Jamshed Merchant, the new Canadian consul general in Minneapolis, is a man of broad interests.
He's a former geography professor who worked in environmental posts for the Canadian government for decades. Now his priority is building business relationships between the Upper Midwest and his country. For example, he is promoting the idea for a new oil pipeline that runs from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Neb., on a diagonal straight shot -- the Keystone XL pipeline.
He spoke recently with the Star Tribune to help introduce himself to the five-state region he's responsible for -- Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa.
QHow do you go from teaching geography to becoming a soil scientist to taking on the job of a consul general in the United States?
AI was born in India, and, typically, if you're a kid who grows up in the middle class in India, you're kind of slotted, your parents decide your course, and because I liked math and physics and chemistry, they said "He's going to become an engineer." At a certain point, when I was a teenager, I decided no, I don't think I want to be an engineer.
I was really intrigued at the time by environmental issues, the connections between things. If you did something somewhere, there would be a reaction somewhere else. How do you make sure your system is in balance? Environmental science touched both physical things like geography and geology, but it also touched biological things -- ecosystems, ecology and the human side.
The soils you get in, say, Minnesota, they're there because of the geology of the place, the climate, the temperature, the amount of water, the vegetation and the impact of man. I find in this work [as consul general], it's all about those linkages.
QWhat are you learning about the linkages between this region and Canada?
AI'm learning that they're really profound and massive. I'm taken aback by the level of warmth people have for Canada. And then there's the nature of our trade, the relationship. Overall, it's almost $700 billion between Canada and the U.S. In the five states that we cover, it's over $38 billion, and Minnesota is about half of that.
QBut trade across the border is surprisingly difficult, right?
AThere's a realization that we should look at our regulations. Can we make sure there's a commonality in the regulations? Those are more long-term kinds of things, but it's really all around keeping our countries safe and secure from whatever threats there are, but at the same time facilitating the movement of goods and services, to make them faster and more efficient. Nothing upsets people more than spending a lot of time on paperwork or not knowing what they should do.
QWhat cross-border business relationships have surprised you?
AThe volume has really taken me by surprise, and it's across all areas. You've got manufacturing, you've got innovation, medical sciences. There are quite a few Canadian banks here. Transportation as well. Canadian Pacific has got its American headquarters here, and its major hub for the Upper Midwest supplying into North Dakota. And Target is just opening up in Canada.
QHas the consulate had any part in Target's expansion into Canada?
APart of what we do is try to become aware of these things, and figure out how we can help. For instance, Target has a food store, so in terms of supply chains, there may be Canadian companies who can supply them. One of our staff members helped them through a process to identify who their food suppliers may be. We also take people who want to buy things from Canada on missions to meet Canadian suppliers.
QWhat is Canada's message on the Keystone XL, a proposed diagonal oil pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Neb.?
AThis is a real opportunity for financial security for both countries. It's a secure, reliable, safe supply of oil. It's good for the economies on both sides of the border. It will create lots of jobs both in terms of construction but also ongoing as well. It's like a highway. As it moves through, it can connect up with oil coming from North Dakota. We're very supportive of it, but the appropriate mechanisms are in place in the United States to make the decision.
Adam Belz • 612-673-4405 Twitter: @adambelz