By Jessica Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
Brandon A. Lee has been Canada’s Consul General in Seattle for about six months, and he has spent almost all of that time traveling. His responsibilities representing the Prime Minister of Canada in the Pacific Northwest region are wide-reaching and varied. With most of the passport and visa processes people associate with a consulate, having been centralized and digitized in New York and Los Angeles, Lee’s position here is closer to that of an ambassador. His duties revolve largely around trade and politics — representing Canadian business interests and supporting U.S.-Canadian diplomatic relations. In addition, he is the senior digital strategist of the entire nation of Canada.
Lee is accustomed to working at a global level. His expertise in digital technology led him to Europe with the World Trade Organization (WTO), and then with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). From there, Lee was invited to serve as the Canadian Consul General for California, Hawaii, and now Seattle, for the Consulate that serves Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Idaho. Lee explains, “I’m originally a tech entrepreneur, and I was brought inside the government to help modernize or transform or disrupt the government from the inside. So with the WTO and the ICRC, what I was brought in to do, I think is the most difficult and challenging and rewarding — is culture change.” Sometimes logistical changes are needed in order for a company or nation to run more efficiently. It also requires changes in the mindset of the people that work or live there. As the consul general explains, “Business as usual doesn’t work anymore for government. We have to re-think every process and service that we offer.”
A lot of this re-thinking has to do with the way people view the infrastructures that keep a country operational and relevant. In his role as senior digital strategist, Lee is working on ensuring that the Canadian government is at the forefront of our digital future. “We know the digital economy is coming,” he explains. “We had the Industrial Age and we’re transitioning to the Digital Age. That’s going to require enormous polarizing shifts. So my job as digital strategist is to strategize and help position government to be ahead of this curve.”
An example is the technology of self-driving cars. “Do those who ride in a driverless car need a driver’s license?
Who is responsible when a driverless car gets into an accident?” Or the controversy over the responsibility of digitally-based companies such as Facebook. “Who verifies that a tech company’s algorithms do what they say they’re supposed to do?” These are the types of questions Lee addresses as part of his already complicated portfolio.
Lee is Korean Canadian, yet when talking to him, one does not get the raw response to race and discrimination that one often gets in the United States. Instead, one senses the possibility of an alternate way of life. According to Lee, the experiences of minorities in Canada are similar to those in the United States — yet they are not identical.
“In Canada, generally, I think diversity is more accepted, especially these days. So when I was growing up, there was a lot more racism and a lot more challenges then, but these days, it’s really changing.” Lee’s parents were Korean immigrants who arrived in Canada in the 1970s. His father followed what Lee terms a typical immigrant path. “When he first came, he worked three part-time jobs. He had an architecture degree. But you know, he worked at a variety store, as a painter, and he built himself up from there. Now he has a thriving business in Toronto.” There were undoubtedly hard times, yet the consul general’s story doesn’t include the types of incidents that often accompany the stories of minorities growing up in the United States. And even though Lee is the first non-white male to become a consul general for Canada in this region, he cannot think of any incidents of racism that stand out in his career, or personal life, apart from a few run-ins with small town residents in Europe.
If anything, Lee states that he has experienced more ageism than racism. He shared about the time he and his wife, who is Caucasian, spent time in Europe. “The racism we felt was at little corner stores in the countryside when we’d travel. But overt? In my career, I’ve never received any of that. In fact, it’s more, because I am younger, I think it’s more ageism if anything! I’m 40 years old. And so even coming in [to the Consulate], you pass by a wall with all the former consul generals, and I think it’s all older white men, the entire wall … and before this, I was the consul general to California and Hawaii. I was 38 then, and probably in the U.S., I was one of the youngest consul generals in Canadian history.”
Just as Lee is a youthful consul general with a lot to offer his community, Canada is a young country, 150 years old last year, with a lot to teach its neighbors. Nevertheless, Canadians don’t throw themselves about. Lee believes that people of the Pacific Northwest region have a lot in common with Canadians. “We have similar values,” he says. In addition to valuing nature, Lee finds both cultures “friendly, open, down to earth … [with] a little bit of ‘tall poppy’ syndrome.
W don’t like people who brag about themselves so much.” Lee says he has never heard of, nor witnessed, “The Seattle Freeze.” He finds Seattleites friendly and says they are perhaps closer in behavior to Europeans, “friendly, but conservative.”
Lee easily navigates complicated waters. He credits his practice of meditation for helping him when things get difficult. His memories of the most impactful and meaningful experiences he has had in Europe, and so far, here in the Northwest, have been experiences that were traumatic, yet deeply human. When working for the WTO/Red Cross, for instance, he travelled to South Sudan and visited burn victims. “I saw human suffering I’ve never seen before,” he says. Here in Washington state, Lee visited an incarcerated individual whose mother was Canadian.
The man asked Lee, ‘Are Black people like me accepted in Canada?’ We said, ‘Of course!’ And he said, ‘Is there any way you would even consider giving me Canadian citizenship?’ And we actually told him, he’s entitled to it! The look on his face … We had changed his life in that one meeting.” Lee stresses consideration of the entire human condition — emotional and intellectual, and encourages others to do the same: “There are these things that we have to be much more mindful about and … are a lot more real than a lot of things that we’re consumed with on a daily 24-hour news cycle basis.”
Lee and his wife are both successful, busy individuals. Giovanna is also an entrepreneur with two businesses, and she travels almost as much as Lee does. When they spend time together, they prefer to do so in an unstructured way, simply enjoying what the area has to offer, particularly the gorgeous scenery, and the company of their two French bulldogs. The Consulate does offer occasional social interactions, such as participating in local festivals, where they invite Canadian musicians, drink Canadian beer, and basically party like Canadians. A good source of information about upcoming events is the Canadian Consulate General in Seattle’s Facebook page. And yes, Canada’s doors are open.
Jessica Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.