Counsellor and head of the advocacy programme at the Embassy of Canada to Bhutan based in New Delhi, Colin Shonk talks to Reporter Chhimi Dema about Canada-Bhutan affairs.  Excerpts.

What brings you to Thimphu? 

The reason that we are here today is that we partnered with Royal Thimphu College and a couple of international organisations, one based in India, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature to host a film festival and a forum on combating climate change.

Bhutan is a great example of a country that has put in place progressive policies on climate and environment and especially conservation such as the forestry law which covers other laws around the drinking water, species and wildlife making it such a good place to host this kind of event.

The Embassy of Canada is financially supporting this event. The idea [of the festival] was to treat students, people who are going to be working in communications and environmental conservation to help gain the skills and the knowledge that is going to improve their ability to make a change.

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

Beyond climate change and environment, the other areas that we share priorities with Bhutan are gender empowerment and women empowerment, especially with a focus on young women; diversity and inclusion; LGBTQIA+ community rights; media freedom and freedom of expression.

Separate from the film festival performance, we are meeting some of our long-standing partners with whom we have worked together 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 which we supported and will support this year. We are going to meet with them and do a teaser for their new series and meet other local organisations that work around gender and women empowerment.

We also have an ongoing funding programme called the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives. Since 1984, we supported over CAD 3 million worth of projects in Bhutan, around the same kind of themes that I mentioned earlier. This year, we have seven projects in total, with CAD 227,000  in areas such as environment, climate change resiliency, women empowerment, media freedom, freedom of expression, community and local empowerment, and diversity inclusion.

The purpose of my trip beyond coming for the festival is to renew contact with a lot of groups that we have been in touch with, but it has been virtually. There is no substitute for coming and being here.

We will be meeting with members of the media, sharing publicly what we will be doing. We are hoping next year to host a media workshop, hopefully in Bhutan or somewhere closer where we can have journalists come and attend the workshop on disinformation and media manipulation.

Two years ago, it was announced the government of Canada would offer biometrics collection service to facilitate travel for Bhutanese to Canada. What happened? 

I am happy to be able to say that we are very close to being able to put in place a process where we would have people travel from the Embassy to Thimphu to have the biometric done here. It would eliminate or reduce the need for people to have to travel to Delhi or Kolkata. We would have the latest update within the next week or so. What will happen is we will plan the trips and the officers who have been trained will come for a set time which will be announced in advance. The applicants who have these applications standing for biometrics will be notified and given the opportunity to make an appointment.

What other plans are there to boost people-to-people interaction?

Education is always an area where there is great potential for people-to-people exchanges. In the past, it has been tricky with the pandemic to have them in person, but we will be looking at what we can do to help facilitate faculty and student exchanges programme.

On the cultural side, we are hoping to have them participate in film festivals. We might bring over some Canadian artists and have a Canadian film screening like in the past. We might get a film producer to come and do a series of film screenings and workshops.

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

There are growing ties in trade and investment. Now that things have opened up again, we will be looking at the possible visits of trade delegations and trade visitors who might be looking at possible business opportunities.

Just before Covid-19 hit, there was an initiative with Canadian support that was set up to help women-owned businesses called Mountain Hazelnuts. That introduced a lot of people from Canada to the country and vice versa, so we can get more initiatives like that.