May-Marie Duwai-Sowa – from Refugee to Special Envoy

Nestled on the third floor of a historic building in downtown Hamilton, the Office of the Special Envoy for International Relations, Trade, and Investment (SEIRTI) of Sierra Leone quietly operates as the country’s lone diplomatic mission in Canada. Established just over a year ago by May-Marie Duwai-Sowa, herself a native of Sierra Leone who sought refuge in Canada after fleeing the civil war in 1999, the office is dedicated to strengthening ties between the two nations through diplomacy, trade, and cultural exchange.

Duwai-Sowa, pictured with her son Patrick, and daughter Marie-Paul

“My goal is to foster meaningful connections between Sierra Leone and Canada,” explained Duwai-Sowa, 46. “There is much Canadians should learn about Sierra Leone, its history, potential, and prospects, just as Sierra Leoneans can benefit from knowing more about Canada.”

For Duwai-Sowa, the decision to base the SEIRTI office in Hamilton was deliberate, driven by her deep roots in the city where she has cultivated a vibrant community and established a strong professional network over the years.

Currently, bilateral trade between Canada and Sierra Leone remains modest, with Canada exporting $9.8 million and importing $6 million worth of goods in 2022, starkly contrasting the massive trade volume with the U.S. amounting to $697.4 billion during the same period.

The historical ties between Canada and Sierra Leone date back over two centuries, tracing back to the resettlement of Black loyalists in Nova Scotia after the American Revolutionary War, who later moved to establish Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital.

Despite enduring challenges such as the civil war in the 1990s, the Ebola outbreak of 2014-2015, and the global COVID-19 pandemic, Sierra Leone is navigating a path of recovery and growth buoyed by its youthful population and ambitious development agenda.

Mark Stewart, an adviser to the SEIRTI office, emphasized Duwai-Sowa’s unique qualifications for her role. “Her dual nationality gives her a genuine appreciation for both Sierra Leone and Canada,” Stewart remarked. “Her dedication to building partnerships resonates deeply with Sierra Leone’s goals for sustainable development.”

Duwai-Sowa’s personal journey from Sierra Leone to Canada has been marked by resilience and a steadfast commitment to service. Reflecting on her challenging past, she recalled the hardships of the civil war that compelled her to seek refuge in North America.

Despite the scars left by the conflict, Duwai-Sowa remains deeply connected to Sierra Leone, crediting her homeland for shaping her identity and values. “Sierra Leone has made me who I am today,” she affirmed. “Its resilience and untapped potential are often overlooked, and I am driven to change that narrative.”

Looking ahead, Duwai-Sowa envisions expanding the SEIRTI office’s mandate, exploring the possibility of elevating its status to a consulate or even an embassy, thus solidifying Sierra Leone’s footprint in Canada and promoting mutual understanding and cooperation between the two nations.

As she continues her mission, Duwai-Sowa remains optimistic about Sierra Leone’s future, guided by its rich history, vibrant culture, and the resilience of its people. Her office in Hamilton not only serves as a diplomatic hub but also as a symbol of hope and opportunity for enhanced bilateral relations and shared prosperity.