Education has great potential for people-to-people exchanges

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Colin Shonk, Counselor and Head of the Advocacy Program at the Embassy of Canada in Bhutan in New Delhi, speaks to reporter Chhimi Dema on Canada-Bhutanese affairs. excerpts.

What brings you to Thimphu?

The reason we are here today is our partnership with Royal Thimphu College and a number of international organizations including one in India and the International Union for Conservation of Nature to host a film festival and forum to combat climate change.

Bhutan is a great example of a country that has adopted progressive policies for climate and environment and especially for conservation such as event.

The Embassy of Canada supports this event financially. The idea [of the festival] was to treat students, people who will work in communications and environmental protection, to help them acquire the skills and knowledge that will enhance their ability to make a difference.

What other topics or areas of cooperation between Bhutan and the Embassy can we look forward to?

Aside from climate change and the environment, the other areas where we share priorities with Bhutan are gender empowerment and women’s empowerment, particularly with a focus on young women; diversity and inclusion; rights of the LGBTQIA+ community; Freedom of the media and freedom of expression.

Away from the film festival, we meet some of our long-term partners with whom we have worked and supported some of their initiatives. For example, there is a group called Queer Voices of Bhutan, an advocacy group for LGBTQIA+ rights. They have a podcast series called Queer Talks that we have supported and will be supporting this year. We will meet with them and do a teaser for their new series and meet other local organizations working on gender and women’s empowerment.

We also have an ongoing funding program called the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives. Since 1984 we have supported projects worth over CAD$3 million in Bhutan centered around the same issues I mentioned earlier. This year we have a total of seven projects totaling $227,000 in areas such as the environment, resilience to climate change, women’s empowerment, media freedom, freedom of expression, community and local community empowerment, and inclusion of diversity.

The purpose of my journey beyond coming to the festival is to renew contact with many groups that we have been in contact with, but it has been virtual. There is no substitute for coming and being here.

We will meet with members of the media and publicly announce what we are going to do. We hope to have a media workshop next year, hopefully in Bhutan or somewhere nearby where journalists can come and participate in the workshop on disinformation and media manipulation.

Two years ago it was announced that the Canadian government would offer a biometric enrollment service to facilitate Bhutanese travel to Canada. What happened?

I am happy to say that we are on the verge of introducing a process where we will have people travel from the embassy to Thimphu to have the biometrics done here. It would eliminate or reduce the need for people to travel to Delhi or Kolkata. We would have the latest update within the next week or so. What will happen is that we will plan the trips and the trained officers will come at a set time that will be announced in advance. The applicants for whom these applications are available for biometrics will be notified and given the opportunity to make an appointment.

What other plans are there to encourage human-to-human interaction?

Education is always an area where there is great potential for personal exchange. In the past it has been difficult to have them in person because of the pandemic, but we will look at what we can do to facilitate the faculty and student exchange program.

On the cultural side, we hope they will take part in film festivals. We could bring some Canadian artists and have a Canadian film screening like in the past. We could get a film producer to come and do a series of film screenings and workshops.

I very much welcome the news that Bhutan has opened for tourism this September. Canadians have always loved to come, travel, interact and experience amazing tourism opportunities in Bhutan.

There are growing links in trade and investment. Now that things have reopened we will look at the possible visits from trade delegations and trade visitors who may be on the lookout for potential business opportunities.

Just before Covid-19 broke out, there was a Canadian-backed initiative set up to help women-run businesses called Mountain Hazelnuts. That brought a lot of people from Canada to the country and vice versa, so we can get more initiatives like this.

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