UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 8 | Sep.
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
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,”
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,”
“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.