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Winnipegger does Nobel work

Scott Cairns part of UN team awarded this year's Peace Prize

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OPCW field inspection team leader Scott Cairns, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, inspection team leader Ake Sellestrom in June at start of mission to Syria.

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OPCW field inspection team leader Scott Cairns, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, inspection team leader Ake Sellestrom in June at start of mission to Syria.

Scott Cairns grew up on military bases and often played with his friends at tank parks in places like CFB Borden. Travel was part of his life growing up with a father in the Canadian Air Force -- as was the notion of taking a team into hostile territory.

Five years ago, the 42-year-old Winnipegger, who earned his chemistry degree at the University of Manitoba, found an occupation that has roots in his early life experiences as a field officer for the United Nations' Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

The OPCW's mission: Find deadly chemical weapons wherever they might be used in warfare or on citizens and destroy them.

From the outset, Cairns knew his work made a difference, but he never imagined the kind of recognition that was bestowed on Friday, when the OPCW was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its part in destroying the chemical-weapons stockpiles held by Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Cairns is the field officer for OPCW in Syria, where inspectors have been at work in the war-torn nation for several weeks. He could not be reached in Syria on Friday.

That distance and isolation would explain why Cairns' parents, Bill and Jeannette, first heard the news from a television report Friday morning -- a bolt from the blue.

"Not the faintest idea, not a clue. It was very much a thrill," Bill said, when asked if he had any inkling his son's organization was even being considered for one of the most prestigious global honours. "But we knew the work Scott was involved in was making the world a better place."

'I wouldn't say he was proud, but he was very happy to do this work. He sees it as something for the greater good' -- Bill Cairns, of his son Scott Cairns

Cairns was part of the original OPCW group of inspectors and engineers who went to Syria in August, when he was named field officer. He first joined the OPCW in 2008 after working several years with Canada's Department of National Defence, where he helped train military forces to defend themselves from chemical attacks.

"The decision by the Nobel Committee to bestow this prize on the OPCW is a great honour," OPCW director-general Ahmet Uzumcº said at a news conference Friday morning. "The events in Syria are a reminder that there is much work to be done. We are only a small organization and working to realize the end of chemical weapons worldwide, we rely on the preparation of our staff."

The watchdog group was formed by the UN in 1997 and has conducted more than 5,000 inspections in 86 countries.

Since joining the OPCW, Cairns, who now lives in The Hague, Netherlands, has travelled the world, destroying weapons in Russia, Libya and Vietnam.

"He realized it was quite a high calling," Bill Cairns said. "I wouldn't say he was proud, but he was very happy to do this work. He sees it as something for the greater good."

U of M professor Phil Hultin remembers Cairns from his third-year class in advanced organic chemistry, which would be a foundation for any work in chemical weaponry. Said Hultin: "I think that was sort of the cause that was the platform that led him to the career he's in.

"He (Cairns) was really interested in the subject. He was willing to pursue things beyond what was required."

Hultin lost track of Cairns after his student left the DND and only recently discovered he was part of the OPCW after Cairns was quoted in a CBC radio report. "I was going, 'Wait a minute. I know that guy,' " Hultin said.

Hultin hopes the Nobel spotlight on the OPCW, and Cairns' role in the organization, will illuminate the myriad career options for chemistry graduates.

"I think this is absolutely fantastic," the professor said. "It's an important issue, obviously. But it's very gratifying to see one of our students going out and doing something they wouldn't even think is a career option for a chemistry degree.

"A lot of people think of chemists, they think of people who create chemical weapons. Well, chemists can also be involved in taking them out, too."

Jeannette Cairns said the Nobel Prize will also elevate the profile of the OPCW, which until Friday toiled mostly in the shadows of major international conflicts.

"Whoever voted for it, voted for the entire OPCW," she said. "They don't go as individuals, they go as a team. I don't think a lot of people know about them. I didn't before Scott got involved."

In a video released by the OPCW in August, as inspectors put together proof that chemical weapons were being used in attacks in Syria, Scott Cairns said: "Usually in a mission like this, a team is under immense pressure," but "wasn't going to crack."

The video shows OPCW inspectors and engineers weaving their way through Damascus, collecting samples and even drawing blood from some bodies. They were protected by guards carrying submachine-guns.

"It was part of our risk assessment that we may come under fire, as UN convoys in that country regularly come under fire," Cairns said.

His mother said the thought of her son disarming or destroying deadly chemical weapons for a living is a fact she considers but doesn't dwell upon. "You could walk at Portage (Avenue) and Cavalier (Drive) and get hit by a bus," she reasoned, adding, "You try not to think of those things, but it's there, I guess."

Nobel Peace Prize or not, the work for Cairns and the OPCW in Syria continues unabated.

"They're finding them (chemical weapons) and destroying them right now, as we speak," Bill Cairns said.

His son is not the only Canadian to be honoured by the Nobel Committee this year. Author Alice Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature this week.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 12, 2013 A3

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