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Joe Comartin: More Than The Average Joe

Photo: Comartin in front of the Arms of Canada in the Detroit office of the Canadian Consulate. Photo courtesy of the Consulate General of Canada in Detroit.

Joe Comartin: More Than The Average Joe

During a recent gathering of friends, I asked the following question, “Can you name three of the last five Consul Generals from the Detroit office?” The responses were surprising.

One questioned what a Consulate is, while another asked if there really is one in Detroit and, if so, where it is located. Out of the six or seven respondents, only one could name Roy Norton as one of the past five Consul Generals.

Norton was recognized because of his untiring efforts in helping to secure the Gordie Howe International Bridge for this region. During his tenure as Consul General of Canada for the Detroit office, he forged many strong relationships with Michigan’s former Governor, Rick Snyder, and numerous U.S. federal and state legislators and local municipal politicians.

In October 2018, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Chrystia Freeland, appointed former New Democrat MP Joe Comartin as the new Consul General for Detroit to succeed Consul General Douglas George.

I had the opportunity of sitting down with Comartin in January to discuss his new appointment. But first, a little background on the Consulate General of Canada in Detroit (CGCD). (Refer also to the website).

The CGCD first opened on April 1, 1948, shortly after the end of WWII, in Suite 1035 of the Penobscot Building. This was followed by a short move in 1969 to Suite 1920 in the West Tower of the First Federal Building.

And finally, in 1987, the CGCD moved to its current location in Tower 600 of the Renaissance Center. From the 11th floor (Suite 1100) it has a spectacular panoramic view of both Detroit and Windsor.

Consulates are “small embassies” generally providing the following services: emergency services to Canadians travelling and living abroad, promotion of trade and investment, and advocacy on behalf of Canada’s interests. Canada operates an Embassy in Washington D.C., as well as 15 Consulate offices — and two satellite offices — in major U.S. cities. Each office is responsible for a specific geographical territory. The Detroit office services Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.

The CGCD represents Canada in one of the most active regions in the United States.

Across all four states, more than 870,000 U.S. jobs are directly supported by Canadian trade and investment. Nearly 950 Canadian-owned companies are investing in the region’s local communities. 

Between Detroit and Windsor, nearly 7,000 commercial vehicles cross the border daily with an average of $290 million US in surface trade, each day, making this location the busiest commercial gateway between the United States and Canada.

Comartin points out that over the years, the services offered by the Detroit office have been reduced through budget cuts and staff reductions. Currently, services provided are; trade, media relations and consular service. In the past, the office provided visa and immigration services, citizenship and regular passport service for Canadians in the U.S.

For Canadians travelling in the U.S., emergency passport service is still offered as well as assistance for Canadians in trouble with U.S. law authorities.

As the 20th Consul General in Detroit, Comartin has established a couple of firsts. He is the first Detroit Consul General who is the result of a political appointment, rather than serving as a diplomatic appointment (career diplomats). He is also the first Detroit Consul General to reside in his home in Canada. Previous diplomatic appointees to the position maintained their residence in the Detroit area.

“Shortly after the 2015 Trudeau government formed there was a conscious decision by the government to make ‘political’ appointments — that is, people who are not career diplomats — to a number of Consulates in the U.S. The reasoning was they wanted appointments of people with relatively high profiles, and secondly, profiles with significant experience in the economic sector that dominated that territory.” – Joe Comartin

Comartin’s background and career made him the perfect candidate.

He was born December 26, 1947 in Stoney Point, Ontario. He graduated from the University of Windsor in 1968 with a BA in Political Science and completed Law School in 1971. He married Maureen in 1969 and they have three children. This July, the couple celebrates their 50th wedding anniversary.

After a successful career as a civil litigator and labour lawyer for CAW/Unifor, he entered the political arena. He was elected as an MP in 2000, and re-elected in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2011, retiring before the 2015 election.

During his time as an NDP MP, Comartin was voted three times “Most Knowledgeable Parliamentarian” by his colleagues and appointed Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons in his final years.

As he retired from politics, Comartin was offered a teaching position at the University of Windsor to teach Political Science, Ethics and Reform in Canadian Parliament. He started his third career in January 2016.

Comartin told me he was “thrilled to be teaching because of the intellectual stimulation presented by the students.”

It wasn’t too long after that the Canadian Government came knocking on his door, looking for a new Consul General in Detroit — and Comartin’s fourth career began!

In describing his new position, Comartin explains “65% to 75% of our workload is around the trading relationship between Canada and the U.S. This is particularly true in recent years because of the renegotiation of NAFTA, the imposition of tariffs by the U.S. and the countervailing by Canada.”

 He continues, “We have a separate division, several staff who work exclusively on the federal relationships on the U.S. side — Senators and Members of Congress — but, we also have extensive relations that we cultivate with State Representatives, and even to a lesser degree, with some on the municipal level.”

According to Comartin, his Consulate territory of four states is perhaps the busiest and most intense in terms of trade with Canada. All four states are home to the major auto assemblers – Toyota, Honda, Subaru and the Detroit Big 3. (Tying in this entire interview quite nicely to our February auto issue!).

Comartin says that 20% of his work involves administration and staff management, leaving 80% of his time dedicated to travelling and meeting with U.S. corporate executives and political representatives to advance Canada’s policy positions regarding trade.

When it come to areas such as human rights issues in the U.S., Comartin comments “we can inform what Canada’s position is on things like immigration, but not argue what the U.S. policy on immigration should be — pro or con. We share info with the U.S. in terms of what we do in Canada for immigration, but in no way advocate what the U.S. should do.”

This is hardest part of the learning curve Comartin faces. Throughout his life as a lawyer and politician, he has advocated for the rights of others. But now, though his instinct is to advocate, his new job requires the need for diplomacy.

No clearer example of this just played out with the General Motors’ announcement of plant closures in the U.S. and Canada (Oshawa).

On January 11, 2019, there was a massive protest by the unions, civic leaders and allies in Windsor’s Dieppe Gardens, over the Oshawa plant closure decision. This was less than two miles from the boardroom in the Renaissance Center where investors were gathered for meetings. In a touch of irony, GM Headquarters shares the same building as the CGCD!

While Comartin’s instinct would be to strongly advocate for Oshawa and oppose the decision to close the plant, his role as Consul General requires him to exercise diplomacy.

In that exercise of diplomacy Comartin says, “I can only urge GM to commit to the future manufacturing of electric vehicles in the existing facilities that are closing. That represents Canada’s policy position on the matter.”

One of the things Comartin would like to see the CGCD tackle in the near future is a more coordinated tourism initiative between the two nations.

He mentions the office at one time was staffed by two dedicated persons for Tourism, until staff and budget cutbacks in 2012/2013. He would like funding approved for a full time Tourism staff member to work on making Michigan and southwestern Ontario a “collective destination point.” He cites Essex County’s burgeoning wine industry as one good example and great fit for sharing in Michigan’s successful “Pure Michigan” promotion.

He also sees the renaissance and rebirth of downtown Detroit working in tandem with Windsor’s ongoing efforts to redefine itself.

As this article is being written in mid-January, the CGCD finds itself immersed in its busiest two months of the year, preparing for, and participating in, the 2019 “North American International Auto Show” at Cobo Center.

You can count on seeing our new Consul General Comartin out and about at the many meetings, receptions and corporate gatherings that will provide him the opportunity of proudly promoting Canada and its policies and interests. Keep up with where you can find Comartin on social media pages such as Facebook.

As you can tell after reading this article, Comartin is “not just your average Joe!”

Congratulations on your appointment Consul General Comartin — we know you will do a great job for us!

CLARIFICATION: In the February print issue on page 13 it mentions Volkswagen was in the 4-state area; it should read Honda.

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