Transcript – Episode 11: Chat with David Da Silva
David Morrison: David De Silva has been an FPDS officer in the department since 2002 with postings to Manila, Beirut and Caracas where I first met him in the summer of 2014. David came by the GAC Files recently to talk about being yourself, putting people first, the ins and outs of deliverology and his work as co-chair of GAC pride the department's LGBTQ2+ network. David De Silva welcome. It's always...always great to see you.
David Da Silva: Thanks. Thanks for the invitation.
David Morrison: We were just joking before going on air we first met in...in Caracas three or four years ago this month during what must rank as one of the most spectacular bilateral visits ever. The...the...the highlight in my recollection was a...an evening spent on a rooftop bar kind of doing a postmortem of why we didn't accomplish any of our goals during the day, but it did allow me if I recall correctly at that moment to...to get to know you a little bit. And...and I think I paid you a compliment about your political reporting in the sense that this is for all of our listeners, really great reporting stands out thanks and ADMs look for it. And if someone is a beautiful writer, which I think David is that makes it not just useful but also a pleasure to read. Anyhow we'll get to...to all of that. Most recently you and I have interacted in your role as co-chair of GAC Pride, which is the LGBTQ2+ employee network and I want to hear about that. But let's as we're as we do on the GAC Files let's start at the beginning. Tell me where are you from and how you ended up going international.
David Da Silva: Sure, thanks for the invitation. I'm...I'm a Mississauga boy. So for anyone out when I'm when I'm outside of Canada I say I'm from Toronto to develop some street cred. But for anyone who really knows Canada I grew up in Mississauga. My family is from Goa originally so two generations back on both sides of my family. For those who and one of the great things about the Foreign Service I must admit is that when you say Goa a lot of people already know the history, so I don't have to do the song and dance for most people, but for those who don't know it's a former Portuguese colony in India. My parents each grew up, they were born and grew up in East Africa separately...
David Morrison: And then they left?
David Da Silva: ...and did not know each other. That's right.
David Morrison: They left when they were expelled?
David Da Silva: Exactly. So my dad's family left when he was...when they were expelled in the 70s. My mom grew up in Kenya and their family immigrated to Canada.
David Morrison: Just give a little...many people won't even know the story behind the expulsions. So just give a little bit of that.
David Da Silva: So yeah I mean Idi Amin was elected, I guess he was elected on a platform of sort of Africa first it was on the way to independence.
David Morrison: In Uganda?
David Da Silva: In Uganda. That's right. And...and it quickly developed an anti-Asian platform I suppose and so was fulling I think it's safe to say hatred against...against members of the specifically South Asian community. And in 1972 if I'm getting my years right announced the expulsion of tens of thousands of Asians. And so there were large communities particularly Ismaili, Anglo-Indian, Goan, who were forced to leave. And...
David Morrison: A lot of Ismailis came to Canada.
David Da Silva: That's right. And so actually in a...in a strange parel I mean I have a lot of Ismaili friends within the department and outside of the department whose...whose familial lives, their...their ancestry traces a very similar
David Morrison: to East Africa
David Da Silva: to East Africa and so as a consequence Canada was one of the few countries that let in large quantities of people at that time. Neither...neither of my parents came here as refugees. My dad...my dad came on a student visa and so did my mom. But as a result of this shared immigration I suppose they're both first generation Canadians, so I am a second generation Canadian. But that gave me a really...growing up in Southern Mississauga which at the time was extraordinarily white. It's still pretty white. I have always being an outsider, but an outsider that's sort of lived among...among white people. I have nothing against white people as many is my friends. But I went to a high school that was so white that I occasionally had to remind myself that I wasn't. Because...
David Morrison: So how did your...how did your folks end up in Mississauga?
David Da Silva: Let's see. I guess it would be my dad...my dad's medical practice. So he went to...he went to the University of Ottawa. So this was his first stop in Canada here and had his whole experience skating to work and skating to school rather. Did his medical degree at Western. That's where he met my mom, who is also doing her graduate work at Western and then my dad moved to Toronto to do his residency at St. Joe's in downtown Toronto. And so that's where they decided to settle and Toronto is one of the population's centers to go and populations around the world along with just a handful of cities.
David Morrison: So did you speak some Portuguese growing up?
David Da Silva: I did not, embarrassingly enough thanks to the work in the department. My French is good my Spanish is good, I speak a little bit of Arabic still from postings in the Middle East and I've learned even a little bit of Pilipino when I was in the Philippines, but I never really learnt Portuguese. Much to the shame of my...the astonishment of my grandparents and extended relatives. But it's something on my bucket list at some point.
David Morrison: Right, right. So you had, I mean I'm always interested in why people end up joining the Foreign Service. You had international roots from the get go. So was it a, was it a natural is that all you ever wanted to do or what else did you pursue?
David Da Silva: It wasn't on my agenda screen at all actually. I finished...my undergrad was at McGill, I did grad school in the UK and my plan was to work in the NGO sector in development. My background...my academic background is urban planning, urban development, you know largely in the third world. And that is still a topic that fascinates me, but I didn't intend to go this route until a friend of mine in residence with me also Canadian at grad school in London said, hey there's this fantastic you know.
David Morrison: So you went down to Canada house and yeah.
David Da Silva: So I listened to the podcast and yeah we wrote the exam in the same spot. Except maybe a few years different. So I met Mel Capp who at the time was the High Commissioner there. And I think that was my first time in any Canadian office abroad ever.
David Morrison: Yeah, that was the first time I yeah....
David Da Silva: And then I ended up interviewing in Brussels because that's where the interviews happened to be that year. And then from the end of grad school I came immediately to the Department.
David Da Silva: I was really lucky to be among the people involved in the initial X conditions, which Francis spoke about in the previous edition. So I spent five months in total in French, full time, and I started here at the department in 2002. So the period was really interesting for me, because all the students at the time in Bisson were training at the centre. But it was also the 9/11 period. So, there were big changes in the department in terms of security, but also in politics.
David Da Silva: So to enter the department at that time was fascinating which sort of brings us back to where you started this question. When I...when I started in the department one of the things that shocked me is walking the hallways in 2002 is the number of white men that were going up and down the hallways. And I had Patricia Marsden Doyle who was my DG for a fairly short period time, but I remember she stuck out because she was a woman and I felt embarrassed that she stuck out because she was a woman. I felt like I shouldn't be noticing these kinds of things, but I did because it was still a world that was dominated after years and years of very little hiring in the 90s the department had a lot of middle management and senior management was largely white
David Morrison: Largely white.
David Da Silva: and male. And that's something that has changed if you want to talk about progress in the department in the last 15 years. It's pretty impressive to see the diversity that reflects now the Canadian population a lot better than it used to.
David Morrison: So you...you joined, you walked the halls for a while and then we...we sent you out to Beirut.
David Da Silva: to the Philippines.
David Morrison: No, to...to the Philippines. So...so for listeners David has had postings in the Philippines, in Beirut, which almost seemed like a double.
David Da Silva: It was, it was a double posting.
David Morrison: You were there for four years. And...and also in Caracas. So that was...maybe I only have the first 15 years right?
David Da Silva: No, that's right.
David Morrison: But you...you had a good...you had a good role and...and in talking about this...this podcast and what we wanted to talk about David sent in a whole range of fascinating things including his fascination with public transport or public transit. So...so we can talk about that, but valuable lessons that you have learned, these were just lessons that David offered up. Lesson number one was put people first. I'd rather work in a war zone with a great manager than in a peaceful situation with a terrible manager. Talk to us about that.
David Da Silva: So yeah, maybe I have only come to this realization in the last four to five years and I've heard you talk about this on your previous podcasts as well, but maybe it's a wisdom you get as you mature through not only the foreign service, but I think public service and maybe just careers in general that it's more important often who you work for rather than what you work on. I've worked in very difficult environments and in some of the worst environments I've had the privilege of working with some of the best people that I've ever met. And I think that's really key. I have, I've had managers who at the first sign of crisis their first thought was for the safety and security of their team and their second thought is ok in order to get them to do good work once they're happy and healthy and safe in order to get them to do good work how do we keep them happy and healthy and safe. So their first and second thoughts were really you know are they immediately safe today, second we're going to be moving to a sort of 24 hour shift schedule, how do we keep this going in the long run and then after those two things were taken care of then we talk about achieving Canada's objectives. But really it's about...it's about putting people first. One of the coolest things I've discovered, although I've never worked in these divisions myself is...is that for a long time the department had a very good track record of taking care of its people that work in the hardest places. So Humanitarian Affairs, disasters, The Watch Center, these are places where they're used to dealing with crises on a daily basis. And...and I don't know where I acquired this piece of wisdom, but one of the senior managers once told me in a place that has so much crisis the crisis can't afford to be within the buildings. I've modified that as my personal...personal credo that in hardship five missions your biggest problem as an employee should never be inside the walls. It should never be a problem within the control of the government Canada. So when you're working in some of the most difficult places in the world I think it's really important to put people first. To think about their needs and that's not only just the Canadians who are working within the walls, but it's also their spouses. It's also their kids and I particularly want to talk about LES. A good example is Venezuela. So when I...when I left Venezuela I actually told the LES as a group at my despidida, at my farewell that I want to thank them for two things, in addition to, you know, being great employees and that kind of stuff. Two things, first thank you for not leaving. In a lot of difficult environments we hire some of the best locals around and that means that these are people who speak multiple languages.
David Morrison: They've got options.
David Da Silva: They have options. They are portable, they know how to travel, they have passports, they have routes outside the country as well as inside the country. They don't have to work for us. But they choose to because they believe that they can make their country a better place and that working with Canada is the best way they can do that. So thank you for not leaving, but second thank you for making a difference that...that...that these people are often working in very dangerous conditions to try to make a difference. But unlike us, unlike the Canadians in the embassy who have most of our family and friends safe at home in Canada, most of the time, these are people who are juggling, you know, their work objectives with also their, you know, if there are shots being fired in the city, their kids are in day care at the other side of the city.
David Morrison: Well and how do I, you know, how do I get this, how do I get that.
David Da Silva: Yeah how do I get that? How do I, how am I going to go home and make sure my kids get enough to eat before they go to bed at the same time as they're trying to, you know, help us with consular assistance or do political reporting.
David Morrison: It's part of why we sign up, no? Because it living those experiences challenges our assumptions about what a normal life is. And certainly for me reinforces the sense of how darn lucky we are to live where we do.
David Da Silva: Absolutely!
David Morrison: In...in...in Canada. I've...I agree I think the department is... I think its part of the culture that we look after each other in particularly in hardship missions. I do think though that there needs to also be some after care that we think about more deliberately when people come home from hardship missions in war from hard experiences I'm thinking of the personal involvement I've had with the recent events in Havana. But certainly after Afghanistan or after many of the other things that our colleagues lived through... they, you know, people come back and they get reintegrated here in Ottawa integrated into different parts of this department. But we also need a mechanism to make certain that they're doing OK. David De Silva lesson number two or learning number two is be yourself let your personality shine. And people will let their guard down things flow much more easily if you were being yourself. Being gay and being Catholic have each opened up avenues of possibility for me as a diplomat abroad. Talk to us about that.
David Da Silva: This is a more of a difficult thing. I'm still discovering this along my path. But in my capacity as co-chair for the pride network. We held a seminar on being queer, being LGBTQ and being rotational or diplomatic or that kind of stuff for the international day against homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia, and we invited the head of mission of Australia here in Ottawa and Tasha Smith to come in and talk about her experience. She is the coach chair of Australia's of DFAT’s equivalent group and one of the things she said during that meeting, during the workshop was be authentic. People can smell a fake from a mile away and when you're being your whole self you're bringing your A game. So that's actually quite important and for me I mean I would've never imagined being out in high school it just wasn't possible in that era and in where I went to high school but rather than see it as something you need to hide or cover up. I view it now as sort of something... it's like having a whole keychain full of different keys and so some people in the department might only have two, I have six so why hide it? I can go and talk knowledgeably to the Archbishop of Manila about challenges in the Catholic Church in Manila and how they're going to deal with it and you know how those neatly dovetail with some of Canada's objectives like abolishing death penalty, helping migrant workers. But at the same time I can go in Lebanon and talk to LGBT associations and talk to them knowledgeably about some of the challenges facing them such as criminal prosecutions, violence against their citizens. So the ability to to access different parts of your...
David Morrison: Of your identity.
David Da Silva: of your identity to leverage them for work is makes you both more effective diplomat but also makes her far more interesting postings because you get to meet people from all sorts of different walks of life.
David Morrison: Yeah, you have entree into those communities.
David Da Silva: And in a way isn't that sort of what being a diplomat is all about. It's about using your personal access for state benefit in a way. You're being the interlocutor for the state.
David Morrison: Although, what one hopes it's not all about the crown. In the sense that having the privilege to live and serve abroad and deploy those different parts of your identity also is just personally enriching.
David Da Silva: It is pretty awesome.
David Morrison: And then finally, David has written never underestimate the future. By this I mean thinking about where today's intern in your division is going to end up or where your vocal support superstar NGO head will end up or where your small town mayor could end up. I have had work contacts who have become ministers and presidents been assassinated or kidnapped or become lifetime friends. And I think there's just real wisdom in being aware that the situations that we find ourselves in aren't static, particularly in some of the places we're called upon to serve where you know one of my frankly more junior colleagues at UNDP in New York from one day to the next became prime minister of Haiti. So it I mean there's all sorts of life lessons in there. But talk to us about you know never underestimating the future as kind of a thing you live by.
David Da Silva: I'm going to start with a funny anecdote that I was actually thinking about when I listened to Stefanie Beck’s interview with you. So I was desk officer for Cambodia when she was assigned to become the ambassador. And on that particular day it was honestly this might have been two weeks into my time in the department when she got named and was about to head out, and all I was told is that our future ambassador in Cambodia was coming and needed to be briefed. And at the same time there will be a summer student who was showing up and needed to be trained. And so this young looking girl came...
David Morrison: I know where this is going.
David Da Silva: Yeah it's pretty embarrassing, right? So this young girl just came out and was like hi I'm here to talk about Cambodia. And like great no problem I have an ambassador coming so one second I'm just put you down with these books, have a flip through, and she very patiently sat down and it was only about 10 minutes later that I thought oh wait a sec, oh my god what have I just done. So never underestimate images either or appearances. But in terms of...
David Morrison: Or unconscious bias.
David Da Silva: Or unconscious bias, that's actually really really good point. And it was amazing watching Stefanie work in the first year or two. I remember in the middle of a crisis once in Cambodia she was both taking care of her family and you know as I believe that she was climbing out of the back of her residence into a boat or something like that to escape, you know gunfire kind of thing. While she simultaneously like feeding her brand new baby and sending messages on a BlackBerry. Absolutely incredible. But in terms of other experiences I mean good colleagues of the embassy in Beirut. Mohammed Shatat, he was a wise counsel to a number of foreign embassies and I consider him to be a friend and subsequently minister in a Lebanese cabinet and assassinated a few years ago. I had the privilege and honor of being one of the few diplomats to interview Rodrigo Duterte when he was the Mayor of Davao in the south of the country.
David Morrison: Now the president.
David Da Silva: Now the president and he had a very similar reputation at the time as to the one he is right now.
David Morrison: Tough guy.
David Da Silva: Tough guy, law and order.
David Morrison: What did you interview him... You were just on courtesy calls or...
David Da Silva: It was a courtesy call. It was my first trip to the south of the country and he hadn't met a lot of foreign diplomats up to that point. And so as often happens when you visit remote places. I mean it's not super remote but outside of the capital I gather with a bunch of Western embassies ahead of time and said hey what should I talk about. I'm fairly new at this game. What do I do? And they all said yeah. I talked about human rights. And so I did. And he was quite direct you know he said...
David Morrison: That's his reputation.
David Da Silva: It's his reputation. I don't murder kids I don't, I don't do anything you know illegal but when the bad things happen it's my job as mayor to take care of it.
David Morrison: Yeah. And if I have it right this is a president who is on the record of having bragged or at least admitted to killing people.
David Da Silva: That's right. I don't think bragged is an exaggeration. I think he's proud of his record, in that respect and so working with a very active civil society helped to keep people to account. Helped them to keep their own politicians to account. But it all goes to say you never know where people are going to end up. Even within the department as I mentioned earlier I've had the luck of working, I mean I worked with Stefanie fairly early on in my career and that was a very good mentor for me and model for behavior. Don Bobiash, Mark Gwozdecky. These are former directors of mine and so I've picked up great tips from them on how to be an effective manager, how to think across borders and to think across silos, how to treat people but also you know never underestimate where people are going to end up in the future.
David Morrison: Sure yeah. Good advice. I'm struck by your emphasis a while ago on authenticity. I did a yearlong... I was sent on a yearlong leadership course and if there was one thing that shone through it was that true leaders are authentic. They know who they are and that's what they project so. Anyhow, food for thought. As I look at the list of things you've done and [, your enthusiasms, I have the idea of an old school diplomat, someone who loves the streets, who likes people, who has a curiosity. That was a long set up. But talk to... I mean your list of interests and track record is fascinating and yet I do recall you sort of put your hand up for this assignment in what in this town was called for a wild deliverology. Why?
David Da Silva: I think set up might be the accurate word here actually. So I for a while being, I mean, I'm a fairly proud political officer FPDS, whatever you'd like to call it nowadays. And I think there's a lot of political officers do outstanding work and maybe aren't... don't get the same profile. It's sort of the unwritten secret that political is the most prestigious. But frankly I think we've been sort of left to our own devices in recent years. And so one of the areas where we've suffered and it's our own fault in a way, is being able to consistently describe what we do and how we achieve results. And therefore without being able to speak this language of results, without saying you know here's what I've achieved during my three years or four years. I'm doing political work overseas. We've been unable to actually show off our assets. Show off the good work that we're doing. But it's also put us in the unfortunate position of sometimes becoming a little bit arrogant about being forced to measure. Trade officers wouldn't flinch or development officer wouldn't flinch or an MCO wouldn’t flinch.
David Morrison: It's part of the culture.
David Da Silva: It's part of the culture.
David Morrison: What did you do for me in the last quarter? What did you do for me in the last year? And it used to drive me crazy at the United Nations and elsewhere when someone couldn't tell you.
David Da Silva: Yup.
David Morrison: And maintained the relationship. That doesn't really cut it.
David Da Silva: Are you saying that I have a further bilateral relations successfully? And that unfortunately still the comments you get from a few political officers and so part of what... And I'll be honest; it may have been some commentary that I've shouted down a phone line occasionally at the pride folks in the strategic division. You can't measure what I do. I am untouchable. And so yeah. So this is part of what interests me coming back.
David Morrison: That's great.
David Da Silva: I was looking around at what was available and this really was awesome, and I also... Nicole Giles...
David Morrison: Yeah.
David Da Silva: Was in charge of the file at the time and I knew her from being high commissioner next door.
David Morrison: Very talented DG, who's now at finance.
David Da Silva: That's right. And she sort of saw that glint in my eye for this kind of stuff. And fortunately nabbed me and I accepted to be nabbed. And so it's been fascinating trying to come up with ways of figuring out how to measure things like Canadian leadership, how do you measure that? And when we control so few levers deliverology or results in delivery, was always intended to be something very tangible. How do you improve the number of trains that arrive on time? How do you improve performance in emergency rooms? How do you improve performance on mathematic tests for Grade 3 students? Very tangible. We control the levers. It's something we can do something about. And so even within the government of Canada where this is being applied across the entire government of Canada. There are some things that the government of Canada controls better than others. We can control, although it may not seem like we can, procurement. Defense procurement. We can control boil water advisories to a large extent. There are some factors that are outside of our control but we have most of levers. When you're talking about our trade relationship with Europe, we control a small part of it but not all of it right. Talk about our relationship with North Korea, gosh we are just one among dozens of players and so trying to measure this in a way that is accountable and transparent is super fascinating and challenging and to do this you need a team. You need a village to do this and so we've gone out to universities, we've talked to other foreign ministries, we've talked other departments across town, and the consensus is we're still learning.
David Morrison: Yeah, well daunting challenge and I'm sure other foreign ministries could learn from us and vice versa. We're going to bump up against time. But I did want to come back to your work with the GAC Pride network. Just tell us a little bit about how long the network has been in existence. What it has accomplished? Because I believe it was recently recognized. I recall very well when you and I guess the co- chair came around to see the deputies and you had seemed to integrate in the greatest entrepreneurial tradition you had found a gap and you had filled it with a very useful organization carrying out useful activities. So talk to us a little bit about how that began.
David Da Silva: I should start by giving full credit to my co-chair, Mélanie Bégin, who now ... leaves affectionately to Paris. But I think that ... I do not know why ... to be completely sure, but for about twenty years there was always an informal network of gay men, mostly gay men, who met to have a beer, to compare notes, for ...
David Morrison: Here in the department?
David Da Silva: Here in the deparment. Specifically, the department. And to give advice. But it was never something more formal. The structure for minority groups, I do not like this terminology, but ... Employment equity group in general, it's written in the 80s. At the time, even the idea that lesbians and gays and bi and trans were not at all in the photo, could be a group ... identified as a vulnerable group, not vulnerable, but ... with their own needs. Exact. So as a group, we were excluded from this infrastructure. But in the last few years, there has been a need, to identify by the members, by the employees of the department, to have more information, more help. LGBT families are more complex than before now, with same-sex marriage, with legal adoptions in Canada, there was a need to have more information on issues like "If I'm posted to China, can my spouse bring his child, our child with us. If I am a man with HIV, will there be mental and health services available in South Africa? If I am a homosexual man, can I bring my spouse with me with a VISA, with all the diplomatic protections.
David Morrison: Without being married.
David Da Silva: Right. Or even married in a country where it is not recognized, will I have the same protection for my family that a straight man could have for his family. So we decided as a group to organize a little more formally to get their information.
David Morrison: And if I recall correctly part of that information is legislative so it's relatively easy to collect it just hadn't been done. But the more interesting part was cultural. What's it like to live in country X or country Y if you're gay or lesbian. And so just in terms of a need identified and filled. You guys have really done your community but also the wider community of colleagues at Global Affairs a tremendous service so I know you'll keep it up and I think many others will be watching as to what happens to David Da Silva after deliverology.
David Da Silva: Me too. Me too indeed. There is... I'm only at the halfway point in my career and there's a mantra in foreign affairs that I've heard several times and that's you know, you need to go outside to get experience. And I've thought about this, and yeah sure maybe I will at some point.
David Morrison: Meaning outside of global affairs, sure.
David Da Silva: So maybe you know go to PCO for a bit, try TBS maybe, try a different government department, but gosh I love this place. The work is addictive. The colleagues are brilliant and intelligent and energetic and I couldn't imagine being anywhere else and until I do. Gosh this is a great place to be.
David Morrison: Well thank you for your... what you've done for the department. Thanks for your fun anecdotes and we really will be watching as to what your next steps are.
David Da Silva: Thanks so much.
- Date Modified: