True to form, Louise Fortin, director of the Quebec Trade Office in Atlanta, was wrapping up her official career of almost 40 years promoting international trade in the Southeast with a dawn to midnight mission focused on the forestry industry.
“I haven’t slowed down at all,” she told Global Atlanta during an interview in her office in the One Ninety One Peachtree Tower downtown even though her retirement begins on Friday, Aug. 25.
With the softwood lumber dispute to be rehashed in the current NAFTA negotiations, Ms. Fortin led what she termed as a “forest, wildlife and parks” trade mission from Quebec through a dizzying number of meetings with officials and representatives of the Georgia Forestry Association, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the headquarters of Home Depot and Beazer Homes.
From Georgia the delegation moved on to North Carolina where they met with representatives of Lowe’s, the Home Builder Association of Greater Charlotte, Pulte Homes Corp. and the Builders FirstSource, the largest distributor of homebuilding materials in the U.S.
“Our trade missions are intense, non-stop, hardly any time to eat from early in the morning until late,” she added. This last one, essentially her swan song, was prompted by the U.S./Canada Softwood Lumber dispute and the NAFTA negotiations, which began this week and which she is following closely.
“If this is not settled quickly, it’s the U. S. consumer that will lose out. They could end in a mess for a couple of years,” she said. “The partners with which we have been doing business for all these years may have to be let go and then we’ll have to find others.”
She added that even though the TPP agreement (Trans-Pacific Partnership) was torpedoed by the Trump administration, she felt Quebec’s participation in the talks was not wasted because much of the work may be included into a new NAFTA agreement.
Ms. Fortin traced her career with Quebec back to when the office first opened in 1978 under Tom Moorse, an anglophone from Montreal, who spoke very little French.
“He was sent here because it was thought that an English-speaker would have more success in the Southeast than a French speaker,” she recalled. “But his assistant sent down from Montreal didn’t speak very much English so my position essentially was to do everything from ordering sandwiches to acting as receptionist, secretary and translator” in those early days.
The small team of three grew to 14 with individuals assigned to trade, public affairs, education and tourism eclipsing the activities of some of the trade commissions from other countries that landed during this period in Atlanta.
She was assigned tourism, which she said she loved, traveling throughout the Southeast and taking officials, travel writers, editors and travel agents to explore Montreal, Quebec City and even the Laurentian mountains in the province. She went on to the trade division and after seven years, however, she was ready for a change and left after her friend Virginia Rand-Hill, who had worked in the Quebec office but transferred to the French Trade Commission, told her of an opening to work on behalf of France’s biomedical and forestry industries.
“I got the job and jumped at the opportunity to learn something different,” she said, staying at the French Trade Commission for eight years before returning to the Quebec Trade Office.
Ms. Fortin was born in Arvida, Quebec, what she called an aluminum and pulp and paper town, and lived there until she was six years old. When her father sold his businesses, the family moved to Miami where she started school without speaking any English. The first words I learned in English, she said, were “first and second rows stand up.”
Her desire to live an inquiring life became evident from a fairly early age. As a freshman at a community college in Miami she worked as a secretary to the Chief of Homicide at the 11th Judicial Circuit.
During that time, she completed the civil service exam and moved to the Bitburg Air Force Base in Germany where she worked as an assistant to the base commander and met her husband.
Back in the U.S. after four years, she followed her husband to Atlanta where she helped open the Quebec Trade Office in the late 1970s when Atlanta’s population was less than 2 million.
Since then she’s been in the midst of the Southeast’s growth as a global commercial center as she promoted global ties in a wide range of business sectors ranging from aerospace to fashion.
She has helped organize fashion shows at the AmericasMart downtown where 64 companies from Montreal sell their wares to boutiques from throughout the Southeast. She has been to more Cirque du Soleil openings than she can remember, but does recall their first performance in Atlanta when they inquired what would be the best venue in town to set up a tent.
She has become an expert in a number of industry sectors through her involvement not only with the Quebec Trade Office, but also the French Trade Commission and then back to the Quebec office where she has served as director with the mandate to develop and promote trade between Québec and the seven states in its jurisdiction, defend and promote Québec’s interests throughout the region and contribute to the activities of organizations such as the Southeast United States-Canadian Province Alliance (SEUS-CP), which Québec is a founding member.
It was when she learned Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue was going to Ottawa to speak with the Canadian government about forming the alliance that she convinced his office he should meet with Premier Jean Charest. Québec hosted the inaugural meeting of SEUS-CP, and Georgia followed suite the following year, hosting the members from the provinces and the states in Savannah in 2008.
Among the highlights of her career, she points to the founding of the Georgia Tech-Lorraine campus outside of Metz, France, the phenomenal success of the Cirque du Soleil, which the Québec Delegation helped establish during its infancy, the 1996 Summer Olympics, the numerous trade missions she conducted focusing on numerous industry sectors ranging from aerospace to fashion and the many VIP tours in which she participated with the consular corps throughout the Southeast.
She was so impressed with Georgia’s VIP tour to the Northeast Mountains, that she is in the process of building a house and plans to retire there.
When asked how she plans to spend her retirement, she laughed, quickly responding, “Travel, but this time for my own pleasure.”
To reach Ms. Fortin, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org