Since he graduated from the U of R in 1985, Jim Nickel BA’83, BEd’85 has spent the vast majority of his career in far away lands. His first overseas posting was as an English teacher in China. Later he would serve Canada’s Foreign Service in exotic locales such as Jakarta, Indonesia, New Delhi, and Afghanistan. Throughout his career, Nickel has found himself in the middle of some significant historical moments. From finding himself on the streets of Beijing during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre to the 2002 Bali bombings and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The past few years have had their share of intrigue as well. As the deputy head of mission in Beijing, Nickel was one of the key players in the September 2021 release of the two Michaels -- Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.
A lone man with shopping bags raises his arms in defiance as a line of menacing tanks hovers over him.
The iconic image from June 4, 1989, of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing, China was an extraordinary example of courage and a rallying cry for freedom. (Unconfirmed reports say the protestor was later executed for his act of defiance.)
University of Regina graduate and Canadian diplomat, Jim Nickel BA’83, BEd’85, was an English teacher at one of the universities in Beijing at the time. He recalls marching on the same Tiananmen Square concourse with tens of thousands of Chinese students in the days leading up to the massacre. But on that fateful day, Nickel was elsewhere.
“My wife, France (Viens), and I were both teaching English at the time and decided to go for a hike up Mount Tai in Shandong Province, near the birthplace of Confucius. We were coming back to Beijing on the train, completely unaware of what had just happened,” he recalls. “When we arrived at the station, it was deadly quiet. There was no one in the streets, where normally it was wall-to-wall people. We looked around and saw burned out skeletons of cars and buses, and soldiers in combat gear with rifles standing guard around military vehicles.”
The couple rushed back to the university, but the campus was completely cleared out, with beds unmade and books still on tables. “It was chilling,” Nickel recalls, lost in thought. He then shakes his head at the next memory, underscoring the nuanced politics of the day.
“Everyone was gone except this one foreign student from Sri Lanka. He told us the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) had occupied the city, forcing students to flee to their hometowns. When we asked him why he was still there, he said ‘The foreign students all went to their embassies. But I’m Tamil – I’m not going to the Sri Lankan embassy. I trust the PLA more than the Sinhalese.’
That made me reflect on how precarious foreign students lives can become in times of crisis.”
No one knows for sure how many students were killed that day. The Chinese government has suppressed information to this day, but it’s estimated that 3,000 people lost their lives.
“You have to understand what was happening at the time,” Nickel says. “Chairman Mao established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and then over the next 25 years, he launched several ideological campaigns to forcibly mold the Chinese people into true communists. It was an unmitigated disaster,” Nickel says.
When Mao died in 1976, his successor, Deng Xiaoping, took over and set in motion a period of “opening and reform.”
“The practical aim was to grow the economy and improve people’s lives,” Nickel says, “but the students wanted to take those reforms one step further to the political arena and usher in democracy.”
As Nickel explains, in the early spring of 1989, there was hope and promise in the air.
“It was a feeling of good-humoured anarchy as the students took to the streets of Beijing, going from university to university every day over a six-week period, calling fellow students and teachers to come join the demonstrations. I followed along as a spectator. It felt like democratic change might actually happen, with banners everywhere calling for freedom and accountable government. But it didn’t happen.”
It took the Communist Party leadership six weeks to decide what to do. “Clearly, there were divisions in the Party on how to handle the student protesters,” Nickel explains. “In the end, the Party cracked down hard, killing thousands of innocent students and reinforcing the absolute authority of the Communist Party. The hardliners prevailed. There would be no liberalization of the political state. Any reformers in the Party were sidelined for good. The Party would never relinquish its absolute control.”
As Nickel looks back, he recalls a dichotomy with his time in China. “The teaching experience and opportunity to meet people and make friends in China was wonderful and truly one of the best experiences I’ve had. As a small-town kid from Saskatchewan, it opened my eyes to the world, where before, the farthest place I’d ever traveled was Minneapolis,” he smiles.
“The Chinese people are so warm, welcoming, and enthusiastic – full of life and ambition. It really felt like they were on the cusp of something great. As it turns out, that entrepreneurial energy, which was allowed to flow freely, built China into the second largest economy in the world in just a few decades. But in terms of individual freedom and transparent, accountable government, the Tiananmen incident put a quick and brutal end to any hope for progress. Shortly after Tiananmen, my wife and I packed up to return to Canada, but I never left China behind.”
In fact, China would continue to play an important role in shaping Nickel’s career.
The early years
As he thinks about his childhood in Saskatchewan in the 1960s and ‘70s, Nickel’s face lights up and his smile is warm and inviting.
“My dad was in the RCMP, and we moved around a lot. Every couple of years there was a new opportunity in Kipling, Punnichy, Hudson’s Bay, Tisdale and Swift Current,” he recalls.
“It instilled in me a love of constant change and adventure. I think I always wanted to become an explorer, so it makes sense that I’d end up in the foreign service. That kind of lifestyle really appealed to me – the constant mobility, moving to a new country and taking on a new job every three or four years. I really enjoy learning about other countries and peoples, the different governance systems, economies, societies and history, and being exposed to different languages, religions, and customs. It’s exciting!”
Nickel’s dream of becoming an explorer took flight by way of an education degree at the U of R. “I really thought that teaching would be the vehicle for me to discover the world.”
At the time, one of Nickel’s profs, Dr. Hsieh, taught Chinese history. One day, Nickel met up with Dr. Hsieh for a beer at The Owl, which led to his first opportunity to teach overseas.
“Dr. Hsieh was routinely bringing Chinese scholars to the U of R for one-year sabbaticals. Over time, he developed a large network of professors in Chinese universities who were looking for native English teachers, so it made sense for him to start supplying teachers from Saskatchewan,” he says. “My wife – who was teaching at LeBoldus High School at the time – was intrigued, so we jumped at the chance to go abroad.”
Nickel and Viens arrived in Hunan, Changsha in 1987, then moved to Beijing in 1989. “It was there that I ran into an Irish Ambassador who told me all about the Irish foreign service. I thought to myself: ‘Canada must have one too.’”
A new opportunity
After Tiananmen Square, Nickel and Viens moved back to Ottawa where they both pursued master’s degrees. Nickel received his degree in International Relations at Carleton University, and Viens received an MBA at the University of Ottawa. Upon graduation, Nickel joined the Department of External Affairs (now Global Affairs Canada) as a foreign service officer.
“I kept telling HR, ‘I’m just back from China, I know some Mandarin – post me to Beijing! I can make a contribution there.’ But the department had other plans.”
At that time, Canada had sanctions on China following the Tiananmen Square incident, and External Affairs saw Japan as the key partner for Canada in Asia.
“It was the place to be in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s,” says Nickel. “Japanese companies were buying up Manhattan and Hollywood, and Japanese cars were more popular than GM and Ford. So, I was sent to Japan to begin intensive language training, spending a year in Yokohama studying Japanese, and five years at our embassy in Tokyo. That was a period when we really grew our bilateral relationship.”
But Nickel’s deep interest in China remained. “When I came back to Ottawa in 2000, I reminded HR about my time in China and my desire to serve in Beijing. But HR said the department had lots of Chinese speakers who could fill that role, so instead, they sent me to Jakarta, Indonesia. It turned out to be an eventful posting.”
That three-year assignment started off with the Bali bombings, followed by the Indian Ocean tsunami that devastated the province of Aceh, and culminated with the first-ever direct presidential elections.
“That series of events meant that I had opportunities to work on humanitarian relief, counterterrorism, and support for democratic processes. In terms of professional and personal development, my time in Indonesia was exceptionally rewarding.”
Nickel, his wife and two young daughters returned to Canada, where Nickel spent a few years at headquarters. “I worked on Canadian interests in South Asia, including Afghanistan, when our Armed Forces were in Kandahar,” he says proudly. “My wife – who spent years as a teacher or consultant wherever I was posted – also decided to enter the foreign service.”
The couple was then posted to New Delhi, where Nickel became the deputy high commissioner – Canada’s number two diplomat in the country – from 2009 to 2014. His wife, France, worked as a consular officer, helping Canadians in distress. “India is a fantastic civilization – colourful, dynamic, and full of cultural diversity. We spent five fabulous years exploring India and building ever closer relations between our two countries.”
While the couple’s daughters received a global education, Nickel and Viens continued with the foreign service. “After India, I had this amazing opportunity to work on the Canada-U.S.-Mexico trade files, and travel extensively to our embassies and consulates in North America. The U.S. market is key to maintaining our standard of living, so working on U.S. trade issues was an opportunity to contribute directly to Canadians’ prosperity.”
Through it all, Nickel kept dreaming about China.
“My persistence finally paid off,” he laughs. “I was given the number two role in China, assigned as deputy head of mission to Beijing in 2018 – a time when Canada-China relations were very good. The year before, we tried to launch free trade negotiations which were supported by many Canadians. The first official visit I hosted in Beijing was Premier Scott Moe and his delegation of Saskatchewan companies. The Chinese middle class of 400-million consumers all want what Canada, and Saskatchewan in particular, has to offer – food, fuel, and fertilizer – so trade was on everyone’s mind.”
Nickel says it was a busy time in the fall of 2018, with the Federal Ministers of Agriculture, Trade and Finance, as well as the Prime Minister actively engaged in discussions with their Chinese counterparts.
“The PM met with the Chinese premier to seek cooperation on Climate Change, plastics in the ocean, and biodiversity. We all anticipated a close, cooperative relationship to address issues of global concern. But in an instant, relations went from the Golden Age to the Ice Age.”
Nickel clears his throat and chooses his words carefully, navigating the fine line of confidentiality he’s been sworn to uphold as one of this country’s highest diplomats.
“Meng Wanzhou – the CFO of Huawei Technologies – was detained at the Vancouver airport under a U.S. Department of Justice extradition request. They wanted her to appear in a U.S. court to face charges of bank fraud. Canada and the U.S. have an Extradition Treaty to facilitate such law enforcement matters, so we upheld our commitment.”
Very quickly, a dark cloud descended on Canada-China relations. Canadian citizens, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig – soon known as “the two Michaels” – were detained in China as hostages. Canola sales from two large Canadian grain companies were blocked, and other non-market measures were deployed by the Chinese state to punish Canada.
“It was arbitrary detention and economic coercion,” Nickel explains. “The Chinese state mistakenly believed that these pressure tactics and a freeze in bilateral relations would force the Canadian government to comply with China’s demands and intervene in a judicial matter, but that’s not how it works in a democratic country.”
Up until Dec. 1, 2018, relations had been friendly and mutually beneficial, but the freeze took effect immediately.
“It required perseverance and tenacity to get the two Michaels released after more than 1,000 days in captivity,” Nickel says, noting the release date of September 25, 2021. “We had to remain calm and steadfastly committed. It was a case of probing and analysis, trying to find a way to break the stalemate and chart a path forward. We had to keep our personal feelings in-check while remaining laser-focussed. There was a lot of hard work done by many people to get them released.”
Some quiet reflection
Nickel and his wife returned to Canada with feelings of accomplishment. It was time to move on.
“I’ve recently accepted a new assignment in Taipei, Taiwan where my wife and I are settling in, open for new adventures.”
As Nickel looks back on his 31 years in the foreign service, he can’t help but reflect on the impact that first teaching opportunity in China had on him. “The Chinese people left an indelible mark on me…”
The people he grew to love still tug at his heart today. As he looks back on his career, Nickel can’t help but feel a sense of pride. “Promoting and defending Canada’s interests in Asia and North America, as well as helping Canadians abroad, like the two Michaels, all rank pretty high,” he offers.
Much has changed in the world since Nickel first left Regina for Changsha in the late ‘80s, with geopolitics becoming ever more complex and tense. History does not stand still.
Recalling his first overseas experience in China and the events of Tiananmen Square, Nickel has this reflection: “Those were formative years, and I’ll carry the memories with me forever. They not only shaped my career path, but the person I am today.”
Caring. Compassionate. A change maker. Nickel is all these adjectives and more.