Transcript – Episode 10: Chat with Sacha Levasseur-Rivard

David Morrison: I met Sacha Levasseur-Rivard in 2012 during my first trip to CIDA. Since then, Sacha has reinvented himself. First as an Ethics Officer on Africa and soon as a Public Affairs Officer in Mexico where he will be assigned this summer with his family. I had the opportunity recently to speak with Sacha about his career, his work philosophy and his advice for younger colleagues here at the department. Sasha, it's always a pleasure to see you. I think we met for the first time in Peru in 2012, where we were both working at CIDA at the time.

David Morrison: Since then you have become what I think of as the fully amalgamated new generation of the Department of Global Affairs or Global Affairs Canada. You''ve worked in my group for a while on mission coordination. You then…

David Morrison: you were a political agent, I believe in the sector of South Africa, of West Africa. And now, you are going to Mexico to work in the communication and public affairs function.

David Morrison: But you began life as a journalist. So to me about that, growing up in Gatineau. You seem to have kind of two bits of the family business, the journalism bit and the Foreign Service bit.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: First, thank you David for receiving me here I am very honoured to be a part of the people you invite to do your podcast.

David Morrison: We spoke a moment ago, the youngest…

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: The youngest yes.

David Morrison: The youngest on GAC files so far.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: Until now; and I was making jokes saying the least interesting too, but it will be up to the listeners to judge. But no, thank you very much indeed, I was not dedicated to an international career. In fact, I was, well it’s how you said, I was born and raised in Hull on the other side of the river that is now Gatineau, but both my parents are from Trois-Rivières. So I like to say that I am a Trifluvien and Gatinois at the same time. My father was actually a journalist.

David Morrison: Journalist.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: The francophone counterpart of CBC, Radio-Canada and then he was assigned like us, he was posted to Vancouver, then to Ottawa. Then my mother followed him and that's how I was born in the area here. And I always grew up with the idea that I was going to do as my father did, work in journalism, be a reporter. My uncle, by the way, my father's brother, Paul Rivard, is also a well-known journalist-reporter in Quebec, so that's the picture I had of what I was going to do in the future. And well that's it; I moved forward like that to go to school. I first had to study communications at the Université de Montréal and then, by chance, I had a colleague who told me about a program called International Studies, at the Université de Montréal, a bachelor's degree. And then I thought, "Oh well, it's not crazy! Instead of learning to communicate, I could learn to understand the world around me. I have always been attracted to issues that are bigger than me, bigger than myself. And that's where I went to study at the Université de Montréal and I never regretted it because that's where I met my wife, the best friends that I still have today. That was kind of the beginning for me...

David Morrison: But after you were at the University of Sherbrooke.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: Yeah. Yeah.

David Morrison: But between the two, you were a journalist with La Presse.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: Exactly. So I went to do a bachelor's degree in international studies, which was very cool, because it was a mix of history, political science, law, economics. I had learned a lot of things, and then I thought maybe now I'm ready to do what I want to do, which is journalism. And I was fortunate to have a job at La Presse canadienne, Canadian Press.

David Morrison: Ah ok, ok.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: In Montreal. And at that time I was a radio journalist, so reading news, head of desk, reporter.

David Morrison: In English or French?

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: In French.

David Morrison: In French.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: But I had English-speaking colleagues who were doing the English side. And I loved it, but I realized that there was something missing to be happy in the professional world, at the time it was teamwork, working on projects, seeing in the longer term, developing relationships with people, leadership, teamwork. And that's why at some point, I decided to realign myself and go to Sherbrooke for a master’s degree in management.

David Morrison: And at that moment, you decided to invite your uncle to do a speech, do a presentation.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: Exactly

David Morrison: And that changed your life.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: Absolutely. In fact, it's special, because I was doing my masters in management in Sherbrooke, which is a great city, I was enjoying the outdoors there, but I was not really thinking about where I was going next. And then, I had this idea to invite my uncle Gilles Rivard, whom some or a few of you know here, because he had a career at CIDA. At that time we were in 2006, he was general manager I think for the Maghreb, Europe or the Middle East and I invited him to come in my class, in my group at the university to give a presentation on what CIDA does, in terms of development projects and Canadian foreign policy. And then I listened to him speak in the class. Gilles was later ambassador to Haiti and ambassador to the United Nations. A guy who has a lot of content, then I listened and it opened my eyes, I said: "it's fascinating, it's bigger than me, these things, these issues that are interesting. " And then, we went to lunch in the cafeteria at the university that afternoon, Sodexo, the same as here at 125. So I would not talk about the quality of lunch, but the conversation was, "listen, Sach" because Gilles always calls me Sach, "why do not you try to do a student internship at CIDA?" ". So I said, "fine, I wrote my letter, I sent it at that time, I think it was Suzanne Laporte who was ..."

David Morrison: Assistant Deputy Minister.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: Yeah. And then, she was very kind, she answered me, she said to me: "I am interested, I will send your CV to a few different people". And then, Antoine Chevrier, who is now our commissioner in Mozambique answered me and said: "Hey, come with us". And that's how I joined CIDA on the Haiti program in 2007.

David Morrison: It is often a theme of GAC Files that someone, for me it was Flora MacDonald who visited my high school, changed your life.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: Exactly

David Morrison: A speech, a five-minute conversation, an impression and suddenly, you have a more open mind, I do not know what it is, but ...

David Morrison: It it's really...I find it fascinating to think how when we're in those formative years it doesn't take much get passionate about a new direction and then you look back and that's the direction that your life has taken.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: Absolutely and when I look back at my short career now it's always about people you meet and the timing. So that was clearly a moment in my life when I told my wife that we were moving back to Ottawa it was not like a super happy conversation. But I mean, when I look back it was just the right decision at the right time. And I must say that you were one of these persons that I mean had an influence on my career. But we can talk about that later on.

David Morrison: We'll get to that later, whether it was positive or negative.

David Morrison: You worked on the Haiti file during the earthquake.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: Yes.

David Morrison: What did you do?

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard:
Well, I started on the Haiti program, I would say that I was pretty young, 26 years old. I think I was a co-op student and I was put in charge of a project of governance, support for the Haitian police, construction of a police academy, anyway, I was in the midst of that project. And then, I did my job. Me, the Haiti program was my school, I learned everything with guys like Louis Verret, like Luc Fréchette, Isabelle Bérard, who was DG at that time, Antoine Chevrier, I can name several like that.

David Morrison: It was one of the biggest programs

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: It was gigantic. I arrived when the Conservative government announced $ 500 million over five years for Haiti. And that was before the earthquake. And then, we worked hard, we programmed a lot, there was a lot of enthusiasm. Haiti was actually at a good time in its history, it was quietly getting out of a difficult period, a little economic development. I remember, the Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive was a man still very sensible and had an idea of where the country wanted to go and then there was this tragic event in 2010. I remember it was the year my son was born and I actually had to be there, at that time, because I was planning this police academy building project and we had a visit with all the interested entrepreneurs, but I did not go because my wife was about to give birth and it was Lara Brender, my manager at that time who went instead. And I can tell you that I have always lived with a little guilt, because she, she lived through the earthquake as well as many of my colleagues who were there at that time. I talk about it and I have shivers, because it's not every day that in the context of the work we are dealing with death, suffering. But there are people who have lived it that may tell you their experience, but what I heard is we have colleagues who have been extremely courageous. Then we on our side here in Ottawa were doing the best we could to help support our colleagues on the ground.

David Morrison: No, it was a moment of true Canadian leadership.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: Absolutely. Absolutely.

David Morrison: Then, two years later, you were in Peru, I think or maybe a year later, I visited from October to November ...

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: I remember it very well.

David Morrison: From 2012…

David Morrison: We took a small plane flight together...

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: so-called plane

David Morrison: so-called plane

David Morrison: As a family, you had two children at that time. How was the posting in Lima in a transitional moment of the country?

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: Absolutely. I think that for me Peru was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life, personally and professionally.

David Morrison: Did you speak Spanish before, or?

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard:
Yeah, I took classes. You know, at CIDA, at that time, they did not send us in language training. So I had taken classes, I had paid for personal teachers. My wife speaks Spanish too; she has travelled in the past. You know, Frédérique and I, my wife, we ​​have like a deal where it's like a team adventure. We leave, we want these experiences together. She is not part of foreign affairs, she is a teacher in CEGEP, but she is attracted to that, so. Then, we have a love for Latin America. So it was a great experience, but it was still pretty tough in terms of family management, because we had our two children, there was one who was 18 months old, Roman boy, my girl Violet was three months old. The flight to get there was the worst experience of my life. Running in the airport to our connection in Toronto. But I want to point out that Anthony Chevrier, who was our chief of aid at that time in Lima, was at the airport at two in the morning to receive me and that I think it's just a small example how well we were received in Peru, the team there. As you said, it's a special moment in the history of Peru where there is tremendous economic growth, they have a lot of resources, now they have to learn to ...

David Morrison: A growing relationship between Canada and...

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: Also

David Morrison: Between Canada and Peru.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: Absolutely.

David Morrison: But when you came back to Ottawa, did you come back during the merger or after?

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: In fact, the merger happened while I was there. I remember, because we had all learned when the budget was announced at the same time.

David Morrison: Me too.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: It’s like here’s a heads up for you. And, but on the other hand, what I mean is that the merger happened formally there, but at the embassy in Peru, we worked in an amalgamated way, because it was a decentralized program of first, one of the first and we worked in sectors that allowed convergence ...

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: For me it was a real eye opener in Peru because I realized that all those tools we had in our tool box, if we can use them together on the political, commercial and endowment side, we can do amazing things. And we did actually. I was in charge of natural resource governance i.e. the extractive sector. At that time there was a big push to attract private investments and to co-fund projects and actually we were pretty successful. I remember this local funding that we had the Andean Regional Initiative: 5 million in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. All together we were able with these 15 million dollars to leverage almost 10 million from the private sector. So with 15 million dollars of public funds we did 25 million dollars in project. In areas where people were in deep need of assistance. And so for me it was and I mean that the development guy that I was... I was trying to call the mining companies. Nobody would answer or return my call. And I went to my trade colleague and she took the phone and they called back right away right. I was coming with the money, she was coming with the contacts and our political colleagues had this little, you know these CFLI stuff that they can do small advance, and so all together we can do amazing things.

David Morrison: It really shaped seeing you guys in action in Peru which was actually my first trip as a member of CIDA. Seeing you guys in action in a middle-income country really shaped my view of the potential of amalgamation. And I think it's fair to say that in the early days Colombia, Peru, Indonesia emerged as the kind of poster children for amalgamation inaction. I think it's harder to pull off lower income countries but in... Peru where Canada's trade diplomatic and development interests have natural synergies it was really amazing. And in fact when I visited when we first met it was actually Antoine who was the chargé d'affaires, which was entirely natural, even though he was actually working for CIDA. There's a theme that's emerging in our conversation with young Sacha.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: So happy to hear I am young at 36.

David Morrison: and that is...that is. Well, I'm realizing it that it's sort of mentorship seem to have joined the Public Service at the encouragement of a senior official who happened to be your uncle. You worked for an innovative manager in Peru who then recruited you into a totally different function in the amalgamated headquarters it became in 2013. So talk to us about what you did in that first job.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: I will return to French for the pleasure of our listeners. But no, NMD it was called, it's still called NMD, geo-coordination mission support. That was, I called it my playground era, innovation, big sandbox, because it was a unit that had just been created after the fusion to coordinate the work of the geographic areas, but our mandate was very broad, we had very diverse functions. We had the entire team in charge of Strategia, the team in charge of advocacy abroad, the team, your team that supported you as Chief Development Officer, the liaison unit with Immigration Canada. Then I was in the DG's office at that time as an advisor and we said to ourselves: "wow the mandate is broad, we have everything to do, because it did not exist before. Let's try to take advantage of this to develop innovative approaches to work." And then we were also convinced of the fusion, the importance of mixing skills. So we started working on that and we developed some, I do not want to become too technical, but you know in our organization, we still use, to organize ourselves, in a complex environment like today we still use Adam Smith's model of the years I don’t know, 1800, two centuries ago, boxes with lines. You know, you've been in Peru for three years, you've become an expert in Peru, you're coming back here, you're put on a denuclearization team and suddenly there's no one else who talks to you about Peru anymore. Because, first of all, we do not know that you did that, because you're in a big organization and then we'll tell you: "oh no, that's not your job, your job is denuclearization ". Then we are a little against that, so we tried to develop a more collaborative approach, work by project and say: "ok we have this project in the Strategia team, we have a nice team, but now our team, we miss someone who is familiar with mobile applications.   So we sent a message everywhere to say: « Is there someone in this department who knows about mobile apps, because we need your expertise for a certain number of hours over, I don't know, 4 weeks » and then we would grab that person.

David Morrison: It was the micro missions, huh?

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: Micro missions, that's it. And we realized that the Treasury Board Secretariat with other departments in the federal government was also working on this as a parallel, so we joined. Then now, I think that often on GC Connect, there are still micro missions and we can still. And people have to know it, because we know that mobility in the department here is not very obvious, apart from going up, having promotions, you can have access to other challenges based on your skills, not your status in the organization. I don't care if you're sorry but a DM or an ADM or a project officer. I mean you have competencies and those competencies and talents should be showcased and should be accessible. You can imagine if you go in Teaminfo and instead of searching by names you search by competencies. That would change everything. Anyway.

David Morrison: So rolled out some new competencies after that. I remember talking to you about your various options, but you jumped...

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: That was actually a very meaningful conversation.

David Morrison: You jumped over to a bilateral relations job in Africa. About two years ago I think. So what's what have you learned about the department and about yourself as you started doing something completely different?

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: Yeah I love. I really love different, to do different things you know. So the idea of doing that, I mean very honestly I made the pool, the FS3 pool, so it was for me it was a possibility to become a manager and I was really excited about that. And it happened that year.

David Morrison: You're a deputy director.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: I am a deputy director. Yeah with a small team of very incredible employees and if we have time I'd like to talk about them later on. But so I made that move on the political side. I was lucky enough to find a manager who was willing to accept me without any political background because that's not easy either. I met a lot of managers who said well you know a FS, a real FS. Like what's a real FS? What's a real PM? I mean for me...anyway that's another conversation. But she took me on board and man that was again, a real something, a real eye opener because… In the world of PM, and I do not want to generalize, but you know, we manage money, we manage projects, we think we're the real guys. On the political side, we think they just talk, it's true. There is a lot of talk, a lot of people talking, but there are some extraordinary things happening. Anyway it's part of the job you're managing bilateral relations so you need to talk to people. But I realized the power of other tools we have in our tool box, for example sanctions. And how...and how we were able to use this tool in the particular case of South Sudan.

David Morrison: With the new Magnitski.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: With the new Magnitski. South Sudan is one of the thirteen countries that I deal with on a daily basis, and then reading reports about what is happening in South Sudan is one of the hardest things I have ever read in my life. When you read that about 70-90% of women in internal displaced persons camps have experienced or witnessed sexual assault, it is very disturbing. And we read that and then we said, "what can we do? We do not have a lot of resources.” And when the government came with its law of Magniski. By the way I don't know if you have read Bill Browders book, Red Notice, but it's amazing and it tells a whole story about…I mean anyway I read that book and I was pretty impressed.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: But when that the government arrived with Magnitski we said to ourselves: "here is a chance to do a little something". And we worked very closely with our colleagues in Venezuela, our colleagues in Russia's program, and we managed to take three people, three South Sudanese from the government, who committed abuses against human rights. We managed to put them on the list. Today, if you go to the Canadian sanctions website, you will see at the end of the list, there are three South Sudanese who are there who can no longer travel to Canada, who can no longer forward money through Canada or interact. So, and it's an extremely powerful tool. I know that because I also cover Zimbabwe and one day these people have children who want to come to study in Canada, because it's an interesting place to study, and then suddenly they cannot. And there they realize that there is some justice in this world. I do not want to be too ... But it's interesting.

David Morrison: No, but it's really interesting, because I was, I worked on Venezuela. And that was a case I think where the world and where the country, Canada needed new tools.

David Morrison: The case of our...our tools needing to catch up to reality. And wasn't entirely straightforward, but know that naming and shaming individuals helps advance policy for the reasons you just said.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: Absolutely. It's behavioural economics.

David Morrison: It's a bit of; it's kind of a nudge.

David Morrison:  And now, you're going to Mexico to work on the public affairs file, something very important in Mexico. It's a pretty big section I think, so the embassy, ​​in a strategic moment, at a very important time between Canada and Mexico.

David Morrison: What are you excited about?

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: Everything.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: No, it's a great opportunity, a great chance I'm offered to represent our country in Mexico. First, because I told you, my wife and I have a special attachment to Latin America. But also, in Quebec, we have an expression, we say: "toute est dans toute". "Everything is in everything." Based on the experience I had in the past, as a journalist, of returning to public affairs for a bit, well, that's it, promoting Canadian values ​​in Mexico. There are a lot of links, I have read in the last few weeks to prepare myself, the last few months, a lot of ties to the level of education between the two countries, the cultural industries, I have heard the economic exchanges. And I see it as a big challenge and a great honour too. A family challenge, now we have three children. So, we're going, even we're very excited, I think that the children are very happy too, but it's going to be a personal challenge too and ... That's it again, I've never done that, this job, so again develop other tools to enlarge the toolbox.

David Morrison: So I think what makes your trajectory interesting is that you began as a non-rotational development officer. Nobody at CIDA was rotational. You parlayed that into it which would have been a single posting in Peru, because there were one of assignments, but there wasn't with a rotational system. You successfully transitioned into a couple of different roles in the amalgamated department and now you''re going out into what would be considered a mainstream FS job. So that strikes me as a pretty successful dance, pretty successful navigation of a complex...complex environment. What advice would you give to others that are at your stage of your career or even earlier as they are looking upwards and facing choices?

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: Okay. I don't know. Look I have this habit that every time I left a job I sat down with my manager and my manager's manager to have a chat about to get some advice from them.  I did this with Isabelle Bérard when she was my director general on Haiti, she said to me: "Sacha, at work, you have to have fun". Knowing Isabelle, I think it's a bit.

David Morrison: That’s a 100% Isabelle.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: Yeah, that's it. I met with Patricia Fortier who was my ambassador before leaving from Peru who gave me other tips. And I met you too before leaving the Americas for advice on my career, incidentally it was one of the most rewarding conversations I had, because that moment, I was expecting that you would tell me: "Oh well, you know, you did that, but eventually you should do that. Then, by the way, you work hard, do long hours, and then compete for postings." It's not that at all that you told me in fact you told me: "I just read a book. It's called the Road to Character, David Brooks." And then you started talking to me about self-discipline and being humble and the importance of being able to suppress parts of yourself for the greater good of the organization and for me that was a clear...clear eye-opener. I read the book. And I realized that these values are not the values that everybody is talking about these days.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: People, we are in a very individualistic society. What can you do for me? Why did not I win the posting? So maybe we should ask ourselves the question: Where can I be most useful for my organization? So for me to make a short story, what I would like to give as a tip to young people or to other people who are asking questions about it is to be aware that you are not the centre of the universe, be proud of your talents and skills, then look for all the opportunities available to you to learn, put these talents in value and have fun. And that boils down to that. That said, I am very aware that there are several young people in this department and I have some in my team, I told you a little earlier that I wanted to talk about my team, extremely talented young people, 25-26-27 years. They are the real young people and it's not easy to understand where their career is going because of their employment status. I'm really worried, I actually was thinking about that on my bike this morning and I cornered that expression. I don't know if it's too strong. But I'm worried about a lost generation in this department because I see some very talented officers leaving the department going to Defence, IRCC and other places, because they can't have a clear career path in this department. So I really hope that we can find a way to, you know, harness this energy and keep them with us. Knowing that it's not easy and the resources are that. But...but

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: Really, young people here are motivated, they work hard, then you have to give them a voice and then listen to them.

David Morrison: Well maybe we can give them a voice by inviting them on to...

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: Hey, I have some names for you.

David Morrison: inviting them on to the podcast.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: Sure.

David Morrison: I think you've given us wisdom beyond your 36 years.

David Morrison: And it will be a great pleasure to invite you again after a few months in Mexico.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: Actually, I invite you to bring your podcast to Mexico, and then to meet people there.

David Morrison: Ok, deal. Thank you, Sacha.

Sacha Levasseur-Rivard: Thanks a lot David.

David Morrison: Ok ciao. Thank you.

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