John Watkins | The Canadian Encyclopedia


John Watkins

John Benjamin Clark Watkins, diplomat, scholar (born 3 December 1902 in Norval (now Halton Hills), ON; died 12 October 1964 in Montreal, QC). John Watkins was Canadian ambassador to the USSR from 1954 to 1956. In 1955, Watkins organized a historic meeting between Canadian External Affairs Minister Lester B. Pearson and Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union.

Education and Early Career

John Watkins studied French, German, Latin and history at the University of Toronto, earning a master’s degree there in 1927. He went on to study at Columbia University (1930–31 and 1933–34) and earned his PhD from Cornell University (where he studied from 1942 to 1944).

A specialist in Scandinavian literature and art, in 1930 Watkins joined the American-Scandinavian Foundation in New York, a non-profit that promoted cultural and educational exchange between the United States and Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.

During the Second World War, Watkins taught at Queen’s University and the Guelph Agricultural College. He became an associate English professor at the University of Manitoba in 1944.

Diplomatic Career

In 1946, John Watkins joined the Department of External Affairs (now Global Affairs Canada). Because he spoke some Russian, he was sent to Moscow as chargé d’affaires in 1948 and soon became fluent in the language (see Diplomatic and Consular Representations). He served in this role until 1951. Watkins served as minister to Norway from 1952 to 1954, before returning to Moscow as ambassador and serving in this role from 1954 to 1956. In 1955, Watkins organized a meeting between Canadian External Affairs Minister Lester B. Pearson and Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union.

Watkins went on to serve as assistant undersecretary of state for external affairs (1956–58) and was appointed ambassador to Denmark (1958–60). He officially retired in 1963 due to ill health.

Investigation and Death

John Watkins was among hundreds of federal civil servants who were investigated by Canadian authorities on suspicion that they were a security risk because they were LGBTQ (see Canada’s Cold War purge of LGBTQ from Public Service). Watkins was investigated for his alleged relationships with men in the USSR. Following 27 days of interrogation by the RCMP regarding his sexuality and the possibility that he had been blackmailed by the Soviets while serving as ambassador to the USSR, Watkins suffered a heart attack and died in a Montreal hotel room.

The circumstances of Watkins’s death were not known until 1980, when the Quebec government ordered an inquest into his death. The RCMP did not release all its information at that time but confirmed that Watkins died under their watch. The RCMP also reported that Watkins had thwarted Soviet attempts to blackmail him and that he had not betrayed his position as Canadian ambassador.


The J.B.C Watkins Awards are bestowed by the Canada Council for the Arts in two categories: music and theatre, and architecture. The awards were endowed by the estate of John Watkins.

Further Reading