November 30 marked the 50th anniversary of Mongolia and Canada establishing diplomatic relations. In recognition of this milestone, Ottawa and Ulaanbaatar upgraded their bilateral ties to a comprehensive partnership during Mongolian Foreign Minister Battsetseg Batmunkh’s official visit to Ottawa. The upgrade, in essence, aims to reinvigorate economic activities between government services and private sectors.
Battsetseg’s visit to Canada from November 20 to 22 was the first by a Mongolian foreign minister in 25 years. She used the visit not only to underscore the need to improve the Canada-Mongolia economic partnerships, but also to shed light on the success stories of Canadian businesses in Mongolia and vice versa.
In a joint statement, the two governments agreed to further explore regional and multilateral engagements as well as expanding commercial relationships.
Mongolia and Canada established official diplomatic relations in 1973. However, the Canadian government recognized Mongolia and supported the country’s independent foreign policy well before that. Canada supported Mongolia’s membership to the United Nations back in 1961 – over a decade before the two established an official diplomatic relationship.
During an interview, former Mongolian Ambassador to Canada Ariunbold Yadmaa emphasized that Canada’s interest in Mongolia predates the onset of official political engagement. Ariunbold stated that the Canadian archival documents indicated communication with the United States regarding Mongolia. Hence, from Ulaanbaatar’s foreign policy point of view, Canada has long been viewed as an important partner and a supporter of Mongolia’s democratization and its foreign policy.
While official diplomatic engagement was established in 1973, progress was slow. For example, the two countries did not have embassies until the 2000s.
A breakthrough came with Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s visit to Mongolia in 1985. Mongolian diplomat Khaliun Panidjunai discussed the visit in an interview with Montsame, the Mongolian national news agency:
By 1985, relations between our two countries were already in their 12th year, but no significant progress had been made…
After Pierre Trudeau’s visit to our country, the relations between the two countries gained new impetus. Cooperation has been intensified, especially in the mining sector. And not long after that, our social system shifted into democracy. This has allowed us Mongolians to decide for ourselves how and with whom to develop relations and cooperation. Undoubtedly, all these factors have contributed to the expansion of bilateral relations.
Many Western countries sought to advance bilateral relations with Mongolia after its democratic revolution in 1991, and Canada was no exception. The Mongolian Embassy in Ottawa opened in 2001. Two years later, the first Mongolia-Canada Parliamentary Friendship Group was established. The Friendship Group aims to strengthen Mongolia’s parliamentary governance while providing support to improve human rights and civil society organizations. In May 2023, the Friendship Group was renewed and will be headed by Canadian Senator Michèle Audette.
In 2004, then-President of Mongolia Bagabandi Natsag paid an official state visit to Ottawa, which paved the way for future diplomatic and economic engagements. During this trip, Mongolia and Canada agreed to advance their bilateral ties to a partnership level. Canada opened its embassy in Ulaanbaatar in 2008.
Moreover, Canadian researchers and scholars have shown great interest in Mongolia’s culture, tradition, and way of life. The Canada-Mongolia Society was established in 1974. The University of Saskatchewan also serves as a scholastic and cultural hub that has led to much-recognized research on agriculture, the environment, and paleontology.
In October, the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto and the Embassy of Mongolia in Ottawa co-organized the a conference offering “Global Perspectives in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of Mongolia-Canada Diplomatic Relations.” In recognition of the strong Canada-Mongolia cultural ties, professors such as Michael Gervers and Julian Dierkes received honorary medals for their contribution to Mongolian studies.
During their 50 years of diplomatic relations, Mongolia and Canada have established economic ties. Between 1990-2010, Canada was Mongolia’s second-largest investor. According to the government of Canada, since 1997, Canada has provided more than CA$7.8 million to approximately 490 projects in Mongolia via the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives.
That said, trade and business activities have been intermittent.
For Canada – a country with vast mining experience – Mongolia’s abundant natural resources were of great interest, especially during the early 1990s. To Mongolia, with a newly liberalized market-based economy, the flow of foreign direct investment and business interest in all sectors, including mining, was indeed a significant priority. While Canadian mining giants have shown interest in Mongolia’s mining industry, many companies (such as Gulf Canada) withdrew as soon as they entered the market.
Despite Ulaanbaatar-Ottawa’s strong diplomatic and cultural ties, economic activities, especially trade and investment, have been stagnant for the last five years. According to Zaki Munshi, the Asia program director of Canada’s Trade Facilitation Office, “imports into Canada from Mongolia totaled CA$2.67 million in 2022 and decreased at a rate 6.1 percent between 2018-2022.”
Although COVID-19 played some role in the decrease in trade, the need for acceleration of bilateral economic activities is apparent. Battsetseg’s official visit to Ottawa thus embodied a strong desire to upgrade the Canada-Mongolia business environment.
On November 21, the Canada-Mongolia Business Meeting convened in Ottawa.
The president and CEO of Erdene Resource Development, Peter Akerley, underscored Mongolia’s government-supported mining development, which is crucial in joint mega projects. A Canadian-based mining company, Erdene Resource Development invests in gold and molybdenum. When asked about his views on Mongolia’s other mining projects, such as the recent uranium deal with France, Akerley said he believes that the project can be a successful one.
While Mongolia’s economy is heavily dependent on exploiting its natural resources, there are non-mining businesses. One Canadian business in particular has captured the hearts and minds of modern people seeking nomadic lifestyles.
Groovy Yurts, in business for 20 years, is one of the few businesses to promote Mongolia’s culture in a cross-cultural fashion. Since the company started, around 1,100 Mongolian yurts, built with sustainable and environmentally friendly materials, have been sold worldwide.
The founder and CEO of Groovy Yurts, Yves Ballennegger, was awarded and appointed Canada’s Cultural Envoy to Mongolia for presenting Mongolia’s tradition and culture through a modern lens and sustainable dwelling. He told me that “Mongolia’s culture is its biggest asset, and there is so much people can do.”
Other small businesses, such as Yavar Mongolian Concept, were present at the Canada-Mongolia Business Meeting as well.
In her closing remark, the Mongolian ambassador to Canada, Sarantogos Erdenetsogt, highlighted the importance of Canada-Mongolia diplomatic relations and emphasized the significance of the follow-through from both sides.
Battsetseg’s official visit to Ottawa and the establishment of the Canada-Mongolia comprehensive partnership shows political will for the two countries to reinvigorate bilateral ties.
One of the notable elements of the Justin Trudeau administration is Canada’s feminist foreign policy, which aligns with one of Mongolia’s foreign policy agendas. In their defense relationship, Canada and Mongolia have been working toward expanding cooperation in the area of women, peace, and security. Mongolia hosted its first Female Foreign Ministers Meeting in July, which resulted in the Ulaanbaatar Declaration. During her meeting with Battsetseg, Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly “commend[ed] Mongolia for the ‘Ulaanbaatar Declaration’ and welcome[d] Mongolia’s initiative to convene ‘World Women’s Forum’ in 2024.”
Canada’s former ambassador to Mongolia, Catherine Ivkoff, told The Diplomat that she hopes that the work she had done during her appointment as ambassador will help to reinvigorate Canada-Mongolia relations, especially now with the upgrading of bilateral ties to a comprehensive partnership.