Profile

THE HELPFUL FIXER

Ambassador or lieutenant-governor, James Bartleman is a man on a mission

ROBERT SHEPPARD March 1 2004
Profile

THE HELPFUL FIXER

Ambassador or lieutenant-governor, James Bartleman is a man on a mission

ROBERT SHEPPARD March 1 2004

THE HELPFUL FIXER

Profile

Ambassador or lieutenant-governor, James Bartleman is a man on a mission

ROBERT SHEPPARD

EXCEPT FOR ONE literally life-choking moment five years ago in a South African hotel room—when he was viciously beaten during a bungled robbery—you’d have to say that James Bartleman, the lieutenant-governor of Ontario, ex-diplomat and incorrigible fixer, has lived a charmed life. Yes, he grew up poor and marginalized in rural Ontario. His earliest recollection: “Port Carling, summer of 1946. We lived in a tent by the dump. My mother was an Indian from the reserve. My father was an outspoken but well-read white man with Grade 4 education and we kids were all various colours.”

But a visiting U.S. millionaire liked his spirit and paid for his university education. After backpacking through Europe—he just happened to be in a London cathedral when Martin Luther King Jr. popped in to repeat his “I have a dream” speech—Bartleman joined Canada’s diplomatic corps. His career, as his second book, On Six Continents, has it, was an almost madcap romp between highsecurity NATO postings and quixotic Third World missions. Toss in a happy marriage and this is a life of fairy-tale proportions. Except that would miss the late-in-life depression that forced him to deal with his own eclectic past, and an unrelenting curiosity that propelled him through many of the world’s most interesting byways.

Like Bangladesh in 1972, when Bartleman opened Canada’s first consular mission, at the ripe age of 32. Nearly overwhelmed by the poverty and a raging smallpox epidemic, he cabled high-level Ottawa with the World Health Organization plea for $10 million for smallpox vaccines and, to his surprise, the money arrived. “I’m called in later and given hell,” he says. “Didn’t go through the Bengalis, didn’t go through the proper committees. But tens of thousands of lives were saved just like that.”

Flash forward, it’s the same technique he’s employed to bring books to 32 mostly Native communities in Ontario’s far north. Reading and now writing have been essential to his own life, and when he discovered these places had no libraries, he started a campaign. Within three weeks the first of more than 500,000 donated books were being hauled north by army trucks. The result fit Bartleman’s credo: “See a problem, deal with it. Don’t dwell on who’s to blame.”