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UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 8 | Sep. 2, 2004

The Return of the Native

After more than a decade abroad, international law expert Michael Byers has come home to western Canada. But will the new academic director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues see the world differently now that he’s far from the centres of political power?

By Michelle Cook

Michael Byers knows that any story written about him is likely to start off like this: he left Canada more than a decade ago to pursue an academic career in international law and global politics, first in England at Cambridge and then Oxford, followed by a five-year stint at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina where he headed up the university’s highly regarded Center for Canadian Studies. During that time, he gained an international reputation for his contributions to public and foreign policy debates and issues such as human rights and arms control.

“Anna Maria Tremonti at the CBC called me a poster boy for the Canadian brain drain,” Byers laughs. “But Canada has always been home. I’ve been living out of the country for the last 12 years but I felt a strong pull back.”

That pull, in large part, was the promise of a new era for Canada on the world stage.

“Canada is uniquely placed as a role model for the rest of the world as to what is possible in terms of a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic social welfare state that can co-operate with other countries in a constructive, multilateral way,” says Byers.

Observing the post-9/11 world and Canada’s role in it from south of the border has been professionally exciting but personally difficult for Byers. Part of his reason for moving to Vancouver is the feeling that he can best help Canada respond to emerging global issues from home.

Judging from his first few weeks at UBC, Byers, 38, hasn’t been content to slip quietly back across the 49th parallel.

Since arriving in Vancouver earlier this summer with his wife, two young sons and a new Canada Research Chair in global politics and international law, he has written for the Globe and Mail, appeared on CTV’s Canada AM and given numerous interviews. In his low-key but highly persuasive style, he’s been raising issues such as the effects climate change could have on Canada’s bilateral water treaty with the U.S. and on shipping activity in the Northwest Passage.

Watching him at work in his shady office at the Liu Centre, dressed casually in dark khakis and comfortably worn golf shirt, Byers looks and sounds very much like Mr. West Coast. He’s already done the Grouse Grind, he’d love to spend more time on the beach with his laptop writing, and he and his wife recently bought a Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrid car that they “hope will send a tiny signal to car manufacturers that times have changed.” He has just returned from a five-week writing retreat and is keen to talk about his move to Vancouver.

Before he can do that, Byers excuses himself to take a call from a national newspaper reporter in Toronto. He slips easily and eloquently into a conversation on missile defence. He laughs often and even playfully scolds his caller for failing to read an article he’d penned on the issue a few weeks earlier for the reporter’s paper.

Byers knows the media game. You give interviews -- even two-minute ones at 5 a.m. in the morning -- you make good contacts, you write editorial pieces with a fresh and informed perspective that hasn’t been heard before, and you use your expertise to tell stories journalists can’t.

Byers does it because he wants media to know he’s here at UBC and available to talk. He sees it as an integral part of his role as a public intellectual who contributes “in a meaningful way to long-term thinking” by identifying the issues that are going to be big a few years down the road and providing possible answers.

The public outreach work also complements Byers’ goal of shaping the Liu Institute into a powerful intellectual think tank like the Brookings Institution [the renowned, oft-cited think tank in Washington, D.C.] and, in the process, put UBC on the world map as a hugely influential public policy university.

“That’s how I see the Liu Institute. I would want it to be at the forefront of all the major foreign policy debates in Canada in the future as well as some of the truly global debates regardless of whether they involve Canada in any substantial way.”

Byers grew up in Ottawa speaking English and German (his mother was a first-generation immigrant) but his passion for international law and global politics was nurtured in the unlikely locale of rural Saskatchewan. As he explains it, the summers he spent on his grandparents’ farm as a boy were a valuable prerequisite for his future studies.

“Anyone who spent a lot of time on a farm in southern Saskatchewan during the 1970s and early ‘80s knew that there was a world out there, partly because Canadian farmers are acutely sensitive to the importance of international trade,” Byers explains.

“And I also have childhood memories of watching B-52 bombers fly overhead from U.S. bases on the circuit up to the Arctic in case war broke out. If you think about it, Canada was right smack in the middle of the Cold War, with the U.S. on one side and the Soviet Union on the other, and Stoughton, Saskatchewan was in the centre of that.”

After finishing high school, Byers received his BA from the University of Saskatchewan in 1988, both his LLB and BCL from McGill University in 1992, and his PhD from Cambridge University (Queens’ College) in 1996. For the next three years, he was a research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford (where he met wife Katharine) as well as a visiting fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Germany.

In 1999, he joined the faculty of Duke’s law school. While he was there, Byers invited Lloyd Axworthy, then CEO of the Liu Institute, to lecture. They quickly realized they had common academic interests and Axworthy invited Byers to Vancouver. With the link to UBC established, Byers spent a month on campus in April 2003 and arrived permanently in July.

Like many who return home after a long absence, Byers has great expectations for his native land.

He thinks Canadians have the potential to significantly influence future global debates because we’re well respected worldwide, we’re multilingual, we’re very close to U.S. but we’re not the U.S. and we’ve maintained a degree of independence in international affairs. Above all, he adds, we’re incredibly wealthy -- not in raw dollars but in terms of our natural and intellectual resources.

But will working on the West Coast affect his access to the key decision makers, power brokers, academics and journalists he worked with in Washington, London and Ottawa?

“For the first time in decades, B.C. has become politically significant in federal politics -- every student and staff member here at UBC is now politically significant. Ottawa is paying attention to us and that’s a huge opportunity to exercise influence, not just in voting but also in terms of demanding action on issues,” Byers says, adding that he will still have a few geographic adjustments to make.

“I have to keep East Coast hours to be here when journalists in Washington, New York, Toronto and Ottawa start working on their stories. I have to be here and they have to know I’m here. And I have to be here before people in Europe go home at night.

“But the other exciting dimension is I’m now in the Asia Pacific, a part of the world that I don’t know very well -- yet.”

Right now, in the waning days of summer before students return to campus and classes start, writing is what Byers is thinking about most. You can see he’s passionate about it. The topic has come up several times in the conversation. He’s a regular contributor to the London Review of Books and newspaper op/ed pages, and he thinks Vancouver is the perfect place to do what he loves best.

“To be honest, I’m looking forward to spending a lot of time writing with the rain falling outside. There are a lot of things I want to write and a lot of things I want to say,” Byers says.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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