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Michael Shenstone, former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and director-general of African and Middle Eastern Affairs, was Fraser's boss in the late 1970s. It was a typically tense time between Arabs and Israelis - there was the hostage crisis after Iranian militants seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and Prime Minister Joe Clark's bizarre decision to shift the Canada embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Shenstone spoke of Fraser in the way an enlisted man might refer to the soldier standing next to him in the trenches. "When you go up over the parapet together, you really know who's your friend - and he was," Shenstone said. "He was a kindly, sensible, level-headed person with a lovely sense of humour ... the sort of person who after you talked to him about whatever, you found your blood pressure lowered."
John MacLeod Fraser was born in Montreal on Feb. 12, 1935, the elder son of Blair Fraser and his wife Jean (née MacLeod) Fraser, an elementary school teacher. He was four at the outbreak of the Second World War, an event he always remembered, not for the solemnity of the King's speech on the radio, but for the fact that his father was still up at breakfast time because he had worked all night helping to putting out an extra edition of the Montreal Gazette. By 1946, when his younger brother Graham was born, the family was living in Ottawa, where his father was bureau chief for Maclean's.
After an unhappy few years at Devonshire Public School - the other pupils called him professor because he loved to read and disliked sports - his parents scraped together the money to send him to Ashbury College, a private school. He flourished, graduating from Grade 13 in 1952 with the Governor-General's academic medal. As for athletics, he vowed "never to run for anything again, even the bus."
Entering McGill in second year, he studied history and political economy and graduated in 1955, at age 20, having won a Rhodes Scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford. At the time he worried that his lack of athletic prowess would rule against him, but, as he wrote in a McGill Alumni newsletter in 1997, "the Quebec committee took a flexible view" of that "dimension."
Fraser flourished academically and socially in the cloistered academic atmosphere of Oxford and graduated with a first class degree in politics, philosophy and economics in 1958. That same year he wrote the entrance exams for External Affairs, married his girl friend Penelope Davey and returned to Ottawa. (That marriage foundered in 1968.)
His first posting, in 1959, as third secretary in Belgrade, capital of Serbia, set the pattern for his diplomatic career. He immersed himself in the history and politics of the country, studied Serbo-Croat and began writing lucid, layered and penetrating dispatches for his superiors. By the time his rotation was up in 1962, he had been promoted to second secretary.
His next posting, from 1965 to 1967, was trade commissioner in Hong Kong, which functioned as an observation post for the People's Republic of China, or Red China as it was frequently called. From Hong Kong, he was sent to Warsaw, Poland as first secretary in 1967, returning to Ottawa in 1968, the year Pierre Trudeau succeeded Lester Pearson as prime minister.
Much of the country was convulsed with Trudeaumania, but the year was a hard one for Fraser personally. His father drowned in a canoeing accident on the Petawawa River in May, 1968 and his marriage fell apart. "John was not somebody who shared his pain," his brother Graham said. "He was just as stoic through that period as all the other aspects of his life."