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Diplomat saw Cuban missile crisis up close

Posted to the Canadian embassy in Havana from 1961 to 1964, he went on to become ambassador to Argentina
By BUZZ BOURDON, The Globe and Mail
February 24, 2009

OTTAWA -- Dwight Fulford was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, but he didn't let his privileged background prevent him from carving out a memorable career as a diplomat and ambassador during the golden era of Canadian diplomacy.

Dealing with some of the major figures of the 20th century, Mr. Fulford, who displayed boundless intellectual curiosity, represented his country as a gentleman of the old school. "He was an excellent diplomat because he never antagonized or upset anyone. But he always made Canada's official position on human rights crystal clear," said his daughter Sarah Fulford.

Anyone could make an appointment to see him and he met all types of people during his diplomatic career, from high to low. No matter who they were, he treated everyone with the same courtesy, "whether they were the president or the cook," Ms. Fulford said.

A strong believer in social justice, Mr. Fulford fought hard for human rights. "He, along with our mother, was blind to colour, gender and culture - what influenced him were the issues and causes," said his daughter Martha Fulford. "This was also reflected in their home life. I don't think I can count the number of refugees, immigrants and others that enjoyed their hospitality and support over the years."

Posted to the Canadian embassy in Havana as second secretary from 1961 to 1964, Mr. Fulford saw the results of the revolution that had swept Fidel Castro to power in 1959. He and his family arrived right after the Bay of Pigs invasion and things were tense, said Mr. Fulford's wife, Barbara.

"We were quickly disillusioned with the regime. It was quite cruel and arbitrary. I met Che Guevara but avoided meeting Castro. But my husband had to meet all the famous revolutionary figures in his work," she said.

During the Cuban missile crisis of 1963, Mr. Fulford and his family were "scared stiff" when the United States and the Soviet Union came close to nuclear war over Soviet missiles deployed in Cuba," Mrs. Fulford said. "We lived near a small airport and saw the Russian MiG planes. We thought the Americans would bomb with conventional weapons."

Fifteen years later, Mr. Fulford, who had been appointed ambassador to Argentina in 1978, listened sympathetically when people told him about the repressive and brutal tactics of the military junta that controlled the country. He had many meetings with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, women whose children had been abducted and murdered because they criticized the regime.

Argentina was racked with social unrest and economic problems, but at home in the ambassador's mansion - complete with a cook, a butler and a gardener, plus an orchard, garden, swimming pool and tennis courts - one could try and forget about them. Security was tight, though, and the 1-hectare complex was surrounded by a fence and guarded by armed police officers.

As Canada's representative in Buenos Aires, Mr. Fulford was required to entertain a great deal, including members of the ruling junta whose hands were bloody from what came to be known as the Dirty War. "We had these people for dinner, including presumably torturers and murderers and we had to be polite to them," Mrs. Fulford said.

When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands on April 2, 1982, Mr. Fulford was instructed to inform the junta that the Canadian government opposed the invasion. To emphasize that, Mr. Fulford was recalled to Ottawa. After he returned, the Argentine government expelled him but that didn't bother him at all. He simply holed up in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, until the junta fell from power.

Mr. Fulford grew up in Brockville, Ont., the scion of a wealthy family that moved with ease among the moneyed upper classes of North America and Europe.

Winter vacations in Florida, cruises on the family steam yacht - his mother Josephine travelled in style with 80 pieces of luggage - Mr. Fulford and his family lived a life of privilege in Fulford Place. The mansion built by Mr. Fulford's grandfather on the shore of the St. Lawrence River is now a museum.

The family fortune was created in the late 19th century by Senator George T. Fulford, an entrepreneur who built an empire from patent medicine. Acquiring the rights to Dr. William's Pink Pills for Pale People - they claimed to "make weak people strong" - Senator Fulford harnessed the power of advertising and used testimonials of "miracle cures" to sell his pills all over the world.

It wasn't all fun and games, though. In common with many upper-class families of the era, his parents left much of the parenting to the governess. Even birthdays didn't always rate anything special. When Mr. Fulford turned 2, his father wasn't there to wish him a happy birthday. Instead, the elder Fulford sent his son a telegram.

"He was saved from being a poor little rich boy by the servants. His nice personality was due to [their influence]. He was brought up by Swiss governesses and he saw his mother every Thursday afternoon," Mrs. Fulford said.

By the end of the Depression much of the family fortune had melted away, but there was still enough left to maintain appearances. Mr. Fulford hated his boarding school but things got better when he transferred to the public-school system for two years. He finished high school at Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ont.

It was during this time that he started thinking about a career in diplomacy and becoming an ambassador.

After graduating from the University of Toronto in 1953 - he majored in history and excelled in debating - Mr. Fulford took his new bride to Oxford University so he could study law. He had met Barbara Screaton at a debate in 1950 and asked her out a week later.

"I refused him because he was starting to lose his hair. My mother said, 'What! At least you were asked out by someone with a nice Canadian name!' The next time he asked me I went. He was very amusing and clever, totally devoid of condescension and snobbery," Mrs. Fulford said.

They were married in Toronto on June 30, 1954.

In 1955, Mr. Fulford passed the External Affairs exam and was posted to Buenos Aires the following year for the first time.

Back in Ottawa by 1969, Mr. Fulford, an authority on energy issues and widely accepted as the smartest man in the department, played a key role in helping to defuse an international crisis when India exploded a nuclear device in 1974 with plutonium extracted from a Candu reactor sent to India as a gift to generate electricity. Quickly developing a new nuclear-safety policy for the federal government, Mr. Fulford advocated unilateral restraints on uranium exports and stringent safeguards on exports of nuclear material.

Because of his experience with energy, Mr. Fulford's final posting as an ambassador was in Saudi Arabia from 1982 to 1985. "He made himself such an expert on the region and its history that reporters would call him years later for his opinion," Sarah Fulford said.

Dwight Wilder Fulford was born on May 29, 1931, in Toronto. He died of acute leukemia in Ottawa on Jan. 23, 2009. He was 78. He leaves Barbara, his wife of 54 years, daughters Sarah and Martha, sons Wilder, Benjamin, Daniel and Adam, sister Martha and six grandchildren.

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