Transcript – Episode 17: Chat with Deborah Chatsis

David Morrison: Deborah Chatsis has had a foreign service career spanning nearly 30 years. She has had seven postings, the final two as ambassador, first to Vietnam and then to Guatemala. She was through Ottawa recently and stopped by my office to talk about her career, her identity as an Indigenous woman and what she’s learned in the face of personal challenges.

Hey, Deborah, thanks for coming by. It’s always great to see you. We have so much to talk about. We started in the foreign service roughly the same time; I recall you were a reasonably freshly minted lawyer. You were in the social affairs stream, which was sort of euphemistic for being an immigration officer. But there used to be a joint recruitment. You switched to the political stream, which was very rare. I know you have some multilateral experience; you’ve been a HOM a couple of times over. You are an Indigenous woman, which is rare enough in the department today but was unheard of back when we joined almost. And you’re a person of remarkable resilience. Let’s start at the beginning, growing up in Saskatchewan.

Deborah Chatsis: Yes, well, my family, my parents’ families, were from Saskatchewan. My father was from Poundmaker First Nation near North Battleford, and my mother was from Ahtahkakoop, which is near Prince Albert.

David Morrison: So that’s kind of central North.

Deborah Chatsis: Central, central Saskatchewan.

Deborah Chatsis: My father joined the military and eventually ended up in Chilliwack, and my mother met him there. So I was born in Chilliwack while he was in the army. And then afterward we moved to the interior of B.C. Eventually we moved to Saskatchewan when I was at the end of grade four and lived in Battleford for a bit, but mostly Prince Albert, and that’s where I went to junior high school and high school. I ended up back there, and that’s where I’m living now, in Prince Albert.

David Morrison: What was it like back then when you were growing up and how big?

Deborah Chatsis: Prince Albert is not a huge city. At the time, I think there were about 30,000 people. And right now…

David Morrison: It’s a hockey town, there’s a junior hockey…

Deborah Chatsis: Yes, Prince Albert Raiders are the big thing there. I think right now there’s about 35,000 or 36,000. At the time, it was, you know, a kind of typical prairie town, fairly homogenous, fairly white.

David Morrison: Did you stick out?

Deborah Chatsis: Yeah, I did fairly stick out; there weren’t that many Indigenous students in the high school I went to because it was a small Catholic school. The larger high school had a few more because the students from the North would come down and finish high school in Prince Albert. But it was fairly homogenous, so it’s interesting going back now because I think the city is much like other parts of Saskatchewan; it’s much more diverse. You can really see the changes in the demographics, and that’s been 30 to 40 years. There have been real changes.

David Morrison: I was in Alberta last week on vacation, and certainly the face of rural Alberta is totally different than it was; it was 100% white when I was growing up. It is, it is South Asian, and it is African, and it is Filipina, Filipino—very, very striking changes. Anyhow, you have some siblings?

Deborah Chatsis: Yes, yes.

David Morrison: So you are a family of how many?

Deborah Chatsis: Well, I have two sisters and a brother. So an older sister lives in Prince Albert. My brother and my other sister live in Regina with their families.

David Morrison: And so, young Deborah somehow went off to conquer the world; and your, the rest of your siblings chose Saskatchewan.

Deborah Chatsis: Yes, I always wanted to travel when I was growing up, and I think it goes back to my parents who lived in Europe when my father was in the army. He was stationed in Germany for a couple of years, so I grew up there, and there was, you know, his army trunk filled with mementos from Europe. So because of that, I always wanted to travel both in Canada and in Europe and elsewhere. When I was in university, I actually started off studying engineering because I was strong in math and sciences but then switched to law.

David Morrison: Did you ever intend to practise?

Deborah Chatsis: As a lawyer?

David Morrison: Yeah.

Deborah Chatsis: I did because I had the engineering degree and the law degree. I was kind of going down this track to work in the area of intellectual property. So I did that for a bit, but I just realized that, just from the point that I wanted to work overseas, I wanted to do something different and work for the government, so I took the foreign service exam and entered at the end of ’89.

David Morrison: Yeah. We were, we were only months apart. You, you were in social affairs, so that is, I guess, doesn’t exist anymore, but there is obviously still an FS cohort in IRCC [Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada], and that was your home department.

Deborah Chatsis: Yes. For, from November ’89 until the summer of ’94, I worked as a visa officer for four years overseas. I did two and a half [years] in Beijing, a year in Bogota, and slightly less than a year in Miami doing various jobs. One [year] in Beijing as strictly a visa officer—I did visas and consular at the time; and in Bogota and Miami, I did what is called, it’s an enforcement officer, it’s a regional job working with airlines and immigration authorities.

David Morrison: And then you joined the legal bureau here, at I guess what was then DFAIT [Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade].

Deborah Chatsis: Yes, yeah, I can remember, it’s odd, it was incredibly long. Yeah, yeah, I was there for four years. I worked in the, what’s now, I think, the UN law area. I did international humanitarian law and human rights law.

David Morrison: Right.

Deborah Chatsis: So I did that for four years, and after that I went to Geneva for four years. I worked at our mission to the UN in the area of human rights, and then in 2002 I went to New York for two years.

David Morrison: Where we crossed paths again. You told me just before we went on air, you’ve had seven postings.

Deborah Chatsis: Yes.

David Morrison: In all, I think that may be a record in terms of GAC Files guests. So, a couple multilateral [postings], and you’ve been home a couple times. Anything stick out in particular, favourite posting place you learned the most?

Deborah Chatsis: I think Beijing will always be a favourite because this was my first posting, and it was, I think, a very interesting time to be there, when the country’s opening and has lots of…

David Morrison: It was actually not very long after Tiananmen.

Deborah Chatsis: Yeah, [it] was a year after. So it was a tough job because we had a lot of, there was a lot of work in the visa section dealing with family reunification, getting the families to Canada. So that was a tough job, but it was a really interesting place to live, and I enjoyed it. I love Vietnam. In part…

David Morrison: Where you were a HOM?

Deborah Chatsis: Yes, I was there for three years, from 2010 to 2013. It’s a beautiful country, and people are wonderful, and it was great because it was my first time as HOM. I was really, it was exciting, and I learned a lot. I really enjoyed it, and a great team there. A highlight of my time was the visit by the governor general, the former governor general; it was his first trip overseas, [and it] was really exciting. And I really enjoyed my time in Guatemala.

David Morrison: Sure.

Deborah Chatsis: I think it’s probably the job where I learned the most because it’s not the easiest place to live, but it’s an interesting place to work. Lots of political issues. There were some trade issues, and I was not only responsible for kind of the, you know, the basic political trade, admin, consular, but I was also responsible for the development program.

David Morrison: Right.

Deborah Chatsis: So that was really fascinating. I learned a lot.

David Morrison: You, of course, will recall very well how you ended up in Guatemala, and for listeners, the process for HOM nominations is sometimes less scientific than we would like to make out. We needed a, I was ADM [assistant deputy minister] Americas at the time, and the deck had been shuffled, and suddenly there was an opening in Guatemala, and we thought of Deborah, and I was designated to make the call. And Deborah was not, you know, on A4 or whatever, and she happened to be travelling somewhere in Asia.

Deborah Chatsis: I was in Pakistan.

David Morrison: In Pakistan. So I reached her, and said, hey, Deborah, it’s David. How would you like to be ambassador to Guatemala? And she said, I’ll call you back tomorrow, which she did, and thankfully accepted. And that, and then, my recollection is it went very quickly.

Deborah Chatsis: It did, yeah.

David Morrison: Guatemala is a place that is probably majority Indigenous population, which makes it perhaps together with Bolivia one of the highest percentages of Indigenous population in the world. The fact that you are Indigenous Canadian, how did that play as Canada’s ambassador to Guatemala?

Deborah Chatsis: Well, I think it was, it was a useful way for me to open conversations with people because I could have met, at times, share information about what was happening in Canada or what had happened and then try to make the connections between the people in Guatemala and the people in Canada. But even at a personal level, I think people really appreciated it. I was travelling with some staff to go visit some development projects, Canada Fund [for Local Initiatives] projects. And we were at a small village with an Indigenous population, and I was waiting to give my speech that my staff had prepared, and somebody from the UN spoke before me and made all of the points that I wanted to make. I was like, oh god. So I just put down the speech, and I just started speaking to this group of quite young students, who were mostly girls. And I said that, you know, I am Indigenous, I come from a community in Saskatchewan, and I understand some of the challenges that they have in, you know, in development, and the development of the community, and some of the family and individual challenges. And it was really amazing just to see how much I connected. I could see it from the stage.

David Morrison: I’m sure.

Deborah Chatsis: How much I connected with the students and the community members as well. So that was nice to be able to do that.

David Morrison: Do you have thoughts about the role that Canada plays, which is already reasonably significant, but the role that it could play internationally on Indigenous issues? I think of the demand, frankly, throughout the Americas region for Canadian expertise, particularly in the extractive sector but elsewhere on issues around consultation and consent. And frankly, just [in] economic development, we know we have large challenges that remain here in Canada, but the rest of the hemisphere looks up to Canada as a, as a kind of model in terms of relations with Indigenous communities. So given your experience in the Americas, do you have any thoughts?

Deborah Chatsis: I think that that’s really an area of Canadian expertise that really should be explored a bit more. I mean, I think we have to find more ways of making those connections between Canada and Guatemala or other countries where there are Indigenous populations. You mentioned the, you know, some of the issues in the mining and extractive sectors. Well, we, you know I could go on about the work we are doing on corporate social responsibility. But two things come to mind. One, we brought down to Guatemala a fellow who has quite a bit of experience working in consultations, often working with Indigenous groups in negotiation with the provinces who are with the federal government. And so he was able to share his expertise, lessons learned. And one thing that struck me was that, you know, we were talking about the consultations that were taking place in Guatemala, and they’re incredibly complex, very difficult. But he made the point several times that in Canada, there are over 300 consultations going on at any one time. So there, you know, it just, I don’t think that we can say we’ve found the solution, but I think that there are plenty of people, and not necessarily the federal government employees, but other people who have an expertise that can be shared.

We also brought down a woman who works in, she works, I think, [in] New Brunswick or something, [or in] Nova Scotia working with Indigenous groups on consultations, and she was fabulous because she could talk about the negotiations that she had been involved in, giving people, sharing those experiences, giving them tips on how to manage those types of consultations. There was another area that we focused on, and that was Indigenous legal systems because there was a concept proposal to amend the constitution in Guatemala. And one of the most, well there were several proposals, but the most controversial was to include a provision that recognized Indigenous legal systems, and [it] was really looking, recognizing sort of existing traditional legal systems. Anyway, so we brought down a lawyer from B.C. who spoke at a conference about Canada’s experience with putting in recognizing the Indigenous legal system and showing how it worked within the framework of the existing Canadian constitution.

David Morrison: How does it coexist?

Deborah Chatsis: Yeah, and it was really well received, but that’s something that really needs to be followed up on a continuous basis.

David Morrison: Sure, it does, it does, in the, at least in the Americas, which is the recent region that I personally know best. There’s a huge demand for sharing lessons learned on what we’ve, what we’ve gotten right. Tell me or tell us a little bit more about your identity as an Indigenous woman within Global Affairs [Canada] and its predecessor departments. I said at the beginning that it was, there are not a lot of Indigenous women in this department. It was very rare, even more rare when you joined. What are your reflections, 28 or 30 years later about that part of your identity and how that has shaped your experience at Global Affairs?

Deborah Chatsis: Well, I might say it’s always been. I mean, it’s always been a part of who I am and a part of my identity. I’m, I always say that my father used to tell us all the time, don’t forget where you come from, you know, meaning, [and] don’t forget your community, your family. Don’t forget that you’re from Saskatchewan, that sort of thing. So [for] me, it was an important part of my identity, but it wasn’t necessarily something that I’d pushed.

David Morrison: We have a, we have a much more acutely tuned sense of identity now than we did back [then], that personal identity.

Deborah Chatsis: And I think it’s, I think the situation now is different. Like, you know, the towns in the prairies have changed. I think Canada has changed. You know the, you know one of, one of the things that I’ve been advocating for a long time is that you know that the foreign service or Canada’s place abroad should be reflective of Canada. And the demographics of Canada are changing, both, you know, in terms of the number of Indigenous peoples in Canada, but also, you know, people from, from other countries, other backgrounds, religions, et cetera. So it’s funny, I was looking through my papers, and I found some emails and papers that I had worked on probably 15, maybe 15, 20 years ago, you know, with personnel, trying to encourage them to do more to recruit, not only to recruit Indigenous peoples but to look at ways to kind of maintain them. Because there have been a lot of people that have come in, but they don’t necessarily stay because the department hasn’t always been the most welcoming of diversity. So…

David Morrison: What, what advice would you give to a young Indigenous person, male or female, that was considering joining the department?

Deborah Chatsis: Well, I would say that they should consider their job because it’s really up, you know, apart from the issue of identity, I mean, it’s a fascinating job. I mean, it’s, for me it’s been a great career. I’ve been lucky enough that I’ve been on seven postings and had a mission twice. I’ve been able to do lots of work in the international area on Indigenous issues. When I was in Geneva and New York, you know, I was involved in negotiations on the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, on establishing a permanent forum, and, you know, other mechanisms and so, you know, I think that there were things that I could bring to the table as an Indigenous person that perhaps some of my colleagues from other backgrounds couldn’t bring. So I think there is, there is something that we can…

David Morrison: There’s an opportunity to advance.

Deborah Chatsis: Contribute, yeah.

David Morrison: Yeah, sure, sure. I mentioned, in the brief introduction, you as being a very resilient person. And I remember very well. I’m going to say it was 2002 or 2003, you may correct me, but we ran into each other on the street in New York, on Second Avenue, if I remember correctly. And you told me you were ill, and you had a run with cancer. You came out of it, and for many years, I think took good care of yourself but [it] was always lurking in the background, and now it’s come back, so you’re somebody who has faced extraordinary personal challenges. Can you talk to us a little bit about how those challenges have led you quite recently to leave the department earlier than we would have wished? Can you talk to us a little bit about the first experience and beating it for so long and how that has shaped your outlook on your life, on your priorities, on relationships with your family and how it’s changed you?

Deborah Chatsis: Yeah, so I first had cancer in 1998, and it was breast cancer stage one. Because of my age and the family background, they treated it quite aggressively. So that was, say June, July, August ’98. I was supposed to go on posting to Geneva, and at the time, I was determined that this wasn’t going to change my life. So I ended up doing the treatment, moving to Geneva at the same time, starting a new job. All this over a space of three, four months. And the people in Geneva were just fabulous, you know. They, the driver, would like take me to my chemotherapy appointment, and people were really understanding. I was, it was good. So that was kind of finished in ’98. I had a long, my family had a long series of health issues. My two sisters had breast cancer immediately after I did, my father had a bout of lung cancer, and then my mother had ovarian cancer, and she had breast cancer before.

David Morrison: Right.

Deborah Chatsis: So we had kind of five years of cancer, and then my mother died; my father died, then my mother died. So it was a pretty tough time. So I ended up, at that point, I was in New York.

David Morrison: Cross-posted.

Deborah Chatsis: Cross-posted, yeah. And then in a bit of existential crisis. And at the time, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. But I did take time off.

David Morrison: Did you take time off?

Deborah Chatsis: No, I didn’t. And that, I think, is one of the lessons that I’ve learned, is that I really should have taken the time off when I first got sick. I should have taken the year off and then just, you know, spent my time recovering, getting strong, rather than trying to push through it because in the end it was a job; it could have waited a year.

David Morrison: Sure, sure.

Deborah Chatsis: It wasn’t a big thing, and I could have spent more time with my family because, really, that’s kind of what, at the end of that, that’s what came out of it was that it was, for me, my family’s incredibly important, and they’re all in Saskatchewan, and that’s why I moved back there.

David Morrison: Yeah.

Deborah Chatsis: Yeah.

David Morrison: Well, look, you know, there’s, you have just an extraordinary personal story. We share this westernness that’s always been special between us. You have made a tremendous contribution, some of, some of it you’ve listed in terms of your multilateral work. I know from our common UN friends just how successful a HOM you were in, in Vietnam, and I had the pleasure of visiting you in, and staying with you actually, in Guatemala briefly. A real loss that you have, you’ve left the department, but you’ve obviously taken the right decision for you and your family back in Saskatchewan. And so we wish you all the very best.

Deborah Chatsis: Thank you very much.

David Morrison: Okay.

Deborah Chatsis: Okay.

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