ‘land of the Teranga (hospitality) and of the dialogue’ according to my new interlocutors. Greetings, hospitality, dialogue and exchanges of opinions are very important to building the confidence of those with whom I wish to do business.”

Rojas-Arbulù’s passion for his job is evident. “Managing and leading a diverse, multi-country, highly experienced team of Trade Commissioners in West Africa is awesome,” he adds. “Being in the field with the troops once again representing Canada – both the challenges and opportunities in serving Canadian companies – gets my adrenaline going. It is terribly exciting. It has been a long and extremely rewarding journey from Peru to West Africa.”

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