Lakehead University Alumni Magazine

Lakehead's New Chancellor Derek Burney

An Uncommon Canadian

Tracey Skehan
Published July 16, 2013
Above: Derek Burney addresses Convocation after being installed as Lakehead's Chancellor on May 31, 2013

Derek Burney is a man who loves a challenge. Canada's former ambassador to the United States has not only seen the world, he has helped shape it.

Today, corporate executives and government officials seek the insights he has gained in a half-century career as a diplomat, political gatekeeper, business leader, and, currently, senior strategic advisor to the law firm Norton Rose Fulbright.

Despite this unrelenting schedule, Derek Burney has made room for another commitment: "representing Lakehead University as a beacon of academic excellence in my hometown." In May, Burney became Lakehead's eighth chancellor in a special convocation ceremony.

He took on this role because he knows firsthand the transformative power of universities. "I have a passion for education because I believe that it is the best foundation for a successful and satisfying life – a major reason why a young fellow from Thunder Bay was able to become ambassador to the U.S.A.," he explains. "Merit not lineage counts in Canada."

Burney was born and raised in Fort William (later Thunder Bay) and absorbed the unconventional spirit of this rugged Northwestern Ontario metropolis.

"I have a passion for education because I believe that it is the best foundation for a successful and satisfying life." - Chancellor Derek Burney

Growing up he participated in drama productions in high school and played hockey, baseball, football, and basketball. During summers, he worked at the Royal Edward Hotel, the Canadian Grain Commission, and the Great Lakes Paper Mill. This energetic young man also drove a taxi for his mother's firm.

After high school, Burney went to Queen's University. "For me personally, the discipline of completing a graduate thesis was probably the most riveting and useful experience of my time at university," Burney says. "Habits formed in that endeavour underpinned much of what I subsequently accomplished."

His university sojourn was also life-changing because it was there that he met his future wife, Joan Peden. Joan, coincidentally, was from Port Arthur – Fort William's neighbouring city. The couple, who have four sons and 17 grandchildren, have since shared countless adventures.

Around the World

Burney joined Canada's Foreign Service in 1963. "The appeal," he says, "was variety – in terms of environment, of functions and of the people you would work with." What began as a two-year posting in Japan turned into a seven-year hitch (including two years on an intensive Japanese-language course).

After a stint back at the external affairs department's headquarters in Ottawa, Burney was named ambassador to South Korea in 1978 at the relatively young age of 38. He had decided early in his diplomatic career to be more than a generalist. The posting to Seoul broadened him as an Asia specialist while adding trade policy to his skill set. His most dramatic moment in Seoul, however, was political.

Oval Office meeting
Ambassador Derek Burney (far right) sits in during an Oval Office meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney c. 1987

On his farewell visit to President Chun, Doo-hwan in late 1980, Burney (on instructions from Ottawa) pleaded for the life of opposition leader Kim, Dae-jung, who awaited execution on charges of sedition and conspiracy. Chun "didn't take kindly" to the intercession, and the courtesy call turned into a diplomatic dust-up. But Kim survived.

Back in Ottawa, Burney organized the 1981 G-7 Summit in Montebello, Quebec, the first time Canada had played host to the diplomatic extravaganza. Later that year, he headed External's Bureau of Trade Policy and General Economic Affairs. In that job, he led an interdepartmental trade policy review which eventually culminated in the Canada-U.S. Free Trade initiative.

He moved up to assistant deputy minister for U.S.A. affairs and then associate undersecretary during the mid-eighties. In those positions, he impressed Brian Mulroney, who had become prime minister in 1984, with a promise to enhance Canada's relations with the U.S. In 1987, the PM asked Burney to become his chief of staff.

"Derek was knowledgeable, decisive, and determined to get solutions," says Mulroney. "I learned that he was pretty tough. He could crack the whip and make things happen." When Burney demurred that he was not a political strategist, the PM replied that he needed someone to organize the prime minister's office and make sure multiple officials weren't giving him conflicting counsel.

Mulroney credits Burney for his role "in some of the most important files that the Government of Canada has handled since the Second World War." These included the adoption of the Goods and Services Tax and the Commonwealth push to sanction apartheid South Africa. "Derek was very effective and very important to the process and the result."

That was especially so in the protracted negotiation of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. As the talks teetered on collapse, Mulroney recalls that Burney and U.S. Treasury Secretary James Baker saved the day. "Those were the two indispensable players at the end who made it happen."

Later, Mulroney appointed Burney ambassador to the U.S., where he played a crucial part in concluding the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Acid Rain Accord.

"Mostly I will try to inspire Lakehead University graduates whenever I can to make the most from what they have learned." – Chancellor Derek Burney

In 1993, Burney shifted his formidable ability to get things done to the private sector. He became chair and CEO of Bell Canada International (BCI), leading its telecom expansion into the U.K., the U.S., Asia, and Latin America. On a business trip to South Korea, he was warmly welcomed by Kim, Dae-jung, the former dissident whose life he had helped to save and who had become president.

From 1999 to 2004, Burney was president and CEO of Canadian Aviation Electronics Ltd. (known by its acronym, CAE Inc.). When he came on board, CAE was a holding company with multiple profit centres that manufactured advanced simulation and controls equipment. He redefined it by focusing on three core businesses and turning CAE into a global provider of integrated training solutions for civilian and military air crews.

In 2006 PM-elect Stephen Harper tapped Burney to head his transition team. The prime minister's transition was "the best I've seen," Arthur Kroeger, one of the most respected former mandarins, told the Hill Times. "There were no burps, hiccups, or leaks," agreed Burney.

Following the changeover, Burney joined the Ottawa office of Norton Rose Fulbright (then Ogilvy Renault). His position with the firm gives Burney the flexibility to accept outside assignments.

"He has a lot of relationships and networks," says Norman Steinberg, global chair of Norton Rose Fulbright. "He's been a fantastic 'rainmaker' for us. He also helps with our existing relationships. Key clients approach us with business issues and ask for his strategic advice. He can apply himself to almost any industry. And he has lots of stamina."

Hometown Hero

Burney's stamina will come in handy as he dives into his new role at Lakehead. "I'm going to get into a dialogue with President Stevenson and the Board of Governors to develop some ideas on how I can help. I'm available to do what they want me to do, when they want me to do it," he says.

"He will not be just a figurehead," concurs Deb Comuzzi, Lakehead's vice-president of external relations, "he will be helping us implement our Strategic Plan for 2013-18."

Burney, whose connection with Lakehead University goes back to 1990 when he received an Honorary Doctor of Laws, is the ideal person to cultivate the regional, national, and international ties necessary to boost the University's profile and resources. "We will demonstrate that we are tailoring our programs to the skills needed for the country," Burney explains. "Corporate donations should flow from that."

group photo
A visit to the PM's Office: Joan Burney, Rev. Russ Peden (Joan's father), Prime Minister Mulroney, Harriet Peden (Joan's mother), and Derek Burney

The chancellor is excited about Lakehead's approach to postsecondary education. "I am particularly keen to support the new Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Mining and Exploration (CESME), which I believe can bolster the enormous potential of Northwestern Ontario."

The model of learning that CESME embodies is part of Lakehead's push to "emphasize excellence at all levels and to educate students with the skills and qualities Canada will need in what is an increasingly turbulent and competitive world," says Burney.

And Chancellor Burney's legendary talents as a statesman couldn't have come at a better moment. "As Lakehead is leading up to its 50th anniversary in 2015, the breadth of experience he will bring to Lakehead is enormous," says Comuzzi. "He will open doors that we have never been able to open before."

When asked to boil down what he wants to achieve as chancellor, Burney replies, "Mostly I will try to inspire Lakehead University graduates whenever I can to make the most from what they have learned."

"Education provides the opportunity but individual effort is the key to success."

Derek Burney has held his own with superpowers, stood up for human rights, and helped usher in an era of economic prosperity for Canada – Lakehead is proud to welcome this bold thinker as chancellor.

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