This profile was part of the Faculty of Public Affairs’ 75 for the 75th series, which highlighted 75 notable alumni in FPA in honour of Carleton University’s 75th anniversary. These stories were published in 2016 and 2017.
Retired Canadian Ambassador
Master of Arts, Public Administration (’56)
At 85-years-old, Joe Bissett is one of the few of our alumni who remember Carleton University in its early days.
“It was a fascinating year for me. There were only about six students in the program so we all got a lot of individual attention,” he recalls of his experience in 1956. “Many of the seminars were held at the home of the Dean in the Glebe. Some of Ottawa’s most senior public servants were invited to join our seminars and explain some of the intricacies and challenges of managing in the public service. That year at Carleton convinced me to seek a career in government.”
Having received one of Carleton’s first Master’s degrees in Public Administration, Mr. Bissett joined the Department of Citizenship and Immigration. One of his first assignments was to work as an assistant to Minister Ellen Fairclough, Canada’s first woman Minister.
“She was one of the best Ministers I worked for during my 36 years of public service,” says Mr. Bissett, who would serve in the Immigration Foreign Service in a variety of senior positions before serving as Executive Director from 1985 to 1990.
When the Immigration Foreign Service was integrated into the Department of External Affairs, Mr. Bissett became Assistant Undersecretary of State for Social Affairs. In 1982, he was appointed High Commissioner to Trinidad and Tobago.
Then in 1990, he was appointed Canadian Ambassador to the Republic of Yugoslavia, with accreditation to Bulgaria and Albania.
It was as Canada’s ambassador that Mr. Bissett was a first-hand witness to the tragic breakup of Yugoslavia and the savage civil and religious wars that followed. He believes it was a tragedy that didn’t need to happen, and he places the larger part of the blame on the democratic powers of the West, led by the United States and Germany.
“I was an old cold warrior and immensely proud of NATO and its role in holding back any attack from the Soviet Union,” he says. “However, under the leadership of Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, NATO was turned into an aggressive instrument of U.S. foreign policy.”
Mr. Bissett forcefully argued that NATO’s bombing of Serbia was a violation of NATO’s own treaty and the United Nation Charter. He sees these decisions as representing a historical turning point in the “moral high ground” previously held by the democratic nations of Western Europe and North America.
“A pattern was set in motion that has been followed in Iraq, in Libya, in Egypt, in Syria and more recently in Ukraine,” he contends. “This is the greatest threat to peace and security that we face today.”
Upon leaving the Foreign Service in 1992, Mr. Bissett served from 1992 to 1997 as Chief of Mission for the International Organization for Migration in Moscow, helping the government deal with the thousands of Russians returning to Russia from former countries of the Soviet Union.
Since returning to Canada in 1997, Mr. Bissett has contributed numerous articles to journals and newspapers about foreign affairs and refugee issues.
Carleton University created the James Bissett Alumni Award after him in acknowledgment of a distinguished career in the service of his country. He, in turn, insists it was his time at Carleton that helped equip him for any role he might have played.
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