Live & Learn: Derek Burney

The former ambassador, trade negotiator and CEO discusses his hectic career history.

When I decided to take a government path, my mother was mystified, and when I chose a career in the foreign service, she was even more mystified. It wasn't until I became an ambassador that it really began to sink in for her.

Working in the Prime Minister's Office was the most foreign of all my postings. The PMO was a constant three-alarm fire every moment of every day. I would go home and every muscle would ache. Not from physical exercise but from the stress. If the stress of the chief of staff is like that, can you imagine what it is like for the prime minister? Imagine what it is for the president of the United States. Surviving that gave me the sense that there was more I could do with the rest of my life.

When I worked in the PMO, I would wake up in the morning and have no idea what the day would bring. Events would occur that you could never see. Once, Brian Mulroney was travelling out west and ran into the chief of the Lubicon Indians, and the next thing I knew the prime minister is telling him he should be talking to me about settling their problems.

The beauty of teaching is that it kept my mind going. I was a little worried about retirement because I had had a fairly hectic career. I chose the teaching option so that I would keep thinking.

The sobering thing about teaching is finding that the free-trade agreement is not exactly front and centre in the minds of the students. These guys were three years old when it was negotiated. It's so accepted it doesn't raise the visceral fears that it did in the past. It's history–and I wasn't quite prepared for that.

There is a difference between theory and practice. It is all well and good to advocate universal free trade, but then you have to go meet steelworkers in Hamilton and tell them why they should be happy to see Korean steel imports flooding the market. You have to ensure that you don't let the best become the enemy of the good.

In the last five years, the Americans have done more than a dozen free-trade agreements and we have done zero. If our objective is to defend something like the auto industry, we have to be mindful that it is an integrated industry and negotiate accordingly. That means co-operating with the U.S. We haven't done that. We have gone out on our own to negotiate free-trade deals with Central America and other countries. We haven't brought any of those deals home. I have never been a big fan of the Team Canada approach to trade. I always felt that they were for quick headlines rather than something of substantive value.

Leaders need to have focus–whether it's in foreign policy, trade policy or business. Better to try one thing and try with all your energy and the best of your abilities. Even if you fail, you will have gained from the experience. You will have focused the expertise and talent of your team so that they will know what to look for and what to avoid next time. A scattergun approach never gets results.

There are no political dividends for having good relations with the U.S. Ask Brian Mulroney. Ask Tony Blair. I am tired of this Goldilocks debate: “Is our relationship too hot, too cold or just right?” Let's not use juvenile descriptions to measure what is a vital relationship, whether we like it or not.

Carleton asked me to teach a course on leadership, and I have been reluctant because I don't think you can teach leadership. I can teach about the qualities of leadership, but there aren't a whole lot of case studies about Canadian leaders. I want to teach the course to get some Canadian examples before the students so they are not all reading about Jack Welch and Warren Buffett. These are not particularly relevant to a guy looking to become a Canadian entrepreneur.

Derek Burney


Born Nov. 1, 1939, in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Former ambassador, trade negotiator and CEO


Joins Department of External Affairs. Spends seven years in Asia. Appointed ambassador to Korea, from 1978 to 1980.


Administers first G7 Summit hosted by Canada. Later appointed assistant deputy minister for United States affairs.


Named Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's chief of staff. Is actively involved in negotiations for U.S.-Canada free-trade deal.


Appointed Canada's ambassador to U.S., where he is involved in negotiations for NAFTA as well as the Acid Rain Accord.


Appointed CEO of Bell Canada International; CEO of CAE, in 1999. Currently a senior strategic adviser at Ogilvy Renault.