Transcript – Episode 13: Chat with Shauna Hemingway

David Morrison: Shauna Hemingway has gone from farm girl in rural Ontario to Canada’s ambassador in the Dominican Republic in remarkably short order. Along the way, she spent some years working in journalism, including for the police services in the UK. When we recently chatted about her life and her current posting as a first-time ambassador, Shauna offered up some real wisdom on the importance of passion, the importance of curiosity and the importance of learning to listen. Hey Shauna, thanks for coming by today.

Shauna Hemingway: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

David Morrison: We first met, I think, in Mexico some years ago when you were doing trade work. After that you did a turn on the G7, with Peter Boehm, I think.

Shauna Hemingway: That’s right.

David Morrison: And now you are relatively recently minted HOM in Santo Domingo. So we want to hear all about that. But we want to as we have been doing on the GAC Files, start at the beginning and where are you from and how you got to where you are. And, we can of course speak in English, French or Spanish. We could speak in Spanish, but to do a better job, we may need to translate. So, let’s get it going but I just wanted to tell me how it all began.

Shauna Hemingway: Perfect, thank you for the invitation. I’ve done numerous interviews in Spanish, but let’s continue to use Canada’s official languages today. So I grew up in a very small town and not even in the town, I grew up on a farm near Lake Huron and I spent those early years with really no idea what I wanted to do. I didn’t know what the options were and in fact the real turning point in my life was when I turned to my parents in university and said “What are we going to do with this political science degree or history degree.” And they’re like “I have no idea we never studied... you know we never went to university... we studied the trades.” And so for me that was a big turning point where I realized I needed to take control of my own career and there wasn’t anybody who is going to be able to advise me on that. So I went off to university and saw that opportunities, really just following the doors as they opened and that led me to join the varsity volleyball team. And then I left that to work pretty much full-time hours at the Toronto Star. While I was also studying at the University of Toronto, and...

David Morrison: And from there, I don’t know when, but quite soon after you graduated I think, you ended up in the UK.

Shauna Hemingway: That’s right, yeah. So I finished the last year of U of T. I headed off to another opportunity that just sort of fell into my lap. A university went to the UK and started looking for work there and drawing on my crime-reporting experience at the Toronto Star. I moved to a police communications with the British police force which was...

David Morrison: Yeah, I remember when I first saw your CV—when you were in the running to become a HOM in Latin America—because presumably, because you already spoke Spanish and I thought “oh there’s not a lot of foreign-service officers that spend—I don’t know it was a decade or five years or something, working for the police service in the UK.” So tell us about that.

Shauna Hemingway: It was really eye-opening. I have to say both the Toronto Star experience and working for the police really prepared...

David Morrison: What started you in journalism?

Shauna Hemingway: Well, that’s interesting. I got into it... there was a very attractive young man who was editing the University of Toronto newspaper, and I thought well that would be...

David Morrison: You don’t need to give his name but...

Shauna Hemingway: No, no, I’m not sure I can remember his name, but I sort of followed that—did quite a bit of writing for the university paper and then again just by total fluke someone didn’t show up for their interview because their roommate didn’t give them the message. And so the Toronto Star had a last-minute opening that summer. I was months past the deadline to apply and they just happened to pull my CV and then I ended up at the Toronto Star, which was a great experience and I think most importantly it taught me to...I had to do up to eight articles in a single shift, so an eight-hour shift. It taught me to to let go of all the hang-ups you have in terms of getting your material out there fast. And when I hear the minister speak now about timeliness over perfection I get that, because certainly that killed the perfectionist in me.

David Morrison: Journalists understand deadlines.

Shauna Hemingway: That’s right.

David Morrison: Bureaucrats sometimes not so much. But, that would’ve been...was that in pre-web publication days?

Shauna Hemingway: Absolutely. I think I got my first e-mail address while I was working at the Toronto Star, so.

David Morrison: But back in those days the paper went to bed and if you if you missed deadline you lost your job. I mean, you know if you were chronically missing deadlines you lost your job.

Shauna Hemingway: Yeah you couldn’t. You absolutely couldn’t. Yeah.

David Morrison: You also as a journalist—and this is relevant for our current line of business—if you’re given 850 words, you bring it in at 850 words so like a one-pager is a one-pager not a page and three quarters. Right?

Shauna Hemingway: Absolutely.

David Morrison: Or you’re doing your editor a huge disservice.

Shauna Hemingway: No that’s right. And I actually take quite a bit of pride in government work, because I find I have a lot more time to write these things than I did as a journalist, and if they’re asking for 500 words I’d deliver 500 words or 499, I enjoyed it, even though nobody notices. I enjoy getting that...

David Morrison: Well people do notice because there is... from where I sit and where anybody that has to review the written product sits. Something that is well written and concise is gold. So I think with so much cutting and pasting I think we can forget that. But anyhow, this is all sort of wonky. Let’s get back to your life as a police communications official in the UK.

Shauna Hemingway: And that as well I find really relevant now. I did a lot of television and radio back then and I think in the British media—I don’t think you can find media as difficult as the British media and so you have satellite trucks camped out on your doorstep, police officers who are calling me in the night because they’ve got media camping out on—again in front of their house and just a lot of problem shooting.

David Morrison: So you were on the front lines. Explain the role of a police spokesperson, something...a crime happens and journalists call you? Or how does it work?

Shauna Hemingway: I mean, really I think often we have a great system there where you can... I could go right in and see like up-to-the-minute what the police officers were putting about a certain incident which I think is a disadvantage that we don’t have as consular officials abroad. We don’t have that same access into the police input. But you can pull that out. You hate to hear about something for the first time from a journalist. You like to know it’s coming up, but no, and being...I think the hardest is being in front of the bank of media and in that line of work at that time we had to make a lot of decisions in terms of releasing people’s names and all that was taken by the communications people, which again was a heady responsibility.

David Morrison: How did you...I’m fascinated by this. I’ve lived in the UK as well. How did you integrate into such an overwhelmingly British institution as a Canadian?

Shauna Hemingway: Absolutely. I think, again, building, opening, following an open door. So building on the fact that I had done crime reporting for the Toronto Star, which is a recognizable newspaper even in the UK and I built on that and sought out any opportunity I could. I was a new graduate at that time and it seemed to me that was what I was best prepared to do. And an opening came up and I grabbed it.

David Morrison: But did you...once you were there, how well accepted were you? You were the spokesperson for this quintessentially British institution. Did you put on a fake British accent? Or how did you actually pull it off?

Shauna Hemingway: Yeah I’m sure I had a mid-Atlantic accent at some point, but what I did, I had just had to adjust to their vocabulary so lorries weren’t talking had to be something that made sense to the public.

David Morrison: Put the body in the boot.

Shauna Hemingway: Exactly. Exactly that’s it. They did have a few bodies and boots.

David Morrison: So without going all grisly on us. Tell us what did you learn? What were the biggest challenges and what did you learn that you have fallen back on in the subsequent careers of a foreign service officer?

Shauna Hemingway: I think, well it led to me seeking out a position to work for my own government because I was working for of course the home office at that time. I thought why not apply my skills to working for my own government where my own people, the Canadian people. So that was part of it, but I think we had some rather difficult colleagues. We had a lot of challenging files. We had colleagues that definitely had complex personal lives, as well and being the media spokesperson I tended to be on the front line when some of those problems became public.

David Morrison: About the…about the police service. Right?

Shauna Hemingway: Exactly. There were friends and colleagues who committed suicide. We had one who very tragically killed his family, children and his wife, which is very difficult in dealing with his family as they tried to come to terms with what their own son had done was quite difficult. Also some of the great successes we had. One of the first cases I had the opportunity to publicize was when they convicted someone of sex crimes abroad. It was in Thailand, but they convicted him in the UK and that was one of the first examples of that in the world and it was a great opportunity to really celebrate getting something done for the public good.

David Morrison: Was the person was back in the U.K. then, wasn’t convicted in absentia.

Shauna Hemingway: No they were back in the UK and they had been picked up there. But again, I dealt with his wife who was just entirely traumatized—by what she was seeing, too.

David Morrison: Wow. Wow. So, after all that, how did you end up in Canada’s foreign service?

Shauna Hemingway: I met a lady who worked for FCO, so I spoke many times with her. Her work as a diplomat seemed very interesting to me. So, I searched for a similar opportunity, and two months later, I saw the exams on the internet, and I…

David Morrison: Did you write the exam in London?  

Shauna Hemingway: Yes, in London, and afterward, I interviewed in Paris.

David Morrison: Ok, when?

Shauna Hemingway: 2002.  

David Morrison: And, you were accepted?

Shauna Hemingway: It took quite a while.

David Morrison: Many years?

Shauna Hemingway: Yes, one full year. I believe now it can be quite longer. In my case, after one year, I received my offer and I believe I was here three month later.

David Morrison: In my career, it was two years; one year for the whole process and one year for the security clearance. So maybe we are getting a little faster but it still seems to be—induction or recruitment—seems a long process. Anyhow, did you know Ottawa when you arrived?

Shauna Hemingway: No not at all. I had never lived here. I’d visited, of course, like a lot of Canadians. But I didn’t know a single person in Ottawa, so I had no connections in government and it’s something that as an ambassador now that I tend to emphasize a lot in the Dominican Republic. We have such a diverse foreign service as a result and we talk a lot about cultural diversity and all the rest. But also you know, between having representatives from the city or representatives from farming communities.

David Morrison: Farms in Ontario.

Shauna Hemingway: Exactly. I think that it really enriches our service here in Canada.

David Morrison: So it’s a…you mentioned just before we went on the air that you appreciated just how transparent the process was because you didn’t grow up with your sights on a job in the Canadian foreign service, you stumbled across this while you were in the UK using the Internet and you know, through luck and talent and so on were accepted and then you’ve started. We just very recently as a…as a executive team spent the day up at Meech Lake—earlier this week actually—talking about human resources issues and one of the things that the senior-most people in the department seem to feel quite strongly about is the necessity of recruiting people from across Canada and from very diverse backgrounds, and you know I had never been to Ottawa until I joined the Foreign Service. So we...I think there was a fairly strong sense among senior managers that we owed it to the future of the Foreign Service to ensure that the tradition that this place has had from the get go of bringing people in from all across Canada is maintained. In any event, what did you talk to us a little bit about, how you...where you started and how you got to Santo Domingo from there?

Shauna Hemingway: I think like you say that’s so important to not just...I gained a lot coming in through the regular recruitment process from getting to know people from across Canada, so I joined with people from Newfoundland, from Alberta from B.C., and from totally different studies. One had done his Ph.D. in medieval studies. I think: “Isn’t that great that we have a foreign service where people can apply with really diverse backgrounds.” I just throughout my career followed things that piqued my interest and I think that resulted in a fairly diverse person at the end of the process. And for instance—just to give you an example in the D.R.—today in Domincan Republic, there’s a Canadian mining company that has a great interest a stake in a real agricultural part of the D.R. and happens to be where the president is from, and the fact that you know I came from a farm and I understand the value of agriculture, I’m able to really transmit Canada’s focus and sincerity when we talk about not letting Canadian industry in any way impede on agricultural production in a farming community. So I think it...I also played varsity volleyball. Volleyball is huge in the D.R. I as a young girl, I was in love with the Blue Jays and one Blue Jay in particular who is Tony Fernandez. And he’s a great baseball player, but again that all these little things that are in particular to your personality.

David Morrison: Well, and it also becomes the fabric of the relationships that are how diplomacy actually works.

 Shauna Hemingway: Yeah, that’s true.

David Morrison: So we met in Mexico but before that, was Mexico your first posting?

Shauna Hemingway: It was my second posting so I’d been posted to Korea, South Korea and also accredited to North Korea, which was a fascinating experience. I did...

David Morrison: Did you visit?

Shauna Hemingway: I did, four times. It was quite an eye-opening experience that again applicable to other.

 David Morrison: When was that?

Shauna Hemingway: Back in...Sorry I was there in...I want to get the dates right. 2006 to 2009. So four visits in those years.

David Morrison: I lived there at the end of the 80s.

Shauna Hemingway: I remember that.

David Morrison: So we can talk more... we can share Pyongyang experiences offline but agreed, fascinating place and of course very topical right now. So Korea, Mexico where you were in the trade section.

Shauna Hemingway: Yeah. It was economic section, so I headed the economic section which kind of bridges that political and trade links but worked very closely with the heads of both those other programs and a great experience. I think it’s interesting...Graeme Clark, when I was going on as a head of mission I asked what he thought was important and he said “You just need to fall in love with the country you’re accredited to. That’s your job as an ambassador, is to fall in love,” and I had never looked at it from that perspective, but I think that’s true across my postings. You know I still love Korean food. Mexico will always be close to my heart. I have now Mexican family. And also in DR. But from Mexico I came back and did G7, G20 and I had done trade commissioner work here in Ottawa, plus then trade-policy work for a few years, working on trade agreements and then more political work abroad. And I think that coming back to the G7, I was able to sort of use all that policy experience and it was a good opportunity.

David Morrison: I wasn’t aware of Graeme’s phrase, but it’s a lovely phrase and I think that kind of speaks to the passion that many of us hold for the places we were sent. Just as an aside, I’ve personally returned yesterday from a fascinating 24 hours in Mexico with Minister Freeland and Minister Morneau and Minister Carr getting to know the new Mexican government. They’ve just had a historic election and what a fascinating place and it’s set for a fascinating six years to come. But back to your career. What I find interesting is you know, I don’t know are you a trade commissioner, or you’re a political person, you’ve done some comms—you’ve done multilateral with at least in the G7 sense of that—and I strongly believe that you are that kind of trajectory where you’ve shown you can walk and chew gum is actually the ideal preparation for becoming a HOM or where of course you are responsible for all of those things. Did you choose those assignments deliberately or did you just say: “Oh trade policy, that sounds interesting”?

Shauna Hemingway: Not at all deliberate. I’d say, I think what’s governed me at least for my professional career has been just looking...where can I learn something? What door is open? What looks interesting? And just following my interests. I think when I was in university and I talked about how I had this crisis in second year, I realized my political science degree wasn’t really going to get me where I wanted or so I thought then...I thought I needed to study a certain career and follow that particular path. And I think I learned afterwards—and I certainly feel I know now—and it’s what the advice I give to students when I speak to them in Dominican Republic. But it really is all about just following something that you’re passionate about. So even if it’s just for a short period of time if you have a strong interest and sort of throw your all into it, you develop all sorts of skills that you can’t predict, that you’ll...I had no idea some of the experiences that are relevant to consular and natural disasters that I would pick up from my time in the police work that are now relevant as a Head of Mission. So I really could not have projected where my time went if I had stayed and excelled as a varsity volleyball player. I probably wouldn’t be here today. I would have had a different life.

David Morrison: Maybe coaching in the Dominican Republic. Let’s...

Shauna Hemingway: I may have ended up in the Dominican Republic, yeah.

David Morrison: Let’s talk about your life as a, as a HOM. There’s this is a pretty big leadership step for you, I think. It’s...I don’ can tell us how large the mission is. But your...You have a big job, you have a young family, you have been I think in the spotlight a little bit. There’s a couple of complex consular cases I’m aware of. You do have…there are significant Canadian commercial interests there. How are you...What have you learned about yourself? How are you managing it all?

Shauna Hemingway: Yeah I think it’s a...I think anytime you start a new job there’s a real learning curve. But I think more so than ever when you start as a head of mission because suddenly the array of responsibilities is enormous.

David Morrison: Bigger than you had anticipated?

Shauna Hemingway: Uhh, in a way. In a way, I think broader and I think to the degree to which know you still need to delve down into the details. Even as a HOM, you still need to know some—you know—have a good sense of all the files. I think that it’s a lot to learn all at once and also you’re looking at the policies and the way an embassy works. I saw your discussion with Patricia Pena and I don’t envy her going on a first posting as a Head of Mission. I think her and I stay in touch. And it’s a totally different experience, but no, I think it’s been an opportunity to use skills that had gone a bit dormant, I guess. When you’re in Ottawa we have such a broad workforce here that you really do specialize quite a bit in whether it’ do a lot of writing. Now I’m the person sitting with the president, right? Having those discussions one-on-one with the head of state. Whereas before, I’d previously really only been the person in the background.

David Morrison: Writing the note.

Shauna Hemingway: Exactly. And it requires a whole different skill set. I have a lot of respect. Especially for our politicians. We get a lot of unique media requests.

David Morrison: Well you have to be on all the time.

Shauna Hemingway: That’s right.

David Morrison: And if you make a mistake everybody knows about it instantly.

Shauna Hemingway: That’s true.

David Morrison: And that’s it. It’s a different level of pressure. It seems as well as needing always to be sort of mentally agile no matter how tired you are or...

Shauna Hemingway: You can’t get sick. There’s days where you actually can’t get sick. It just can’t happen.

David Morrison: And from a work/family perspective, how’s it going?

Shauna Hemingway: Yes, this is new for me, I have a young family. I think what’s most important is to prioritize what I do. You have to choose your priorities and also make decisions that may be very difficult at times. So, what’s important for me, family-wise, is to choose the moments I spend with my children wisely. Therefore, every day I take them to school. That is a very important time for me and my family.

David Morrison: Yup. It’s all those things are really about how we set…how we set priorities. Tell me: you were interested in talking a little bit about being an ambassador in the era of social media. You were...started your communications career before the internet. So how...tell us your experience with social media and how you think that’s changed the practice of diplomacy.

Shauna Hemingway: I think it’s a great opportunity. But there are also great challenges. So for instance, you reach this broad audience and something that the Prime Minister when he first took office mentioned to his heads of missions what’s his expectation that they would get out of the capital cities and that they would engage with regular people. And it’s something that particularly in a society like in the Dominican Republic that I get commented on a lot is my engagement with regular people and how I’m breaking norms as an ambassador and getting out into the field, which I really feel is what we all should have been doing. But it’s much more obvious I can set priorities and themes that I’m focusing on by determining what I put on my social media. I think the challenge too, though, is that it’s a very imperfect picture. I spent an awful lot of my time troubleshooting for Canadian companies. It’s really important for Canada, a big part of the job there and that doesn’t get picked up because those are the things you don’t tend to put on your social media. So it is an imperfect picture. I think challenging, too. I’m grateful every day that I had the communications background that I had not knowing how it would serve me now but I can think fairly consistently—identify what is safe ground and where we shouldn’t go because at the same time you’re speaking to Dominicans but you’re also speaking to Canadians simultaneously. And that can be very difficult, because you don’t choose your audience with social media.

David Morrison: What have you learned about yourself? You’ve been there a year. You’ll be there another one or two years, I think. I hope I’m not telling you anything you don’t know.

Shauna Hemingway: I hope I’ll be there for two years.

David Morrison: Okay let’s say two years. But what... you were a third of the way through say... what have you learned and on a personal sense, what do you hope to continue working on over the length of your first job as a Head of Mission?

Shauna Hemingway: I think the value and the great advantage of being focused on the person you’re speaking to at any given time. I think that’s something that anyone who’s...

David Morrison: Sorry, I got distracted there for a second.

Shauna Hemingway: So in the political eye, again it’s something that some of the great politicians are able to do and that’s person that I identified recently was Michaëlle Jean. I find with her, it doesn’t matter if she’s talking to a head of state or she’s talking with a girl from an orphanage who’s HIV positive. And the same amount of attention, the same amount of caring, and also the importance of putting people at the centre of everything you do. And I think across the board if you try and think about the people that your decision affects, so if it’s the staff and the embassy or it’s the farming community where a Canadian company is setting up shop or whether it’s, you know Canadian consular client who just lost their passport and for them it’s a very major event in their life, For us it’s a pretty daily occurrence. But just focusing on them I think you can’t go wrong and that’s something that I think I’ve learned over the last year.

David Morrison: What a great lesson and what a great piece of wisdom to wind down on. This has been terrific. I, in particular, the notion of fall in love with your country. I think those are words to live by in our business. Be curious. You know, we all in our positions—or many of us—get asked all the time by young people: “How do you end up... how did you end up where you are today?” And in most cases, it’s not because of a master plan. It’s because of passion and curiosity. You mentioned mentorship with Patricia Pena or at least mentorship or colleagueship learning from each other and then person-to-person. Being in the moment. Actually listening to people. Those are all great lessons from Shauna Hemingway, our HOM in Santo Domingo. So, thank you very much for being here today.

Shauna Hemingway: Many thanks for inviting me.

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