For Jim DeHart, arriving in Vancouver for a three-year stint as B.C. and Yukon’s new U.S. consul general is a bit of a homecoming.
It is not that the 58-year-old has spent much time in Vancouver, or Canada. It is that the lifelong diplomat’s longest stretch of living in any one place was growing up in the comparatively nearby state of Oregon.
His maternal grandparents also lived in B.C. in the early 1900s.
“It’s very nice now to come back to the Pacific Northwest,” DeHart told BIV in his first media interview since arriving in Vancouver on July 21.
He then looked out the window to Burrard Inlet, past large U.S. and Canadian flags in his office on the top floor of the Manulife Place building at 1075 West Pender Street.
His spectacular view includes Coal Harbour and Stanley Park.
“One of the great things about coming to Vancouver is that I love the outdoors,” he said.
He then gushed about having recently caught a pink salmon off Dees Island in Delta.
It is Sept. 12, and DeHart is fresh from an afternoon meeting with B.C. Premier David Eby. He has been lining up meetings with business and political leaders in the region where he is now the U.S. government’s top official.
The previous day, he spoke at an event at Peace Arch Park to commemorate the 22nd anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York.
Much of his career has been spent trying to understand and help the region of Central Asia, where some terrorist groups operate.
He even took a year off, in 2008, to study the Persian language Dari that is spoken in Afghanistan – something that helped in his two one-year postings in that country.
Before arriving in Vancouver, he held a Washington D.C.-based job helping Afghan allies leave Afghanistan.
In August 2021, when the Taliban overtook the country, causing horrific scenes of desperation and violence, DeHart went to Afghanistan for 10 days to help lead the effort to evacuate Americans and allies, he said.
“I was proud that I was able to help out in the evacuation of Kabul, and we got a lot of people out,” he said.
“We were able to get all the American citizens out who wanted to leave. We were able to get out all of our local staff who worked for us at the embassy, who wanted to leave, and we were able to get out a whole lot of other people.”
While there remain many Afghans who worked with the Americans in the approximately 20 years that the U.S. occupied the country, the U.S. effort to evacuate those left behind appears to be an ongoing if not endless struggle.
For DeHart, this year was simply the right time to move on, take a new international posting and focus on new issues.
Much of his job in Vancouver is to encourage trade, ease cross-border friction and promote values, such as democracy, he said.
He also oversees more than 200 employees who either work at his consulate or are customs and border patrol officers.
The consulate’s travel budget is sufficient to take him around the province and up to Yukon but most of his time will be spent in Vancouver, living at a U.S. government-owned Shaughnessy residence.
His wife, Lisa DeHart, is with him, although his two adult daughters live in the U.S. His wife, a teacher, joined him in most of his foreign posts, although not the ones in Afghanistan.
Diplomatic life filled with new places, experiences
DeHart’s globetrotting started when he was a newborn.
He lived in five countries by the age of 10 because his father, Thomas DeHart, was in the U.S. foreign service.
DeHart and his family then moved in the mid-1970s to central Oregon, where they stayed long enough for him to graduate high school. A political science degree at Spokane, Washington’s Gonzaga University followed.
He then tried his luck at various jobs in the Pacific Northwest before taking a three-month backpacking trip across Europe, in 1989, around the time that the Berlin Wall fell, and the Cold War was ending.
The trip reawakened a desire in him to live internationally, and it inspired him to get more serious about his life, he said.
He completed a master’s degree in international relations at George Washington University, and looked to follow in his father’s footsteps.
It took him several attempts to pass the U.S. foreign service exam, but after finally passing the test, he was able to provide the U.S. Department of State a list of 10 places in the world where he would most want to go.
“On Flag Day, they surprise you by calling you up and handing you a flag for where it is that you’re going to go,” he said. “Sometimes you recognize the flag, and sometimes you don’t. Istanbul, Turkey was my second choice, which I got. I was happy with that.”
Vancouver is the sixth international city where DeHart has been posted, and in the nearly 30 years since he left for his first Turkish assignment, he has spent many years in multiple stints in Washington, D.C.
Other international tours of duty include Melbourne, Australia; Oslo, Norway; various spots in Afghanistan; and Brussels, Belgium.
Part of his service includes time working at the White House as part of National Security Council staff.
A photo of himself with former U.S. president George W. Bush is prominent on a shelf in his office.
DeHart’s passion, perhaps fuelled in part by watching totalitarian regimes such as the Taliban, is to spread values such as democracy, and to do so in a non-partisan way.
He lauds accomplishments achieved under both Democratic and Republican governments.
Former Canadian ambassador to Norway, Artur Wilczynski, told BIV that he remembers DeHart also pushing for press freedom when the two met and hung out together in Oslo, Norway between 2015 and 2018.
DeHart was then the U.S.’s deputy chief of mission, and defacto ambassador, given that the U.S. did not have an ambassador in that embassy for two of the three years that he was there.
DeHart and Wilczynski used some spare time to play together in a band named Diplomatic Immunity – DeHart on lead guitar, and Wilczynski on drums.
“Jim was really instrumental in pushing us to use the band as a vehicle to promote press freedom,” Wilczynski said. “We held a gig in honour of Daniel Pearl, who was an American journalist murdered in Pakistan.”
Countries such as Canada and the U.S. have a diplomatic core that produces foreign service operatives who work alongside political appointees.
Often, ambassadors in smaller countries and consuls general around the world are non-political lifetime foreign service officers.
The U.S.’s seven consuls general in Canada are like that even though they report to U.S. Ambassador David Cohen, who U.S. President Joe Biden appointed as a political confident. The tradition in both countries is to have political appointees as the top diplomat in the other’s country.
Some former U.S. consuls general to Vancouver have been open about taking part in political activities in their youth.
Philip Chicola, who held the post between 2008 and 2011, for example, was once president of the Florida Young Democrats, and he supported former U.S. president Jimmy Carter’s successful bid for the White House in 1976.
DeHart, however, said that despite earning a political science degree, was never active in politics.
“It’s really important that our career bureaucrats, or the diplomats, or civil service across our agencies, are professionally apolitical,” he said.
“It would be a huge problem in our system if we had career people that sort of shifted with every political wind. You need to have professionals that can do the job right and reflect the priorities of whichever administration is elected.”
He said it is too soon to say whether his consulate will host an election night party in November 2024. It held those events in the early aught years, but then stopped in 2008, when the world was grappling with the Great Financial Crisis.
The U.S. has had a consulate in B.C. since 1862, when it opened one in Victoria. The consulate then moved to Vancouver in 1898.
“We can never be complacent about the relationship,” DeHart said. “We’re two countries, right next to each other, but we can’t afford to take each other for granted.”