Louise Roberge has energized the Canadian tea community since she was first named president of the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada in November 2000. Always ready with a smile, Roberge has a soft, friendly manner… unassuming until challenged on any of the many subjects she holds dear. She leaves a legacy of non-combative Canadian diplomacy assertively applied with gentle humor. Roberge announced her retirement last fall will conclude her 18-year tenure on June 1. She shared her parting thoughts with World Tea News.
WTN: How do you view the role of a tea association president?
Roberge: I’m principally there for the board and our members. The motto of the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada is that we’re there for everyone from bush to cup: The retailers, packers, producing countries, importers, growers, allied trade, and tea sommeliers. We exist as a form of “insurance” to protect the industry and consumer. What I mean is that because the government regulates food, we assist members by making sure we’re always in contact with the right government people to provide members with the current and relevant regulations.
We also exist to promote the industry. Our main message is tea and health. It’s a food so companies are limited in the health claims they can make on the label. They can’t really mention many of tea’s most important health benefits―but we can. With scientific evidence to back it up about antioxidants and things like that as well as being a fine drink.
WTN: What has changed during your time as president?
Roberge: A good example is organic. Before 2003-4 it wasn’t a thing. So we’d go to consultations with the government then turn around and share the new regulations. In that way we protected the industry. Protection, that’s been our main mandate. We used to have an umbrella as our symbol.
There were two tea organizations when I started. The Tea Council of Canada, which started in 1954 and existed for producers and packers, and the Tea Association, which was more a watch dog concerned with government regulations. They were unified in 2002. Part of promoting tea has been education. In 2009 we started our tea sommelier program and it’s now recognized internationally.
When I started it was all about black tea. The diversity of products has changed.
We changed the name in 2016 from the Tea Association to include Herbals because the government kept asking us about herbals over the years. I’d say “we’re Camellia Sinensis”, but of course I had answers for them and we dealt with herbals from the beginning. Whatever you pour water on, that’s who we are.
WTN: With the changing times how has your experience been as a woman president?
Roberge: It’s no different than any other industry. Women are getting to have more of a position in the tea industry. As a woman you must always be more aware of what’s happening. Most of my colleagues in the US and UK are men. But it is evolving, women are having a bigger role. For example, in China, they have the Top Ten Tea Man Award. I was the first woman to receive the “Top Tea Man” award in China (2015). This was not just because of me, it was because of all the women before me in tea.
When I went up to receive my award I started my acceptance speech by saying, “how many women in tea are here? Stand up.” There were many and we got a nice round of applause.
Whenever I travel abroad, there would be other women attending. They’d often sit at the back, literally taking a backseat to the men. I pushed them to sit at the front. I’d tell them “Let’s go to the front” and they’d say “Oh we’re not like you, we don’t like the spotlight.” I replied, “it’s not to be in the spotlight, it’s so the men that are talking can see you.” So, then they would.
WTN: Who are the most interesting people you’ve met along the way?
Roberge: I met Princess Anne (the only daughter of England’s Queen Elizabeth II). I was asked to prepare tea and so we got to meet her and shake hands. That was special. Really though, my favorite people are always the people on the farm, pluckers, the farmers. I think they’re the most interesting people whenever I meet them. They are the first ones that look at the tea. When I travel to a producing country and meet the farmers, women pluckers, I always tell them, I work for you. I am trying to promote tea. They are the inspiration for why I am doing this.
WTN: Congratulations on your nomination for a lifetime achievement award by the organizers of World Tea Expo. What would you say are your greatest contributions to tea?
Roberge: I look at the of names of those nominated and I’m humbled. It’s an honor to be considered. I think where I contributed the most was education. We did a lot. But I also love people. Treating people with kindness and putting people up, thinking of them versus “how do they fit in the industry.” Talking to them about their families and their issues and really listening.
Influencing and understanding that everyone in the value chain from bush to cup has a different reason to be there and trying to influence who should be with who. I think that is a trademark of Canada and I am a Canadian. We’re often looked at as trying to bring people together. Bring everyone to the table to try to work together. Being the communication focal point at the various NGO groups and coalitions that I am a part of. Pushing and promoting women in the industry.
WTN: What is the biggest challenge for the tea industry looking forward?
Roberge: It’s always been the same. Everyone works very hard but in their own silos. In Canada you have the traditional industry and the specialty tea industry. We’re trying to put it all under the same roof but it’s still in silos. The same thing with producers and consumers. Producer countries such as India, China, Sri Lanka, and Kenya all work one way and consumer countries such as Canada, US, UK, Australia work another. Working hard but not working together. There is no international organization. Other industries such as coffee, they have a sustainability website, women in coffee website, coffee forum and baristas. They work more in unity. We have education— Jane Pettigrew in the UK, the Tea Masters of Australia, THAC, the Tea Sommeliers, the Specialty Tea Institute … we all work hard but it just doesn’t seem that we can synchronize our efforts for the tea industry. We’re still not there.
It just seems to me that other products are gaining because they are working together and if we are not working together then we are taking a back seat even more. They are in front, they are organized and in our faces all the time. The tea industry is not progressing enough because it always seems that we are competing with each other, instead of working together.
WTN: Where do you see the greatest opportunities for growth in the tea industry?
Roberge: Foodservice is definitely a place where we can grow. If that explodes then careers such as tea sommeliers and entrepreneurs in tea would pick up as well. I can also see the traditional side. I can see retailers or small packers buying directly from small farmers more in the future.
A final thought:
“When I talk about tea to consumers everywhere in the world, I say tea is good for you. First of all, you need to take a moment to boil the water, so spiritually, you need to take time. It’s a healthy beverage, no calories, lots of antioxidants, it protects your cells like wax on a car, and thirdly, it helps the farmer. Particularly the small holders. A farmer that sells one more kilo of tea a day, will be able to pay for a better education for his children and better life for his family. So I say, I’m not asking you to run a 10K, or to give me $100, all I ask is that you is to drink one more cup of tea a day. The world will be better for it. That’s been my message to the tea industry and the consumer and I strongly believe it.”