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A new full-time voice for Canada’s diplomatic corps

In a pilot project, the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers is getting a full-time president. OpenCanada spoke with Pamela Isfeld, the longtime Canadian diplomat who has taken on the role, about her to-do list, the ‘Havana Syndrome’ crisis, and more.

By: /
14 February, 2019
The Canadian embassy is pictured in Berlin, Germany, March 3, 2017. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
Catherine Tsalikis
By: Catherine Tsalikis
Former Senior Editor, Open Canada.

In her 26 years working as a Canadian diplomat, Pamela Isfeld has been teargassed, caught in riots and, a few times, nearly blown up.

She has served in Moscow, Nairobi, Sarajevo, Kabul, Kandahar and Warsaw, and has been tasked with everything from briefing Canadian ministers and accompanying them to meetings to advocating for the release of imprisoned Canadians and negotiating safe spaces for opposition political rallies.

At Global Affairs Canada headquarters in Ottawa, she has worked on United Nations issues, in the Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force (START), focusing on Sudan and Afghanistan, in the Communications Bureau, and on Eastern Europe and Middle East issues, including as special coordinator for Iran.

Now, Isfeld is taking on the new role of full-time president of PAFSO, which is both the bargaining agent, or the union, and the professional association for Canadian foreign service officers in four streams (Political, Trade, Immigration and Management-Consular). She’s not exactly new to the job — she has been serving as volunteer PAFSO president since 2017, after a previous term from 2009 to 2011 — but she is the first to take on the position full-time, in a two-year pilot project launched last month.

“Ultimately, I hope to convince members to make the presidency full-time on a permanent basis, but this is a real pilot, and we will learn and adapt as we go,” Isfeld told OpenCanada in an interview. “It will be up to the members to assess the results they see. It’s all new and very exciting for all of us, especially me.” If PAFSO members decide to make a permanent change to their governance structure, the first “regular” full-time president will be elected for the fall of 2021.

As OpenCanada reported in 2017, many in Canada’s diplomatic corps have been vocal about the issues they see as preventing officers from doing their best work — a lack of resources, the dilution of the foreign service’s professionalism and the valuing of “process over substance,” to name a few. There’s also a sense that the world has become a more dangerous place for Canadian diplomats, as kidnappings and killings over the last 15 years would indicate. Last week, a group of diplomats and their families who experienced adverse health effects in connection with the mysterious “Havana Syndrome” launched a lawsuit against the federal government, alleging that GAC has mishandled the crisis.

In her new role, Isfeld is keen to tackle these matters and more. This week, we asked her to share her thoughts on what her first steps will be and her priorities for the next two years.

What’s behind the decision to make the role of PAFSO president a full-time one?

Over the past 10 years or so, there has been a growing realization that we need to have a career foreign service officer speak openly about our profession, contributions and conditions of service. Our members are the only civil service group who are all required to serve abroad, not just on a one-off basis in a specific area of expertise, as a career break or as a reward for pleasing management, but as the fundamental condition of our employment. This has profound effects not just on us, but on our spouses, children and even our pets.

Serving Canada and Canadians abroad is a privilege as well as a profession and deserves to be valued and treated appropriately. As GAC draws more and more of its senior management and staff from outside the career foreign service, we can no longer count on senior officials to understand and advocate for us. We need to stand up for ourselves.

Our executive director, Ron Cochrane, has made major gains in collective bargaining that have placed us on par with others who do similar work in Ottawa — this has created space to start working on other issues besides salaries. Many of these things, such as assignments, conditions of service, duty of care and spousal employment, fall outside the collective agreement and into the realm of political advocacy.

Our operating environment has changed a lot since 1965, when our governance structure was set up, and that change has accelerated in the 10 years since I began my first term as president. We’ve seen the incorporation of the Management-Consular Group (which manages our physical operations and provides consular assistance to Canadians abroad), the rise in extreme hardship posts, increasing security threats, etc., all of which fall outside the realm of “normal” labour relations issues. Furthermore, workloads at both GAC and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada have been steadily increasing, making it more difficult for PAFSO’s volunteer executive committee members to contribute at the level they would like. We’ve also started to think about the question of inclusion, e.g. could the volunteer time commitment be a barrier for many people, including those with young children or other family responsibilities, who should have a chance to serve? I often say that I could not have kept doing the job if I weren’t single with no kids and living a short walking distance from GAC.

What are the first few items on your to-do list?

My main deliverable between now and our AGM in October is a strategic review looking at all of our priorities, programs and resources, and assessing whether or not we are doing the right things for the twenty-first century. Right now, our executive director is leading negotiations for our new contract, and I am focusing on other priorities identified by the executive committee, including showcasing PAFSO’s values to our members and making sure they are engaged and aware of the issues that affect them, internal governance, and enhancing the recognition of the professional foreign service, both by our employer — the Government of Canada — and by Canadians at large.

Another major issue of deep importance to me personally is the Government of Canada’s “duty of care” to our members, especially when serving overseas. Diplomats are Canada’s frontline representation abroad, sometimes in a literal sense: remember that the first Canadian killed immediately after the establishment of the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team in 2006 was former PAFSO member Glyn Berry.

Now we’re seeing even more complex and difficult security situations, such as the mysterious “Havana Syndrome” that has affected a number of our members and their families, including several children, while at Canada’s mission in Cuba. I’m hoping to work with the Treasury Board as well as the two departments where most of us work (GAC and IRCC) to make sure we have resources, policies and procedures in place to prevent these situations where possible and ensure that staff receive the full range of information, care and support they deserve when bad things do happen.

Supporting our members’ well-being so they can do their important work is not only the right thing, but the smart thing, even when there are some costs involved. One specific issue that is currently causing concern is the end of Health Canada’s Green Box program, which was a system that shipped temperature-sensitive medications, such as insulin and some vaccines, to posts where the local supply does not meet Health Canada standards. That program was discontinued over a year ago and GAC has not yet established an alternative, instead telling members to find their own sources of medication or limit where they serve abroad. I know of at least one highly-skilled and experienced individual, with expertise and hardship experience in an area of current importance to Canada, who is now barred from using their skills because they cannot guarantee they will be able to get their medication. This makes no sense, for the Government of Canada, our membership or Canadians.

“Many senior managers got ahead at a time when it was safest to be process-oriented and not rock the boat, and are still reluctant to take risks, even when the rewards could be profound.”

In your view, what are the major challenges facing Canada’s foreign service in 2019?

Funding is a major issue, as GAC’s spending is projected to drop by nearly $1 billion between 2016 and 2019. Fewer resources, both human and financial, means constant pressure on staff and managers to “do more with less.” PAFSO will keep reminding the Government of Canada of the real effects of resource cuts on our important work, and on our members’ lives.

The devaluation, dilution and lack of recognition of our role is another problem, as more and more senior managers come to GAC without working-level foreign service experience. Foreign service officers are spending less time abroad doing the jobs they were hired to do, lowering Canada’s level of diplomatic expertise. There’s certainly a role for other subject matter experts in certain overseas assignments, but we need to recognize that diplomacy, the management of international relations, is an expert function in and of itself and supports the essential framework that lets these other experts operate. One of my jobs as the full-time president is to raise awareness, both within government and to the public, of what a career foreign service officer brings to the table, and why that contribution should be not just valued, but nurtured.

We’re also concerned about the ongoing lack of recruitment and renewal in the system, especially at GAC. (IRCC has at least continued to participate in the broader Public Service recruitment exercises.) It’s been almost five years since GAC launched an entry-level recruitment process and those new officers entered as terms with no job security and no opportunity to serve abroad in the jobs they had competed for. GAC now says it is moving to a new system of hiring through co-op programs, and we’re concerned that the end of national selection processes will limit applicants from outside the Ottawa-Toronto-Montreal triangle. We’ll continue to work with the Government of Canada to advocate for broad-based, fair selection and competitions to ensure that the foreign service can represent Canada’s diversity.

The root of many of these problems is the overall risk-averse nature of the system and its management. Many senior managers got ahead at a time when it was safest to be process-oriented and not rock the boat, and are still reluctant to take risks, even when the rewards could be profound. We’re going to continue to apply both pressure and encouragement to get them to lean in, especially when it comes to issues like duty of care.

What more can you tell us about the lawsuit brought against the federal government in connection with the health issues experienced by Canadian diplomats in Cuba?

The situation facing the 14 Canadians suffering from “Havana Syndrome” is deeply disturbing to all of us in PAFSO and the broader foreign service community. They have our utmost concern and sympathy. The fact that no cause or source of the injuries has been found means that no prevention or protection measures can be put in place. We’re painfully aware that this could happen to any of us, any time.

PAFSO’s main concern is the health and safety of our members. Although we are not involved in the private legal action launched by the affected individuals last week, we will continue to press the Government of Canada to get them the care they need. We are also supporting other members affected by the situation, including the drawdown of representation, in Havana.

This case is a dramatic illustration of the gaps in GAC’s resources, policies and procedures for supporting employees. For example, although they have now established a task force, including PAFSO, it took several months to set up. The team now includes a doctor, but there was no physician on staff when this happened. Bureaucratic procedures are clunky and difficult for anyone, especially injured staff, to navigate. GAC itself admits this was just not good enough. We are committed to working together to implement proactive and holistic measures to ensure that any future victims of “Havana Syndrome” — or any other such traumatic situation or event — do not have to keep reinventing the horse.

“It’s much easier to learn the difference between establishing a rapport and being unduly influenced when your first overseas posting is as the third secretary in a small embassy rather than as ambassador to China.”

Some have voiced concern around heads of mission positions being filled by political appointees, instead of by long-serving foreign service officers. Where do you stand on this?

PAFSO’s position is that, in general, ambassadors and other heads of mission should come from the career foreign service. We spend our entire careers learning foreign languages and developing our tradecraft, learning how other governments and cultures work. We also learn how to strike the important balance between understanding the positions of our host country and being captured by those positions to the detriment of Canadian interests. In most careers, the best preparation for a high-profile senior assignment is a series of progressively more responsible assignments at more junior levels. Diplomacy is no exception. It’s much easier to learn the difference between establishing a rapport and being unduly influenced when your first overseas posting is as the third secretary in a small embassy rather than as ambassador to China. The best preparation for a high-level job in any field is a series of progressively more responsible jobs at lower levels. Why is that idea a tough sell when it comes to the foreign service?

That said, there will always be a few political appointees in any country’s ambassadorial positions, and that is not a bad thing. There is a case for having someone trusted at the highest level in certain spots, and it’s very hard to argue that the skills of a cabinet minister are not transferable to an embassy. However, it’s important that those positions be carefully chosen and that their skills are supplemented by foreign service expertise and support.

In 2018, OpenCanada found that, in terms of gender, there is still a ways to go before the foreign service is truly equal. What changes or improvements would you like to see on this file?

The government has made a lot of progress in appointing women to senior roles, including as heads of mission. However, I’d also like to see more attention paid to some of the barriers that limit women’s career advancement and satisfaction throughout their careers. For example, we need policies to encourage managers to consider women for acting assignments. We are also going to look for ways to improve the opportunities for diplomats’ spouses to work abroad when they are on posting, as losing a second income can be a barrier to service abroad. GAC has an active and effective Women’s Network and there is room for us to do more with them.

I also want us, as an association, to take the lead on looking at some of our own activities, e.g. by doing a Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+) of our collective agreement, something that has never been done. We need to look at the way gender affects conditions of service in various missions, and see what we could do to recognize the different experiences members with different backgrounds have in different assignments. (For example, when I first joined, we used to joke that a posting like Riyadh should be a Hardship 1 for men, but a 5 or more for women. Now that idea doesn’t seem funny at all.) On a practical level, I want to make sure that women, and other under-represented groups, are aware of opportunities to get involved with PAFSO.

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