The Birth and Rapid Rise of the Canada-Guyana Chamber

Canadian High Commissioner, Lilian Chatterjee (right) and Winston Kassim

When oil revenues began to power record-breaking growth in Guyana, Lilian Chatterjee, Canada’s High Commissioner to Guyana saw an opportunity to grow the relationship between Canada and Guyana even further. At the time (2019), Chatterjee was getting near the end of her term and wanted to fulfill a goal before moving on to a new role. So, she called Winston Kassim with an idea, and the native son of Guyana now living in Canada instantly took up the challenge.

Chatterjee’s idea was to establish the Canada-Guyana Chamber of Commerce (GGCC) that could help further trade and investment between two nations for which she has great affection. However, in order to bring the idea to fruition, Chatterjee knew she had to recruit highly respected people in both countries who could lead the way and bring others onboard. That’s when Chatterjee picked up the phone and called Kassim in Toronto.

Winston Kassim was born in Albouystown, Georgetown, the sixth of seven children of the late Superintendent of Police, Subaydar Kassim and the late Noorun Nisa Kassim. When the family moved to East Canje, Berbice, he attended St. Patrick’s Anglican School. After completing his secondary education at Indian Education Trust College in Georgetown, while still a teenager, Winston Kassim began his professional career at Barclays Bank.

Kassim comes from a well-known respected family who has given back to the community and public service of Guyana. His maternal grandfather, Imam Khoda Baksh was the first Imam at the Adelphi Masjid in the early 1900s. His father retired from the Guyana Police in 1972 as a Superintendent after a distinguished career of 30 years. His eldest Brother, Sultan Feroze Kassim retired as the Deputy Commissioner of Police in 2001 after 38 years while another brother, the late Dr Sultan Farook Kassim served for over 25 years in the public hospitals of Suddie, Port Mourant, and Georgetown.

After various postings throughout the Caribbean, Winston left Barclays in 1975 and moved to Canada with his wife, Kameni Cheddie. While raising a family in Toronto and pursuing a university degree at night, Winston embarked on a career with Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) in 1976. Over the next 40 years, Kassim excelled in a number of leadership roles at RBC, including as the executive Head of Strategy and Strategic Performance Management for Retail Banking in Canada and the Caribbean.

It was in this later role that Kassim led large strategic initiatives and helped RBC set industry-leading benchmarks for performance, which resulted in the bank winning four prestigious international awards including “Best North American Retail Bank in 2012 and 2013, and “Best Retail Bank in the World” awards in 2014 and 2015. This was the first time in the 30-year history of the U.K.-based Retail Banker International Awards that any bank had won best global retail bank in consecutive years.

While at RBC, Kassim also obtained his designation as a certified board director from the Institute of Corporate Directors through the University of Toronto and has served on a variety of boards including RBC Royal Bank Barbados Limited. He was also a champion of diversity in the workplace and led a number of bank-wide initiatives to promote a more inclusive environment and culture. And when he retired from RBC in December of 2015, Kassim formed his own boutique management consulting company which specializes in providing strategic planning, performance management and communications advice to selected global companies, particularly with respect to large-scale investments. At the same time, he has continued in a wide range of charitable causes where his highly regarded financial and corporate governance capabilities have been put to effective use.

Consequently, Chatterjee knew that Kassim’s business credentials and connections would help in recruiting business leaders in Canada as Chamber members. And she also knew that Kassim’s reputation as an outstanding community leader and volunteer would serve them well in setting the right focus and framework for the nascent Chamber.

“I was drawn to volunteerism early in my career, while I was still a young man,” explains Kassim. “The full credit for that goes to my mother who instilled in me a passion for community service, and I followed her lead. She encouraged me to volunteer with Hindu, Islamic, and other faith communities, and I began by assisting in establishing a number of community and faith-based centres in the Greater Toronto area.”

That grounding in community service has stayed with Kassim throughout his life, and many worthy causes in both Canada and Guyana have benefited from it. For example, he has been involved in a wide variety of humanitarian charities including serving two terms (2010 to 2014) as Chair of the International Development and Relief Foundation, one of Canada’s top charities. Since then, IDRF has implemented a range of projects throughout Guyana in partnerships with CIOG, National Committee of Sisters Affairs (NACOSA) and the Doobay Gafoor Medical and Research Centre (DGMRC), the latter of which Kassim played a pivotal personal role in helping Dr. Budhendranauth Doobay establish in 2010.

“Mr. Kassim was among the first set of individuals who provided his own funds to help establish the centre,” recalls Dr. Doobay. “He was most instrumental in securing a vast number of individuals to donate their monies since the centre was established. I continue to rely on Winston’s financial and governance expertise to help expand the centre in Guyana.”

This life-long commitment to volunteerism and giving back to the community resulted in Mr. Kassim being made a Member of the Order of Canada (the first Guyanese born citizen of Canada to be awarded the nation’s highest civilian honour) in 2009, being selected as a Torch Bearer for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games, and being awarded a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for volunteerism in 2012.  Currently, Kassim serves as an inaugural Governor with Toronto’s International Business University (IBU).

After accepting Chatterjee’s challenge to serve as a founding director and as the Canadian Co-chair of the Chamber alongside its Guyanese Chair Anand Beharry of the Beharry’s conglomerate Group, Kassim set about recruiting Canadian business leaders to become members, setting up a board, and recruiting a Chief Executive Officer (CEO).

With the help and support of many government, business and community leaders in both nations, the Canada-Guyana Chamber of Commerce officially launched on December 4, 2020, with some 27 founding members who provided legacy funds to cover the Chamber’s short-term operations. To commemorate the second anniversary of the Chamber, a fund-raising gala will take place in Toronto on September 24 of this year.

With offices in both Georgetown and Toronto, the Chamber continues to grow and now has more than 60 members. And while challenges and opportunities still lie ahead, Kassim is grateful the Chamber has come as far as it has, in such a brief time. But it wasn’t easy.

Kassim says the successful launch of the Chamber and its ability to thrive in turbulent times has required hard work by the current top-notch Board of Directors comprising both Canadian and Guyanese business individuals.

From the Guyana side, he paid special recognition to Mr. Anand Beharry and the CGCC’s CEO, Ms. Treina Butts. On the Canadian side, he fondly remembers the late Mr. Richard Whyte who played a pivotal role during the Chamber’s formulation stage, along with the former Deputy Minister for the Ontario Provincial Government, Mr. Fareed Amin who is the Chair of the Chamber’s Planning and Policy sub-committee.

Kassim also singled out two ex-officio members of the CGCC for praise, the new Canadian High Commissioner to Guyana Mr. Mark Berman and Mr. Jake Thomas, Senior Trade Commissioner at the Canadian High Commission, both of whom have been actively promoting Guyana’s opportunities throughout Canada. However, he reserves his greatest praise for Lilian Chatterjee.

“Lilian had the vision and stuck with it, even when COVID-19 threatened to derail all our efforts,” says Kassim. “And while Lilian has moved on to become Canada’s High Commissioner to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, her legacy of the Canada-Guyana Chamber of Commerce will live on for many years and bring benefits to many people in both countries.”