Hardworking, cool headed, a true gentleman, Martin Collacott was a diplomat who took on some of Canada’s most difficult and dangerous posts in Asia and Africa without flinching. Over a period of 30 years, he served as Canada’s ambassador to Syria and Lebanon; was first secretary and counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Lagos, Nigeria; our high commissioner in Sri Lanka and our first ambassador in Cambodia after the bloody civil war there wiped out a fifth of the population.
In the plum postings such as Paris, London, Washington, explained his colleague Jon Legg, “you have comforts, and a staff to delegate work to, but you can’t do that in Cambodia or Laos. Taking a plane is risking your life.” Mr. Legg served with Mr. Collacott in Vietnam on his first posting, before the conflict there fully ignited.
Mr. Collacott possessed, according to his colleague James Bissett, a “very able and agile intellect backed up by rock-like integrity.
“As a public servant, he was one of the best, prepared to tell his superiors what he thought was the best course to follow, or to abandon,” added Mr. Bissett, who was a former executive director of the Canadian Immigration Service. “He was clearly a man of the old school and never tried to hide it. Standards meant a lot to him and he demanded as much from others,” as from himself.
It was Mr. Collacott’s second career, launched after he retired in 1996 from the department of External Affairs (now Global Affairs Canada) as an advocate for a more rational immigration policy that made him known to a larger public. No longer a diplomat, he could speak his mind. His views on how to create a more selective immigration program, one that was not simply a scheme by politicians for harvesting the votes of various ethnic groups, sometimes led to his being vilified by immigration lawyers and other advocates for large-scale immigration. His wide-ranging research and patient presentation of the facts at conferences and before think tanks and parliamentary committees, made it possible to have a national conversation about a topic usually deemed too hot to handle.
Mr. Collacott remained involved in immigration issues almost until the end of his life. He died on July 16 at Peace Arch Hospital in White Rock, B.C., of liver cancer. He was 85.
Martin Collacott was born in Vancouver on March 29, 1933, to John Roy and Patricia (née Sisman) Collacott, who had immigrated from England in the 1920s. He was the middle child of three, between elder sister Patricia and younger brother Tony, a musical prodigy who became a jazz player. The family was touched by tragedy when Tony became addicted to drugs and had to be institutionalized.
Martin was still an infant when the family moved to Montreal, where his father found work with Remington Rand, a maker of typewriters and other office machinery. During the Second World War, his father worked as an airplane technician in Aylmer, Ont., then in Ottawa where Martin finished high school.
He enrolled at the University of Toronto in 1951 and obtained a BA in philosophy in 1955, followed by a master’s in the same subject four years later. “He worked overnight on the trains to be able to go to university,” said his elder son, Christopher. “He was a ‘yard bird,’ working in the rail yards (around Union Station) on the sleeping cars, making the beds, cleaning up.”
Later he was hired by the Central YMCA as program secretary, then by the Ontario Department of Education as citizenship adviser. But it was in the fall of 1960, when he travelled to Asia for the first time, that he found his calling.
Working for the organization that was the precursor of the Canadian International Development Agency, he spent five years in Sabah, in northern Borneo, where he lived in a house on stilts and trained English teachers to teach in Chinese schools. He was fascinated by the people and local customs and to the end of his life, treasured the ethnographic objects he brought back. In his 80s, living in White Rock, he still could demonstrate a blowpipe that the people of Borneo used to launch poison darts.
While in Borneo, he taught himself Mandarin, which he later perfected at a language school in Hong Kong. In 1966, he was hired by the Department of External Affairs, and posted to Saigon as a Canadian member of the International Control Commission, set up under the Geneva Accords. The Accords, which followed the battle of Dien Bien Phu, had ended French rule in Vietnam.
The Commission, whose other members were Poland and India, was supposed to supervise the division of Vietnam into the Communist-controlled North Vietnam and U.S.-friendly South Vietnam along the 17th parallel, and the transfer of the Roman Catholic population, who did not wish to live under Communism. But by the time Mr. Collacott arrived, most of this work had been done and he was largely concerned with distributing Canadian aid to the Vietnamese.
On a visit to a small town to the north of Saigon named Quang Ngai to inspect a hospital donated by Canada, Mr. Collacott, then 33, met and fell in love with Tuyet Dinh Nguyet, a young woman who was helping out as an interpreter for the doctors. Tuyet’s father had come from southern China, and Mr. Collacott’s ability to speak to him in Mandarin was in his favour.
In Ottawa, Pierre Trudeau had become Prime Minister and was putting his stamp on Canadian foreign policy. Mr. Collacott was part of a team sent to Stockholm in 1970 to negotiate in detail Canada’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China. By the start of 1971, he was living in a hotel in Beijing as first secretary for the mission along with most of the small diplomatic staff, since China had not thought to provide a building for the Canadian embassy. The first ambassador, Ralph Collins, who had been born in China, lasted only a year before he became seriously ill and had to be sent home.
The Canadians were closely watched and couldn’t converse with local people or leave Beijing without special permission.
Though Mr. Collacott’s professional life was challenging, his personal life was idyllic. In the summer of 1971 he finally married Tuyet in Hong Kong.
Together they went to his next posting in Lagos, Nigeria, where on his first day he saw a dead body in the gutter near the embassy. He was first secretary, then counsellor. In December, 1974, Tuyet gave birth to their first son, Christopher.
In 1976, he began a four-year posting at Canada’s embassy in Tokyo as head of the political section. His second son, David, was born there in 1977.
Mr. Collacott was generous to younger colleagues and mentored Joseph Caron, who then worked at the same embassy for Industry Canada promoting Canadian forest products. Mr. Caron went on to be High Commissioner to India and ambassador to China. “We had very cordial personal relations based on our shared love of Southeast Asia,” Mr. Caron recalled.
In 1982, after a two-year stay in Ottawa, Mr. Collacott was named high commissioner to Sri Lanka, where a civil war was about to break out between the Tamils and the Sinhalese. While his son’s school was occasionally closed due to a bombing, it was an ethnic conflict and foreigners were not usually targeted. Still, life in Sri Lanka was not easy: When he tried to deliver a firetruck – a gift from Canada – to Jaffna in the northern part of the country, a detachment of Tamil Tigers stopped him on the road at gunpoint.
After Sri Lanka, and a period of intensive French-language training, Mr. Collacott became in 1987 director general of the intelligence and counter-terrorism branch in Ottawa, and in 1990 he was appointed ambassador to Syria and Lebanon. “When the first Gulf War started one of his responsibilities was to get Canadian nationals out of the country,” recalled Christopher, who had remained at boarding school in Canada. “My mother and my brother were airlifted on a military flight. He did meet with the present Assad’s father, President Hafez al-Assad. He was saddened by it all, by the outcome.”
From Damascus, Mr. Collacott was posted as ambassador to Cambodia, where he ran a one-man operation, working out of the Australian embassy.
When his posting ended he stayed to be an observer at the country’s elections in 1998 and ’99, and travelled to Indonesia, China and the Philippines.
His sons recall the thrill of travelling with him in their younger days, and how avid he was to understand the world and introduce them to as many places as possible. “I was taken to China before it was polluted and everybody wore the same blue pyjamas,” Christopher recalled. “He was a wonderful father, always calm and collected. He never raised his voice.”
In retirement, Mr. Collacott continued working. In 2010, he launched the Centre for Immigration Policy Reform, with associates including Herbert Grubel, an economist at Simon Fraser University, David Harris, an expert on security, James Bissett (another former ambassador) and Margret Kopala, a writer on public policy. He wanted people who were not influenced by self-interest. “We were not aligned with any stakeholder groups,” explained Margret Kopala. “We believe that the best approach is to reduce immigration to get things more manageable. Martin always took a measured approach, but we were never against immigration as such.”
Individuals who spoke one or both official languages and had skills that were needed in Canada should be welcome, he argued. But he was opposed to the long chains of family-class immigrants who were not employable but got in simply by being related to the original qualified immigrant.
Mr. Collacott wrote, in addition to many opinion pieces for news media, 16 papers published by the conservative Fraser Institute, where he was a senior fellow.
Predeceased by his two siblings, Mr. Collacott leaves his wife, Tuyet; sons, Christopher and David; and three grandchildren.