POLITICS

Spanish shoeshiner behind Canada's efforts to polish digital footprint

11/27/2014 04:24 EST | Updated 01/27/2015 05:59 EST
OTTAWA - A Spanish graphic designer-turned-shoeshine man is behind Canada's latest — and long-delayed — effort to polish its diplomatic digital footprint.

But it took five years for anyone in the Canadian government to take a shine to Javier Castano's idea, which culminated this week in the launch of the official @Canada Twitter account.

"@Canada now belongs to all Canadians. Happy!" Castano, 50, said Thursday in an interview via Twitter.

In 2007, Castano was working in graphic design in the Spanish city of Malaga when he became intrigued by what at the time was a fledgling social networking service with a now-familiar 140-character limit on message size.

After a quick look around, he noticed that several prospective account names for a number of countries and cities around the world hadn't yet been claimed by their respective governments — including Canada.

So he took the initiative and claimed them himself — a move he insisted Thursday was simply to protect the Twitter names from the wrong tweeters.

"Accounts of that quality could fall into the hands of anyone," he said during Thursday's interview on Twitter, where he tweets in Spanish and goes by the handle @xabel.

In 2012, Castano lost his job and took up shoeshining, a craft he said he used to enjoy as a child.

At that point, he'd been trying for five years to deliver the @Canada account to the federal government in Ottawa, first by writing letters to government officials. But even as Twitter caught on, they ignored his offer.

Eventually, Castano started actively trying to give the account away by posting messages on it. He even sent one to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Twitter account.

There were unscrupulous offers, such as one from someone claiming to work in media relations for the prime minister, he said.

And he endured a lot of criticism from people who didn't believe his motives were altruistic, who questioned why he was choosing $4 per shoeshine over big bucks by selling off @Canada.

But that was never an option for Castano.

"I can't sell what I don't consider mine," he said. "Personal satisfaction does not seem to count as profit."

In 2012, he finally made contact with an actual staffer in the Department of Foreign Affairs: Martha McLean, the deputy director of e-communications.

"I follow many country accounts and noted @xabel's plea to give it to Canada. I didn't want to lose it," McLean said in an 2013 interview with Matheson Murray, the content director for Pollenize, a website covering elections.

McLean took over the account, which sat dormant for another two years before Wednesday's splashy launch, which Foreign Affairs officials said was several months in the making.

The first post: "@Canada's now on Twitter, eh!"

Castano said he had hoped the account might look like @Sweden, which is given over by the Swedish government to a different citizen each week.

Instead it will be a promotional tool, Foreign Affairs spokesman John Babcock said Thursday.

"This new channel will cover different aspects of the Canadian experience, promoting Canada to foreign audiences as a country of great natural beauty, as an innovator, a culturally unique country, a welcoming country, as well as a country with a strong economy."

As for Castano, he's just happy the account is finally in good hands.

"To see the bio: "Canada's voice to the world" ... makes me proud."