Cameron Dueck grew up in a Mennonite family on a remote turkey farm in the Canadian Prairies. His journalism career took off in Chicago, where he wrote about American agriculture while learning to sail on Lake Michigan during the weekends. He moved on to New York City, where he further whetted his appetite for the open sea and international news. He next joined Reuters as a correspondent in Singapore, where the idea of foreign ports and strange seas really took hold.
When Cameron quit that job he jumped aboard a yacht to sail from Thailand to the Mediterranean, dodging pirates off the coast of Yemen and braving dust storms on the Red Sea. He earned a Royal Yachting Association Offshore Yachtmaster qualification before setting off across the Atlantic Ocean. He soon returned to daily journalism, joining the South China Morning Postand then the Financial Times in Hong Kong.
In 2009 he once again jacked his day job for the sea, this time making a proper expedition of it. The Open Passage Expedition set sail for Canada’s Northwest Passage to learn more about how climate change was impacting Inuit communities. The journey produced Cameron’s first book, iPad app and documentary film, all titled The New Northwest Passage. Cameron was elected to the prestigious New York City-based Explorers Club in recognition of his Arctic voyage.
Cameron lives in Hong Kong. His articles have been published by The Globe and Mail, Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, Yachting World, Outpost Magazine, Cruising World,Outer Edge, Business Traveller Asia, Asia Pacific Boating, Prestige Magazine, South China Morning Post and Financial Times. He is also an engaging public speaker, having addressed audiences at COP15, TEDxHK, Shanghai International Literary Festival, the Royal Geographical Society and a wide variety of clubs and corporations across Europe, North America and Asia.
1. You’re a journalist based in Hong Kong – seemingly a long way from any Mennonite background. What inspired you to embark upon this adventure?
I used to be a journalist. These days I do more corporate content and communications, although my books and magazine writing are still journalistic in nature. I suppose it is a long way from my roots in rural Manitoba, but it has never felt like a stretch to me. I ended up here by grabbing opportunities as they came along — with an obvious preference for opportunities that included international travel and adventure. My dream when I set off to become a journalist, which began with studies at Red River College, was to live internationally and work as a writer. I don’t think I had a very clear idea of what that meant, or what was involved in making it happen, but I guess it’s safe to say that dream has come true. I was hungry for adventure from a very young age, and willing to take the risks that come with pursuing adventure. It’s hard to point to specific inspirations, because even in my early 20s I didn’t really know anyone that had taken this path in life. But I read a lot, and the stories I read told me there was a big wide world out there to explore. One of the books that had a big impact on me in that respect was Papillon, by Henri Charrière, where he tells his story of crime, prison, escapes and rough travel. Charrière’s life was fuelled by a lust for living, and reading about it thrilled me as a kid. A lot of Mennonite culture and standards of success are based on the idea of creating wealth, a family, and stability. Papillon opened my eyes to a world where lived experience, diversity and exposure were worth more than a plot of land or a big house, and that alternative sparked my imagination.
2. Did any of the folks you met on your journey end up being actual relatives of yours?
Yes, I think so, but I didn’t bother tracking down the details of it. Frankly, beyond my close circle of family, I’m not that interested in whether or not someone is related to me. Being related to someone does not have any bearing on whether I’ll like them, or whether I’ll find common ground with them. I find the Mennonite focus on distant family relations a bit tiresome in that aspect — it can be a rather narrow and meaningless view of human relations. My closest connections are often with people who come from completely different cultures, countries and life paths. It’s much the same as when I meet other Canadians in foreign places, and they’re eager to emphasize that connection. I find it to be a vacuous connection. I’d rather sit down to dinner with someone who has an interesting story to tell, an experience I can relate to, or wants to interact with me at a deeper level — I don’t really care if we share a great-great-grandfather or if our passport is the same colour.
3. It seemed like the discovery of the development in Paraguay was perhaps the greatest surprise you encountered on your journey. Was it?
I think I packed a lot of that “surprise factor” from the entire trip into the Paraguay chapter. That sentiment, that the religious intent of the international moves and attempts at seclusion became moot within a generation, was felt in many places, while meeting many people. It’s a lot harder to escape from society than those people thought, especially when they want to get rich off non-Mennonites. That led me to the conclusion that these moves were driven just as much by desire for land and new economic opportunities as they were by any spiritual or religious goals. Imagine that, using religion as a smoke screen for more practical desires of the flesh! What a shock!
4. The part about Manitoba Colony in Bolivia is perhaps the darkest chapter. Is it the one most people ask about?
Interestingly, I’d say readers that just discovering Mennonite culture often ask about it, but Mennonite readers rarely do. I think it’s such an uncomfortable story that people don’t want to talk about it! I think Mennonites are deeply embarrassed and dismayed by that whole case, even if we can distance ourselves from it by pointing out that it’s a different sect, colony or country. Perhaps it still hits a bit close to home for many of us. The idea that our quest for seclusion and silence are often used for nefarious purposes, and are handy tools for those in power, resonates with a lot of Mennonites. Most Mennonites are more curious if I met their second-cousin once removed, or if I was impressed by the economic might of the colonies.
5. The subtitle of your book is “a journey across the Americas in search of my Mennonite identity”. Did you find what you were looking for?
I think I did. It’s hard to say, as the discovery is not a clear-cut, black-and-white thing. Identity is a slippery thing, and it is constantly changing. I certainly learned more about my identity, and learned to both appreciate and loathe parts of it, so in that way I found answers. I came away from the trip with a better sense of myself, both the Mennonite and the non-Mennonite bits. But I think that search for cultural identity, and the discussion around it, is an important one, and one that people all around our increasingly globalised, multi-cultural world can relate to.