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Order of Canada: Saltspring man is UN’s go-to guy for trouble spots

OTTAWA — Nigel Fisher once had to win the trust of an agitated and armed Iraqi tribal leader who had just gunned down one of Fisher’s United Nations colleagues.
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Nigel Fisher, right, head of the UN mission in Haiti, tours a canal reconstruction project.

OTTAWA — Nigel Fisher once had to win the trust of an agitated and armed Iraqi tribal leader who had just gunned down one of Fisher’s United Nations colleagues.

After witnessing the horrors of the Rwandan genocide — people were still being killed when he arrived for UNICEF — the Saltspring Island resident spent a year struggling with depression.

“There were bodies everywhere, the smell of death was overpowering,” he said in an interview.

Yet he is now in another of the world’s most troubled countries, in Haiti as head of the UN mission helping the Caribbean island country recover from the devastating 2010 earthquake.

Fisher, 66, was one of 13 B.C. residents among the 74 new appointments Friday to the Order of Canada.

Fisher was born in the United Kingdom, came to Canada as a university student, married, had two children, and proceeded to become a Canadian citizen while spending a career as a high-ranking UN player.

Name an unmitigated humanitarian disaster or gross social injustice, and Fisher was there.

Before Haiti, he had stints in Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami, in Afghanistan and Pakistan after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, and in Mozambique in the 1980s during that nation’s civil war.

From 2005 to 2010, he was the UN Children’s Fund’s top official in Canada, conducting research on the depths of child poverty within First Nations.

“Nigel is a sublime humanitarian and multilateralist: tough, principled, creative, compassionate and indomitable,” said Stephen Lewis, Canada’s former UN ambassador and a leading humanitarian in the fight against HIV-AIDS.

“He’s served in the hottest of hot spots, and never wavered. … He does Canada proud.”

Fisher retires in July after a career that ends with his current post as head of the UN Haiti mission.

While based in Saltspring, he said he’s already lined up work with a non-governmental organization and will teach part-time at the University of Victoria.

Fisher said any leader of a UN humanitarian mission must be flexible, non-judgmental and optimistic.

It also helps to be quick on one’s feet in dicey situations, like the time in northern Iraq in 1992 when he confronted a tribal leader and his supporters, all armed with AK-47 assault rifles, after the leader had shot and killed a fellow UN worker and his driver.

“I tell myself in such situations where aggression is in the air: ‘Fisher, keep cool, don’t take it personally, he’s shouting at what you represent, not at you as Nigel Fisher.’ ”

Fisher asked the man what his concerns were, and learned that he was upset none of the supplies had gone to his village. He also learned that the slain UN colleague had apparently addressed the tribal leader in an insulting and humiliating fashion.

Fisher agreed that some of the supplies would go to he man’s village, and struck an agreement that the convoys would from then on be protected rather than face attack from the tribe.

Local poet Patrick Lane made Officer of the the Order of Canada

North Saanich poet Patrick Lane added another accolade on Friday as one of 74 new appointments to the Order of Canada.

Lane was named an Officer of the Order of Canada “for his accomplishments as a powerful voice in Canadian poetry and for his mentorship of the next generation of Canadian poets.”

The writer has been recognized with several honours, including the Governor General’s Award.

University of Victoria adjunct professor Alison Prentice was made a member of the Order of Canada for her work advancing women’s history and the history of education.

Several other B.C. residents were named to the Order of Canada on Friday:

B.C. residents named Officers of the Order of Canada

• Dempsey Bob, of Terrace, “for his dedication to the preservation of Tahltan-Tlingit artistry, as a master carver and mentor.”

• J. Edward Chamberlin, of Halfmoon Bay, “for his scholarship in the humanities and for his commitment to the advancement of indigenous issues.”

• John R. Grace, of Vancouver, “for his contributions as a chemical engineer, notably to the development of cleaner technology for industrial processes and energy production.”

• John McArthur, of Boston and Burnaby, for his accomplishments as a leader in business education and for his ongoing engagement as an adviser in Canada’s public and private sectors.

• Bramwell Tovey, of Vancouver, “for his achievements as a conductor and composer and for his commitment to promoting new Canadian music.”

• Frederick James Wah, of Vancouver and Nelson, “for his contributions to the life of poetry in Canada.”

New B.C. members of the Order of Canada

• Shelagh Day, of Vancouver, for her commitment to women’s rights issues in Canada.

• Leslie McDonald, of North Vancouver, “for his contributions to the discipline of triathlon.”

• Marjorie-Anne Sauder, of Vancouver, “for her civic engagement as a philanthropist and for her sustained commitment to strengthening her community.”

• Robert Silverman, of Vancouver, “for his contributions to classical music, as a pianist and educator.”

— With files from the Times Colonist