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Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade/Library and Archives Canada

(Leolyn) Dana Wilgress

 

“He’s an outstanding chairman. He knows exactly when to intervene and, more important, he knows when to stop talking.”

General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade official

 

“ Before addressing a large aid-to-Russia rally in Maple Leaf Gardens in 1942, L. Dana Wilgress (left) and Feodor Gusev, Soviet minister to Canada, chat on arrival in Toronto”. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.


One of the most accomplished trade negotiators and diplomats of his generation, Leolyn Dana Wilgress helped shape the post-war international trading system and was one of Canada’s first true experts on Russia. Born in Vancouver in 1892 and raised partly abroad, Wilgress attended McGill before entering the Trade Commissioner Service in 1914 as part of the first class of university graduates to become “professional salespersons to the world.” Posted to Russia, first Omsk and then Vladivostok, Wilgress witnessed that country in war and revolution before returning to it in peace in the 1920s to explore trade opportunities. After a decade spent promoting Canadian trade in Europe, Wilgress was appointed director of the Commercial Intelligence Service in Ottawa in 1932, becoming one of Canada’s top trade negotiators during the Great Depression. Named deputy minister of the Department of Trade and Commerce in 1940, Wilgress joined the Department of External Affairs (DEA) in 1942 as minister to the Soviet Union, where he was initially stationed in Kuibyshev (now Samara), the country’s temporary wartime capital on the Volga River. Promoted to ambassador in 1944, he drew on his rare knowledge of both Russia and Russian to interpret the Soviet Union to Canadian authorities in highly influential dispatches sent during wartime and the early Cold War. In the post-war period, Wilgress represented Canada at major international conferences, notably the annual meetings of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the multilateral trading system – and forerunner of the World Trade Organization – of which he was one of the main architects. As chairman of the GATT from 1948 to 1951 and then again from 1953 to 1956, Wilgress made Canada a key player in post-war international trade liberalization, which he saw as the only antidote to what he called “chaos and the law of the economic jungle.” After stints as high commissioner to the United Kingdom and as the DEA’s under-secretary of state for external affairs, Wilgress served as Canadian representative to NATO from 1953 to 1958. In retirement he was chairman of the Canadian section of the Canada-US Permanent Joint Board on Defence. Wilgress died in 1967, the same year he was made a companion of the Order of Canada.

Further reading:

  • Dana Wilgress, Memoirs (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1987).
  • B.T. Richardson, “Hands Across the Pole,” Maclean’s, 1 February 1943.
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