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'It all started with Rotary’

Canada’s ambassador to Japan began his journey as a Rotary exchange student


Ian McKay’s career path has run like a superhighway through some of the world’s most important cities: New York, London, Tokyo. It has led him to the highest reaches of finance, politics, and global diplomacy, culminating in his current role as Canada’s ambassador to Japan.

When asked the secret of his success, McKay credits his foresight in learning Japanese, his keen interest in finance, and his understanding that high-level negotiations often work best away from boardrooms and summits. But the underlying answer is simpler. “It all started with Rotary,” he says — and later adds: “I can’t overstate that the critical part of that whole journey was Rotary.”

It was an evening in late August, and McKay, seated in the study of his official residence in Tokyo, was musing on how profoundly Rotary had shaped him — and the sequence of events that, more than two years ago, led Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to select him to serve as ambassador.

Looking back on his career in finance, politics, and diplomacy, Ian G. McKay, Canada’s ambassador to Japan and a former Rotary Youth Exchange student, says, “I can’t overstate that the critical part of that whole journey was Rotary.”

Photograph by Irwin Wong

The trajectory of McKay’s life had a lot to do with where he spent his boyhood. Born in Kamloops, British Columbia, in 1963, he was raised about 90 miles southeast of there in Penticton. In 1975, Penticton officials, looking for business opportunities, traveled to Ikeda on Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands. Two years later, a contingent from Ikeda visited Penticton, and the two municipalities became sister cities. To this day, residents of Penticton and Ikeda continue to exchange annual visits.

McKay heard about the sister-city program while a student at Penticton Secondary School, and he became fascinated with the Japanese language, culture, and traditions. “There was a little bit of mystique about it,” he says. “I certainly had the Japan bug.” He visited Ikeda for three weeks in the summer of 1980, as a part of his school’s first student exchange program. Once he was back home, he immediately began looking for a chance to return.

That opportunity came when he was chosen to spend a year in Japan as a Rotary Youth Exchange student. (McKay’s father was a longtime member of the Rotary Club of Penticton.) He spent his senior year of high school studying at Shimonoseki Dai-Ichi Koto Gakko in Japan’s Yamaguchi prefecture. “At the end of the year,” McKay says, “I had a good grasp of the written and spoken Japanese language.”

He also became more knowledgeable about Rotary. In Japan, he was hosted by the Rotary Club of Shimonoseki-West, and he regularly attended its Wednesday meetings — though initially he had some trepidation about how he, an 18-year-old not yet fluent in the language, would be received by the Japanese Rotarians. “I was embraced,” he says. “I felt a sense of community.”

Ian G. McKay

  1. Rotary Youth Exchange, Japan, 1981-82

  2. Canada’s ambassador to Japan, April 2021-present

  3. Canada’s special envoy for the Indo-Pacific, April 2023-present

Back in Canada, McKay studied political science and Japanese at the University of British Columbia. (He’d later earn an MBA from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.) With the Japanese economy surging, and Wall Street, as McKay explains, “looking for young staff who could speak Japanese,” he was recruited as a derivatives broker by the New York-based Eurobrokers Investment. He made his way to Tokyo, where he became the company’s managing director for Japan and later, based in London, its joint managing director for England.

But even as he was enjoying a successful career in high finance, McKay couldn’t help but recall the lessons he’d learned from Rotary. “On Wednesdays,” he says, “I would watch this collective of businesspeople who took time out of their busy corporate lives to discuss ideas like community service and friendship. It made a lasting impression. One day I woke up and knew I needed to do something different.”

Back in his native country, McKay ran for a seat in the House of Commons in 2000 as a candidate for the Liberal Party of Canada. His bid fell short, but he had begun making a name for himself. In 2001, he moved to Ottawa, where he served as senior policy adviser to three cabinet members under Canadian prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. In 2010, McKay was appointed the national director of the Liberal Party of Canada, where he became close to rising national stars, including Trudeau, who would begin his ongoing tenure as prime minister in 2015.

Two years after being sworn in, Trudeau found himself caught up in an international crisis. After he failed to appear at a scheduled meeting of world leaders in Vietnam, Canada’s continued participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership appeared in doubt. Trudeau had been meeting at the time with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to express his reservations about certain aspects of the proposed trade agreement. But his nonappearance created a rift between Canada and Japan.

  1. Ian McKay joins Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in September at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Indonesia

    Courtesy of Ian G. McKay

  2. McKay, in 1982, enjoys the farewell party thrown for him by the Rotary Club of Shimonoseki-West.

    Courtesy of Ian G. McKay

Enter McKay. Tapped to revive trade negotiations, he flew to Tokyo in January 2018 and conferred with Japan’s minister for the pact. The two men met on several occasions, speaking almost entirely in Japanese. Within days, the rapport between Japan and Canada had been reestablished and the trade deal was back on track. In a statement released 23 January 2018, François-Philippe Champagne, Canada’s minister of international trade, reported that “Canada successfully concluded an agreement ... thanks in large part to a dedicated and hard-working negotiating team and Canada’s special envoy Ian McKay.”

Trudeau did not forget McKay’s unique talents: This spring the prime minister named McKay, who was appointed Canada’s ambassador to Japan in 2021, as his country’s special Indo-Pacific envoy.

Nor has McKay forgotten Rotary. In January he plans to appear at the Sea Mall Palace in Yamaguchi where he will deliver a speech — entirely in Japanese, of course — to the Rotary club that he first attended some 40 years ago, the club he credits with launching what would become a long, extraordinary, and distinguished career. “It’s really a way,” McKay says, “to come back and give my thanks.”

This story originally appeared in the November 2023 issue of Rotary magazine.

A correction was made on 30 November 2023: An earlier version of this story misstated the educational background of Ian G. McKay, Canada's ambassador to Japan. Although McKay studied at the University of British Columbia, he did not receive a degree there. 

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