OTTAWA–Talk to people who know Richard Colvin and a few key traits emerge. Driven, committed to Canada's mission in Afghanistan. Knows his stuff. Takes copious notes. Sociable, yet discreet. Above all, discreet.
Hardly the portrait of a rogue field officer whose reports warning that Afghan detainees faced likely torture could not be deemed "credible."
The Canadian government's attack on the credibility of a man whom several colleagues described as a consummate professional, and ministerial suggestions he is spouting Taliban "lies" about the treatment of detainees, have shocked those who worked alongside Colvin in Afghanistan.
Michael Semple, Colvin's counterpart for the European Union mission in Kabul and an expert on that country, told the Star he was "totally flabbergasted" by the comments of Defence Minister Peter MacKay and cabinet colleague John Baird.
"The suggestions are preposterous."
Colvin, Semple said, was an "absolutely rock solid" diplomatic staffer who stepped up and volunteered to go in as a civilian representative with Canada's Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar after Glyn Berry, a close friend of Semple, was killed by a suicide car bomber outside Kandahar.
Berry had been political director of the reconstruction team, coordinating reconstruction projects in the southern region of Kandahar, and worked night and day to rebuild Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.
"Glyn sacrificed his life serving Canada and serving that cause, and Richard volunteered to step into his shoes, and for someone to turn around and suggest that somehow Richard is a closet Taliban sympathizer or someone who's `soft on terrorists' – when every waking day in Kandahar when he was there he knew that the Taliban had killed his predecessor – of all the people in the world who are vulnerable to that accusation, Richard's pretty low on the list, I'd have thought.
"He was a good, articulate, solid person who, on the one hand, knew his stuff, did it well."
Semple said he knew only half of what emerged in Colvin's testimony – "the half of it which was appropriate for me to know."
Despite their common interest in the Afghan detainee file, Colvin never shared with him details of the Canadian government's internal wrangles over the issue – "which I actually take as absolutely ruling out this notion that he was somehow rogue or maverick."
Life as a foreign service officer in a war zone like Afghanistan, without family and with a single-minded focus on work, is gruelling.
Colvin, Semple said, was part of an informal peer group of representatives of "like-minded countries" – people who are "mid-level in their careers who still have the energy to work hard ... and throw themselves into their job."
He described Colvin as a "friendly colleague" whom he knew to work from morning to night. Neither he nor Colvin was "part of the party crowd."
"We took our work seriously and our life was our work."
Colvin, 40, may have had the seed for that kind of life planted by an uncle who worked in the British foreign service.
Born in Coventry, England, Richard Colvin moved with his family to the Hamilton area when he was 16. Now 40, he still speaks with an accent, which was evident when he testified about the handling of detainees before a parliamentary committee on Wednesday.
A graduate of the University of Toronto, Colvin completed the masters in journalism program at the University of Western Ontario.
He joined Foreign Affairs 15 years ago, in his mid-20s, with the idea that – in the words of one source close to him – Canada might not be a major player but "we're a force for good, we stand for something."
His career has been marked by a steady climb through the foreign service ranks in many of the world's hot spots: Sri Lanka, Russia, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Afghanistan and now the U.S. While in Moscow and Afghanistan, his career crossed paths with Chris Alexander, in Kabul, Canada's youngest ambassador, and now a candidate for the Conservative party. He could not be reached for comment.
Colvin twice briefly worked back at foreign affairs department headquarters in Ottawa, and now serves as first secretary in the intelligence section at the Canadian embassy in Washington.
Fluent in English, French and Russian, he was married briefly to a Russian woman, has no children, but does have a circle of friends who are reluctant to speak out publicly, fearing government reprisals against him.
International aid workers speak glowingly of Colvin's performance as a senior Canadian diplomatic official in Afghanistan.
He was known as a habitual and copious note taker, quietly absorbing and recording data as he went about the business of getting to know and understand the file.
But if Colvin took it all in, he never offered political commentary during his meetings with non-governmental workers.
"Richard Colvin is what I would call an old-fashioned Canadian diplomat – mild-mannered, sincere, admired and respected," said Norine MacDonald, president of the International Council on Security and Development, which operates field offices in three Afghan cities.
"He genuinely believes what it says in the civil service manual about representing Canada and Canadian values."
MacDonald, a native of Vancouver, based her assessment on numerous meetings with Colvin in Kabul and Washington.
After 48 hours of slamming Colvin's credibility, the federal government shifted tactics late yesterday. MacKay told reporters the criticisms of Colvin weren't "personal."
With files from Mitch Potter