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The changing face of Canadian diplomats, policymakers

‘They’ll put on the Canadian pin, because it helps and
creates less confusion.’ Three young public servants share their personal
stories, views on diversity in government and thoughts on how to attract young
Canadians into a similar line of work.

By: /
20 July, 2017
From left: Alina Kwan, Shafiqah Muhamad Nor, Mahmud Naqi. Credit: Catherine Tsalikis

Many Canadians of varying cultural backgrounds who have spent time abroad will be familiar with being surveyed quizzically by someone who has a particular image in mind of what a ‘Canadian’ should look like. The truth, of course, is that there is no such all-encompassing image — something that often leads to confusion for Canada’s diplomats. 

Margaret Huber, who has served as ambassador of Canada in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, will never forget presenting her credentials in Baghdad in 2007 and being accompanied by a number of colleagues: a Canadian-Korean working on development affairs, a political counsellor who was Ismaili, and a “tall, statuesque blonde” of Dutch origin.

“At a small reception afterwards to mark the occasion, one of our local interlocutors sort of looked at the line of us and said, ‘Wow, this is Canada?’” Huber recalled. “It reinforces that sometimes the medium is the message.”

Countless studies have highlighted the benefits — economic and otherwise — of a diverse workforce made up of employees with an array of different life experiences. Indeed, most would agree that it’s important to have the people representing Canada abroad or working on its foreign policy at home mirror the population they are serving.

Canada’s foreign affairs department, in its various iterations over the years, didn’t always reflect the Canadian population; it has come a long way since being predominantly made up of straight, white men (as recently as the 1970s, it was an unwritten rule that women resigned when they got married, and the post-WWII LGBT purges are a stain on the department’s — and civil service as a whole’s — history). 

Today, according to the Treasury Board, which reports on the state of employment equity in the public service, Global Affairs Canada is doing quite well when it comes to representation by women, Aboriginal people, people with disabilities and visible minorities. Its latest report shows that “overall, the public service is representative,” but that gaps do remain, especially at the executive level. So, a representative public service doesn’t mean there isn’t more work to be done, especially in other areas not covered by the Employment Equity Act (the stats don’t tell us how many LGBT employees the department has, for example, or break down representation of staff by region). 

Still, Huber says that in her opinion, one of the strengths of Canada’s foreign service is that it has embraced much greater diversity than when she joined in 1973, “not only in terms of gender and background but also in experience — bringing in people who [have] exceedingly valuable talents and experience needed by the organization.”

In order to get a sense of what this embrace of diversity looks like at headquarters, and to hear the views of a younger generation of foreign policy professionals, OpenCanada recently hosted a roundtable discussion at Global Affairs Canada in Ottawa.

Here is a condensed version of our conversation with Alina Kwan, a Vancouverite whose parents are from Hong Kong, and who works as a policy advisor on human rights; Mahmud Naqi, of Pakistani origin, who grew up in Carstairs, Alberta, and works on development programming for Pakistan; and Shafiqah Muhamad Nor, a development officer for the department’s Jordan program, who was born in Singapore and is ethnically Malay. (All three are also featured in our second edition of ‘Canada’s future foreign policymakers,’ found here). 

What does diversity mean to you — and what does that look like within Global Affairs Canada?

Alina: What diversity means to me, very basically, is the multitude of experiences that make up who we are. It can be anything; your age, your experience, your ethnic background, your sexuality, all that stuff.

Diversity itself is very important, but more important is the next step, which is of course inclusion. That’s how I think of Canada as well — it’s diverse, but the reason we’re so awesome is because we include everyone. 

In the department, I think we make an effort to be as representative of Canada as possible. There’s always room to be better, but in general I feel like it’s fairly diverse. You can’t always tell how diverse — what someone’s sexuality is, if they have a disability, whether it’s mental or physical. I’ve worked with people of all ages and backgrounds, and I think it’s important that our department takes people from across Canada, because we’re supposed to represent Canadians abroad, so it only makes sense. 

Mahmud: I totally agree with Alina [on] how important it is to have people reflecting all the different parts of the country. I think it’s something that the department does quite well, bringing in people from a whole bunch of different backgrounds — that’s what Canada is, a collection of all these different kinds of people and different stories. 

I think that one of the things that makes it really special to be here is that everyone I’ve [worked with] is very talented — they’re first and foremost very good at their job. Diversity is a reflection of how good people are at their jobs — that you’re able to draw on a whole bunch of different backgrounds. It’s not like it’s an either/or kind of dynamic. I think that’s really one of the things that makes this an interesting, fun place to work. 

Shafiqah: You’re right, this department does a fairly good job in terms of ensuring that individuals from certain parts of the world are in the department and able to provide some sort of perspective to certain views. For instance, I was part of the Southeast Asian division — I grew up most of my life in Canada, and part of it in Singapore, but I’m able to connect with my Southeast Asian culture and provide that perception that could possibly be of value in the files that my colleagues were working on.

I grew up in Mississauga, it’s pretty multicultural there — there comes a point where you’re just kind of like, hey, what is ethnicity? We’re so used to seeing each other for who we are, not what we are, or what we look like, that it became second nature to kind of overlook that. 

From what you’ve seen, how is Canada’s multiculturalism received abroad?

Mahmud: This is one of those funny anecdotes. I was at an event hosted by the Pakistan High Commission here in Ottawa. I met someone new, who shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you for organizing this event.’ I was born and raised in Canada, but someone there shook my hand and thought I was a part of the organizing community, rather than the government of Canada. I don’t think you can take offence to that because it’s an honest mistake — the world is different now, Canada is a different country from what it was 50 years ago. I think that’s something to be celebrated. Occasionally, yeah, it leads to confusion or interesting encounters, but I think that’s actually really rich and a neat thing.

Shafiqah: Being born in Singapore and ethnically Malay, people often think I’m Malaysian. [But] we’re moving along as a society, as an international community, to look at things differently and start recognizing that, hey, beyond nationalities and statehood etc., we’re individuals, and we’re persons, in spite of where we’re from.

Alina: Whenever you go to any multilateral forum, I know a lot of Canadians will do this, they’ll just put on the Canadian pin, because it helps and creates less confusion. People are genuinely curious anyway, about, well, ‘you’re Canadian, you’re not what I would think of as Canadian normally.’ You can take it one way, and can think ‘wow, these people don’t get what Canada is,’ or you can take it as they’re really interested in figuring out how Canada works, as a multicultural society.

“Whenever you go to any multilateral forum, a lot of Canadians will just put on the Canadian pin, because it helps and creates less confusion.”

Is there anything you’d like to see the department do to be even more representative?

Shafiqah: I know Mahmud mentioned geographical representation, that’s a big thing, in terms of making sure that we truly represent Canada from coast to coast, from north to south, and on top of that, that we’re also representing different values and different experiences and linguistic abilities, to understand more in the diplomatic relations that we do.

Alina: We could probably do a little bit better in terms of raising awareness amongst Canadians about how much we would like them to be part of the public service. It’s tough, because there’s a tendency to recruit among the Ontario-Québec region. So maybe we could do a bit more of awareness raising, reaching out to those provinces that are a bit further away, but also looking at our internal policies and looking at how the system in place may not make it easy for those who aren’t well off economically to find their way here.

Mahmud: Even taking a step back from the department — something like Aboriginal representation is something that I think there has been a lot of effort on over the years through employment equity, and through recruitment and encouragement and various different programs. 

Any ideas on how to level the playing field to ensure the department has the most well-rounded candidates possible?

Mahmud: I didn’t have anyone in my immediate family who was in federal government. I remember when I was growing up, there was someone who I had met at a family party in Edmonton — a young foreign service officer. He told me that it was very difficult to get a job in the department, but it was neat to meet someone doing something that you didn’t realize was an actual job, that you could do too. Knowing someone in your network or even just listening to how people got to where they did all of a sudden makes things a lot more achievable.

But if you don’t have anyone to ask…that’s why I’m really thankful that I had a really good high school teacher, who was just like, you should try this, apply to university, go to different universities, you should try somewhere outside of Alberta, you can think about what you’re really interested in — just having that conversation. 

Alina: That just triggered a memory for me, and emphasizes how important teachers and education are. I think a lot of the outreach that the department does is probably at the university level, but really, by high school you’re thinking about your career. It was, I think, late high school — I came across a DFAIT (at the time) website, it must’ve been on peacekeeping or helping out in fragile states somehow, and that was the first time I’d really thought about working in the federal government. So things like that, maybe reaching out at the high school level to let students know that these opportunities exist at all, like Mahmud was saying, would be a point to start at.

The other thing is that getting people into the department is one thing, but keeping them there is another. And I have to say that we all work hard to get here, but at the same time I’ve been so lucky because my managers have been really supportive in helping me find a way to stay if that’s what I wanted to do. Especially in the past few years, when it’s been fairly difficult to get into this department, that kind of support and mentorship is invaluable.

“One thing that I wish someone had told me is that there is no linear career path.”

What is your advice for others who are looking to do the sort of work you do?

Mahmud: I don’t want to make this sound trite, but it’s actually really hard to learn how to write short and concise sentences and convey your idea. I’m working hard towards that…that would be my number one thing, it’s something that people will recognize right away.

Shafiqah: For me, it would be being open to different perspectives and perceptions. It takes a lot of skill to be able to understand different viewpoints. As someone who works in this department, you have to be able to understand where things feed into, and what other officers are also dealing with. You’re a part of a piece of a puzzle, you’re not the entire puzzle. To be able to actually see from different viewpoints is so fundamental to being able to understand the meaning of what you do in your job.

The other thing I want to add: ask to be challenged. I think it’s so important to be able to communicate that. Personally I find myself asking for different tasks and challenges from management, and they’ve been super helpful and accommodating to make sure that I grow as well. 

Alina: You have to learn to communicate really well to your audiences along the way. Otherwise, I would say: putting in the effort and working hard and holding yourself to a high standard throughout, because you’re going to be recognized for the quality of your work, and you should never do anything less than what you’re capable of producing.

In university and in high school I pursued French quite diligently; I really enjoyed learning a new language. More and more people are realizing how important it is, never mind that French will open doors for you in the public service, but just generally having or acquiring another language is super useful. I do think that having French already really eased the way toward entering the public service. 

Mahmud: One thing that I wish someone had told me is that there is — I don’t know if this is just now or if this ever existed — no linear career path. I started out in one department, went out and then back in, and then all over the place. 

It’s discouraging, terrifying, especially if you don’t have much money to start off with, but I think it’s also that there are so many different paths that you can take, so just try them, figure out what works for you and then sort it out from there — make choices that feel like ‘you.’ I think in my past jobs I was just not a good fit, and that wasn’t a fun experience. But recognize that was a really valuable thing, and then you’re like, ‘Okay, this is not a good fit for me. What is?’

Getting out of university you want to find your dream job, and it seems that everybody else is finding that internship or getting hired to do something and you’re not. And then you go back and move in with your parents, and that is a really hard place to be. I wish someone back then had gone look, there’s just no clean path, you just have to figure it out, try a bunch of things, and that’s the only way anyone ever figures out where they want to go. 

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Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

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