It is an honour and a privilege to be able write this brief commemoration of my beloved friend and colleague, Gerald L. Ohlsen, who died very suddenly on April 1st, 2015. His long and distinguished diplomatic career (1968-2004) focused on the international promotion of human rights, addressing state failure, democracy building and the engagement of civil society in public policy. He led Canadian missions in Africa, Asia, and South America, as well as holding senior advisory positions in the Canadian Foreign Ministry and Privy Council Office.
Known as an outstanding leader and crisis manager, he adeptly combined sound political and social analysis, effective and timely reporting and practical policy sense.
Highlights of his career include heading the Canadian diplomatic mission in Rwanda during the massive return of refugees from the Congo in 1996 and the first phase of the civil war in Congo. He was acting High Commissioner in Nigeria from 1994-1996 – a critical time in the international opposition to the then military rule, and played a key role in creating the conditions that led to the restoration of democracy. His actions included the establishment of a Canadian fund for support of democracy and human rights that contributed substantially to the strengthening of civil society organizations. This work, which entailed a high level of personal risk, led to Gerry being awarded the Minister’s Citation for Foreign Policy Excellence, for outstanding work in very difficult circumstances. He was also invited to join the founding Board of Directors of the Ken Saro-Wiwa Foundation, being established first in Toronto, and now based in Nigeria, to work on behalf of indigenous communities in Africa.
Earlier in his career, as senior political officer in the Canadian High Commission in Zambia, Gerry played a leadership role in international efforts to ensure an effective democratic transition in both Zambia and Malawi, including contacts with Presidents Kaunda and Chiluba, ministers, senior officials and civil society (1988-1992). He also managed liaison with the African National Congress of South Africa, including negotiations leading to the first visit of Nelson Mandela to Canada after his release from prison in 1990. To secure agreement for the visit, he had to prevail over Thabo Mbeki, who was adamantly opposed to it.
Gerry was not only a talented and hard- working diplomat. Gerry was also wise, generous, compassionate, dedicated, and indefatigable in pursuing his life’s work — the causes of human rights, democracy building and the empowerment of civil society. Although our paths had occasionally crossed at Foreign Affairs, it was when we began to work more and more closely on a variety of NGO projects, after Gerry had retired from the Foreign Service, that I had the great good fortune to experience those marvelous qualities of kindness and caring firsthand.
We were both on the executive of the Ottawa-based foreign policy NGO, the Group of 78, but it was with respect to the networking NGO Peacebuild and its project, Afghanistan: Pathways to Peace, that we worked together most closely. This project seeks to empower Afghan civil society to promote and engage in a comprehensive peace process, so desperately needed in that war-torn country.
In the context of that work, Gerry and I travelled together to Afghanistan in January of 2010. He was unflappable throughout a visit which included several hours in a bomb shelter in the basement of the Canadian embassy.
He visited Afghanistan several more times and in the process assembled an International Steering Committee, a significant number of Afghan-based NGOs and a core team at the Peace Studies Programme of Kabul University, which inter alia carried out groundbreaking research throughout Afghanistan on the causes and consequences of violent conflict and held two national civil society peace conferences.
Afghanistan: Pathways to Peace, due in large measure to Gerry’s tireless efforts, was originally well-funded by Foreign Affairs, but the money dried up as government priorities shifted. Then, in mid-2013, the Canadian government listed all the Afghan Taliban as terrorists, making receipt of foundation funding by Pathways extremely difficult, since promoting a peace process of necessity implies promoting contacts with all parties, including the Taliban.
Nonetheless, Gerry never gave up.
He began to focus on social media outreach and inspired an impressive array of dedicated young people to help him. It was at a meeting of that group, at an Afghan restaurant in Ottawa, where they were discussing a web site strategy for Pathways to Peace, that Gerry slipped away from us. – What makes Gerry’s post-Foreign Affairs contribution even more remarkable is that between our first work on this project in 2008 and Wednesday, April 1st, 2015, Gerry had suffered a serious stroke. Even as Gerry was recovering, he continued his work on Pathways and with the Group of 78. The only time he ever complained about his new physical limitations was in terms of upbraiding himself for not being able to get things done as fast as he previously could. I always pointed out he was still doing far more than most!
To the last moment he demonstrated what a foreign affairs colleague described as his “progressive, idealistic, cutting edge” approach to whatever area he was working on. We will miss his wise counsel, his never failing friendship and support. Our hearts go out to his wonderful wife, Mavaia, their five children, the grandchildren and great grandchildren and his many, many friends, including those he first met in his very active work at the community level. All of us will be nourished by so many magnificent memories.
– Peggy Mason
Group of 78