No ‘bun fights’ at this table

To reach the summit, every leader needs a sherpa. Harper’s is a quiet civil servant with a famous daughter.

Jason Ransom/PMO

Late on Saturday evening, in the midst of what would be a climactic session for G20 negotiations, after months of discussion and diplomacy, a point of disagreement emerged. Len Edwards, chairing the meeting as head of the Canadian delegation, will not say who or what was involved, but by his telling, a solution was not at hand. This was not quite a crisis, though.

Faced with disagreement, Edwards simply deferred, informing the meeting if no resolution could be reached, the point would be left out of the final communiqué. “I said, if level heads are ready to prevail, come to me tomorrow morning, those of you who disagree, with your solution,” he says.

The next morning the interested parties came to him with an agreement. “If they want something in, they will find a way to make it work,” he says. Hours later, the G20 communiqué, seemingly with the contentious clause included, was officially released.

The day after the diplomatic circus left town, Edwards sits in a bar at Toronto’s Royal York, host over the weekend to various leaders of the free world, looking not quite his 63 years and not nearly as exhausted as he could reasonably claim to be. After 40 years in the public service, Edwards is due to retire this summer, having just completed the most complex task of his career. The weekend was full of intrigue and competing narratives and the morning paper claims high drama, but in between sips of coffee Edwards is busy explaining how lacking in surprise and crisis the previous 72 hours were. “Part of my approach to dealing with issues,” he says at one point, “is to try to take the drama out of them to some extent.”

In the parlance of this business, Edwards was Canada’s “sherpa” to the G8 and G20. As the personal representative of the Prime Minister, he led the Canadian delegation that spent the months leading up to Muskoka and Toronto negotiating and drafting the final communiqués that would be consummated by the world’s most powerful leaders—some 16,000 words of commitments and guidelines that will shape the global economy and much of world relations. “It’s not inconsequential that they call the job I’m doing sherpa,” Edwards says. “You’re taking your leader to the summit.” If, to put it one way, Stephen Harper emerged at all from this weekend as triumphant as Sir Edmund Hillary, Edwards was his Tenzing Norgay.

A farmboy from the Prairies, he studied history at the University of Saskatchewan before joining the foreign service in 1969. Of the subsequent four decades, he would spend 15 years abroad, notably as Canada’s ambassador to Korea—a history that came in handy with Korea, as host of the next G20, co-chairing this weekend’s summit—and then Japan. After returning to Canada, he became deputy minister of international trade, then deputy minister of agriculture and agri-food. Finally, in 2007, he was named deputy minister of foreign affairs, a position he cherished enough that he held on to the title until early June before giving it up to concentrate full-time on the G8 and G20 summits.

He is not nearly the most famous person in his family—his daughter, Kathleen, is a Juno-nominated singer-songwriter—but he has helped organize international summits for three prime ministers (Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Harper). And his history with the G8 in particular extends back to the 1988 G7 summit in Toronto when the likes of Mulroney, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher met in the same convention centre that hosted Barack Obama, David Cameron and Angela Merkel this past weekend.

The sherpa must be an attentive conduit for his leader, and a former government official who knows both says Edwards and Harper share a practical, careful approach to this work. “Calm, cool, collected” is how John Kirton, director of G8 Research Group at the University of Toronto, describes Edwards. “He is the consummate bureaucrat in the best sense,” says Fen Hampson, director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. Edwards seems to keep close to a classic idea of the public servant: understated, professional and satisfied to see his political boss happy. “I don’t have a lot of sort of contour to my personality,” concedes Edwards. “I’m one of those boring public servants, right? I believe my job is to serve the government and whatever my personal views are, I am there to do a job.”

In advance of last weekend’s summits, Edwards travelled widely and met regularly with the Prime Minister. A series of gatherings with the sherpas of the other leaders led up to the final weekend. In addition to external diplomacy, internal government negotiations must be handled deftly. The preparations are apparently meticulous, even the inevitable disagreements that emerge at the summit between leaders seemingly accounted for ahead of time. “Our job was not to set up a bun fight at the table,” Edwards says.

Having scaled the proverbial mountain, a break now beckons. “My wife is very worried that I’ve been working a hundred miles an hour and I’m about to go to zero in about the course of two weeks,” he says. He will stay connected to the profession in part through his son, who has followed him into the foreign service. He will have a new house in the country to occupy him. And he will take more than a little satisfaction from a job undramatically done. “I think I’ve done as much as I can as a public servant,” he says. “And going out on a high with these summits is a nice way to end it.”