Transcript – Episode 2: Chat with Peter M. Boehm

David Morrison: Peter Boehm has been called one of the most talented diplomats of his generation. Over a career that has spanned more than 3 decades Peter has risen through the ranks from foreign service trainee to the top of the public service. He has been Deputy Minister several times over and is currently the Prime Ministers Sherpa and the overall point person for the upcoming G7 summit in Charlevoix. Peter came by my office recently to talk about his journey from Kitchener, Ontario to the heights of Canadian foreign policy making as well as how being the parent of a special needs child has shaped his outlook on life. Well hi Peter, thanks for stopping by GAC Files’ global headquarters. Before we go any further, we’ll both need to be mindful that this is a public forum and we should refrain from discussing or disclosing any sensitive or classified information. Also, in accordance with Canada’s Official Languages Act, I encourage you to speak in your language of choice and I will do the same. Normally we speak together in English but we can do it in Spanish or French or whichever language, whichever language you like. We’ve known each other for years and years, so . . . one thing I don’t know is how the Boehm family came from Transylvania to Kitchener.

Peter Boehm: Well, thanks for having me on, David Thank you for inviting me to be here. It’s really an “experiment,” I know. But in any case, I’m ready for all the questions and for the discussion.  My . . . my parents are from a German minority group called the Transylvanian Saxons, or Saxons for short, that left what is now Luxembourg in the 12th century and went into what is now Romania but was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, otherwise known as Transylvania, which of course has all kinds of connotations—vampire and whatnot—which is kind of neat. And if you ever go there, you’ll see there are castles and you hear howling wolves and you think—yeah, that’s . . . that’s right. So they were . . . they were refugees, they only met in Canada, they met in Kitchener but they had to flee in September of 1944 when entire villages were . . . were evacuated ahead of the . . . the Red Army advance. During . . . during the war and being ethnic Germans, of course, there was no option but to . . . but to leave because they were seen as being on the wrong side, even though they were not on sides. But they met in Kitchener and that’s where I was born and that’s where I went to school, and on Saturdays I went to German school and I learned to read and write German as well, which I didn’t think I would be able to use later in life. But lo and behold I did. And that’s, that’s basically my . . . my childhood.

David Morrison: So when . . . when Peter says he did, that’s because he became Canada’s ambassador to Germany, which must have been a proud moment for his . . . for his parents. But before we get to that, how does boy from Kitchener have this stellar international career, which has seen you, Peter, as head of mission on two occasions, as a deputy minister four different . . . in four different capacities. Were you always going to join the foreign service? Were you always internationally minded?

Peter Boehm: Yes and no. I hadn’t thought about the foreign service until I started getting rejection letters from various universities where I wanted to teach. So I saw myself as going through the academic path and getting a doctorate and seeing if I could find a teaching job somewhere and that didn’t work. But I did do a master’s in international affairs and that’s where I got the bug. And I had done my research essay on the Commonwealth and I thought, gee, wouldn’t it be great to write to the prime minister and ask him some specific questions and use that in my . .  . in my research essay. And I did that and, sure enough, Pierre Elliott Trudeau responded. And I thought at that moment I was hooked, so before I went off to Scotland to pursue my doctorate, I did write the foreign service exam. Never heard back, so I imagine I failed with distinction. And then wrote it again later on while I was still studying. As I was getting these letters that . . . that basically said, “Thank you for your interest in this particular job, we're not interested in you.” So then out of the blue I received a phone call—“Could I come for an interview?” And I did that. I had a second interview as . . . as well, and then eventually some time later a job offer came along and I joined as a Foreign Service Level One trainee.

David Morrison: So, so do you know whether you joined on the strength of your first exam or your second exam? Did they ever come back to you?

Peter Boehm: Oh it would be, it would be the second, the second exam. I think I pretty well flamed out on the first one.

David Morrison: So, so you went—I thought of you when we first got to know each other in the context of . . . in the context of being a Latin Americanist. You were posted in Cuba, posted as ambassador to the OAS, posted in Costa Rica. But you . . . you also have done considerable time on the U.S. file as well as Europe and the G7. So what . . . what haven’t you done? Or have you done it all?

Peter Boehm: I’ve done it all, man. Really, as I look back. I never thought I would end up doing development and development assistance policy and was the DM for that. Perhaps what I haven’t done as much has been trade policy, although I did get involved in the CETA while I was ambassador to Germany. But I don’t think there’s anything I haven’t really touched on. I didn’t think I’d end up in the nuclear security area either and I was the sherpa for that, while serving as deputy minister of international development. If there ever is a strange combination, that’s one. So it’s, it’s been very comprehensive and very broad.

David Morrison: So I—Peter and I first got to know each other many years ago when, again, it was Canada host year for the G7. It was back in 1995 and in Halifax. I was at that time serving in Cuba. I knew this fellow Peter Boehm only by reputation and it was announced that Canada was going to host the summit and that Peter was going to be the director on the policy side. So, back in those days there was no email, so I’m just telling you all this to see if Peter remembers. But I sent him a letter, which in those days had to go via the diplomatic bag, expressing interest in joining the summit team. Peter kindly wrote back to me and said, “Next time you’re in Ottawa, let’s meet.” So I followed up on that, saying “Let’s have lunch.” And so I met this fellow called Peter Boehm in the line-up in the cafeteria. We both got our trays to have lunch and it turns out I had forgotten my wallet. So I was pitching this guy on myself for a great job and I stuck him with a lunch bill. That is not recommended best practice for members of the department when they’re trying to . . . to get jobs! But, in any event, Peter will come back to the G7 in a moment because it’s happening in Charlevoix just after people will be listening to this podcast. But before getting back to your trajectory in the department, I want to turn things on the personal side now, because many of the—Peter’s been a ADM in the department, a DM in the department and we know that many of the concerns that come up at town halls and throughout the human resources network have to do with managing life and work, when you’re a member of the foreign service. So I want to ask you, Peter, to talk about being part of an employee couple and also being the father of a special needs child and how that has shaped your career and how it’s shaped your outlook.

Peter Boehm: Well thanks, David, and let me just say at the outset that that lunch I bought for you, I think you’ve paid it back in full many times over through blood and sweat and hard work and all of the other wonderful things you do. Yeah, no it’s, it’s a challenge I think in the foreign service. First of all, mobility is a challenge and if you have a nuclear-type family and relationship, there are the other challenges that come with it. Is my spouse happy? Is she or he happy? What can, what can they do? What about our children, if you have children? Is the school sufficient? Are there health services there? We serve in some countries where services do not meet our own, and there is . . . there is that to . . . to worry about. So we had one . . . one, one child, a young . . . young one when we went to Cuba on the first posting. Had another one during the space of that and then had another in . . . in Costa Rica. We now have four altogether, but our third . . . our third son in Costa Rica (he was born there) began to exhibit different behaviours after the age of two, or around the age of two. And he was a very active . . . active child, speaking English, speaking Spanish. And it turned out he had autism. So what to do? Well, you go back, you do the analysis. You want to cure him. That’s the instinct that everyone has. And usually the first stage is denial and then you want to continue and see what’s best for him and then eventually you get into a place where it’s accommodation not just of your child, your loved one who has the special need, but also your . . . yourselves. And in a family context, that is incredibly difficult, so . . . .

David Morrison: Were you trying to do this on posting or back in Canada or a combination of?

Peter Boehm: Well it was on, it was on . . . on posting because my . . . my spouse had to go back with him for diagnosis because we could not do diagnosis in Costa Rica or not—at least not in a way that we would understand. You want to have your own your own system for that. And then it became a case of—with the return to Ottawa—trying to get the best services and then seeing, okay, well if we have services, where else could we get posted to that would make sense, and that’s why Washington became became an option. I was fortunate to go to the . . . the OAS. And then I cross-posted from Washington to Washington, which some people saw as this magnificent career move. But it really wasn’t done for career reasons.

David Morrison: Right.

Peter Boehm: It was to continue the services that Nicholas was . . . was receiving.

David Morrison: Nicky was in a really terrific school, I think, in Washington.

Peter Boehm: That’s correct. That’s, that’s correct and he was getting other . . . other sorts of treatments and the like. So what I learned from this is over time you develop a certain . . . a certain resilience. You realize that the job is actually quite secondary and you realize that the stress and anxiety that you feel, you feel as your own . . . your own person or within your own family unit or on behalf of your child. And it really has nothing to do with the stress and anxiety that you would feel at work. “Oh, the minister needs this right away.” Well, OK, that’s . . . that’s great. Whereas if Nicholas has an issue at his school or whatever, I would drop everything and just . . . and just take off. So it’s given me perspective and people then . . . then say, “How do you remain so calm all the time?” Well, it’s all a matter of perspective. And so as I moved through my career I also discovered that there are other individuals in the . . . in the service, in the department with similar concerns—be it a child, a spouse or even themselves. And hence my . . . my great interest in mental mental health.

David Morrison: Did you feel—this has been a multi-year decade journey for you—did you feel supported by the department formally, by the government formally or has the support come from networks of others dealing with similar issues?

Peter Boehm: I . . . I think it’s a number of factors. It . . . the network thing certainly helps. And also a willingness to sort of get out there and say, “This is my situation and I’m determined to resolve it within; whether it’s the foreign service directives or whatever, I want to be accommodated.” And the problem that you have in any governmental setting is that it’s bureaucracy. So your case, Mr. Boehm, is going to Working Group B and there’re going to be 20 people in a room looking at that to decide whether you can get the services for your child on . . . on posting. So, it becomes at times depersonalized and also demeaning, as . . . as well to the individual. But you . . . you, you roll with that and you push forward and there were a few of us who had similar issues who were, I think, in the vanguard of just trying to push the system. Because, if you don’t push the system, nothing is going to happen.

David Morrison: At the level of individual managers, we had Stefanie Beck here a week ago and she talked about life coming up in the foreign service as a single mother and the things that she had to do. I have certainly found that bosses or managers in this building or in the government are pretty accommodating of families and special needs children or special requirements of families. It’s a pretty family-friendly employer. Have you found the same thing?

Peter Boehm: I think so but I think it’s also taken time. So, when I joined the foreign service, there was a sense that you were basically chained to your desk. We . . . the computer was something relatively new. We didn’t have BlackBerrys, so a lot of the work that we would do now just pulling the BlackBerry out at any time of the day, people felt they had to stay and work long hours and any sort of cutting of that or demonstrating that you had other more personal concerns was interpreted as a sign of weakness. And then you would engage in sort of self-censorship or self-adjustment because you felt this would somehow impact your career. I think that has changed. But that was certainly the attitude when . . . or the perceived attitude when I joined. Maybe it’s just my interpretation.

David Morrison: Well, I think you don’t get what you don’t ask for. And I think both technology has helped and I think, I hope, colleagues are now more willing to speak up and say “Here’s my situation. I do have a BlackBerry, I am reachable but from, you know, 2 to 4 or 5 to 7 today, I’m out of pocket.”

Peter Boehm: Well, and you have to be prepared to say no as well. And when our fourth child arrived, we were . . . we were posted in Washington. I was scheduled to go back to become an assistant deputy minister. And I told the deputy minister, “Really, I’d like to take parental leave for five months.” No male ADM had done it up to that point. Not that I’m a trendsetter or anything, it just seemed like the really . . . the right thing to do and I don’t regret it. And I said, “And if you want someone else to take the job, that’s just fine with me.” And he said, “No, no. Well, the person you’re replacing will just have to wait to go on posting and you take . . . you take your leave.” So I think that was a very intelligent decision by the then DM. The person I replaced wasn’t quite of the same view but nonetheless it all worked out. It was smart.

David Morrison: So . . . so speaking of having to say no sometimes, you’re . . . having been a deputy minister for so long and having been a sherpa and having worked in the variety of capacities in which you’ve worked . . . you’ve worked up close with a number of prime ministers. I know you have talked a fair amount about our current prime minister and what he’s like to brief. What can you share about what it has been like to work up close with a range of different heads of . . . heads of government here in Canada?

Peter Boehm: Well, it’s always an honour to be working closely with the leader of your country. And it’s . . . it’s, really is also a special privilege. But it also underscores the fact that the advice that you give has to be very very precise, very accurate. And if you don’t know something in response to a question, it helps to say, “I don’t know sir, but I’ll get back to you on that” instead of making something up or skating or being very general, the way sometimes people can . . . can be. So you adapt quickly to the style. Everyone has a different style, but it’s quite interesting in having served prime ministers, different prime ministers, including from different parties, is that the bottom line is always the Canadian interest. And sooner or later in any discussion or in any approach, it boils right down to that. And that is where the decision point comes. And that’s where you are then as sherpa or as a deputy minister most useful.

David Morrison: Now, the G7 is going to be in a week, I believe, perhaps a bit more.

Peter Boehm: Yes, a bit more…

David Morrison: Talk a little bit about the challenges. This is your fifth or fourth G7 as “Sherpa” or previously as director. Is it special this time? Are there any challenges that are out of the ordinary?

Peter Boehm: Yes, indeed, there are significant challenges now because in a way it’s with relatively new leaders. For example, last year, there were four leaders attending the leaders’ meeting for the first time. For us, it’s always the challenge with the major global issues. The Prime Minister chose the themes of economic growth, a more peaceful world, as well as the environment, the old topics, all that and gender equality, too, so the major themes. But there are things happening: North Korea, Iran, the position of the United States…How we can shape the future of international organizations as well. So a lot of work, a lot of factors, and there are also challenges for us in putting on big events in Charlevoix. We have to engage with the people there, with the men and women of Charlevoix, as well as with the Government of Quebec and even the Indigenous peoples, the process with the ministerial meetings, since Canada’s presidency is for an entire year, and there is a lot of work.

David Morrison: In your time as a close follower of all things G7 I imagine that the solidarity or the like-mindedness with the group has waxed and waned, or within the group has waxed and waned—is there anything special this time around? And of course I’m partly referring to the administration of President Trump and the America First ethos in the United States. What kinds of challenges is that bringing to this year’s G7?

Peter Boehm: I think the notion of unanimity all the time and solidarity is being challenged and also the traditional way of hosting a summit. These things take place to allow leaders to have a frank exchange. They have that. And I’ve been asked many times, “Well, why spend so much money and have all of the security for . . . for an event.” Well, the leaders like them. And even those who are new recognize the value in having a frank conversation. And if they agreed on everything, there wouldn’t be a need to have these meetings. So, finding the right path, it’s very important for the prime minister and for me as . . . as as his sherpa in this to find the points where we have cohesion and unanimity, and the ones where we don’t, then let us have a frank discussion, so we all know our different . . . different perspectives. And I think the record of G7 success has been out there in terms of taking issues forward and turning that dial just . . . just a little bit to provide influence in other international organizations or indeed within our own countries in terms of how we legislate and the things we want to do. Climate change is a good example. It’s also a divisive one. Looking back a few years ago, Mr. Harper advanced the Maternal Newborn and Child Health Initiative—which is . . . which is still going—at Muskoka . . . which is still going and, and so on. So we’ll have a few things that will come out of the bag as well in terms of how we want to push and and change things. So there’s a great . . . there’s a great value in that. But, but the trick is ensuring that all of the work leads to that. So the ministerial meetings that have taken place thus far, the various sherpa meetings, the other engagement sessions—all of that contribute to hopefully getting a consensus on a number of big issues.

David Morrison: So, the second summit for President Trump; who are the new kids on the block?

Peter Boehm: There will be only one new kid on the block potentially this year and that will be the Italian prime minister. Once it’s decided.

David Morrison: OK, well, good luck with that.

Peter Boehm: Thank you.

David Morrison: I know many, many people will be following it closely and of course there are many, many colleagues in the department as well as across town that are involved. Just before I let you go, you’re at the later stages of your career and I just wonder if you could close with some advice to younger members of the department. What would you do the same? If you were joining today, what would you do differently? What do you think they should focus on?

Peter Boehm: I think people coming in here are selected on the basis of their talent. They have a lot to offer. And it’s not a case of having to necessarily hide yourself under a bushel or whatever. Ask a lot of questions. Ask your superiors how they look at issues. Ask questions without being annoying. But don’t go off into your own . . . own little world. And I think also because we are an amalgamated department now, it’s really important to look at a side of the department that you might not be in. So if you’re a trade commissioner, why not spend some time looking or thinking about an assignment on the development side or vice versa, or on the foreign policy side, bilateral versus multilateral. Try and get a real flavour of what this does and . . .

David Morrison: Managers need to be encouraged, of course, to . . . to select people that have non-traditional backgrounds, but that was the one of the drivers behind the original amalgamation project. So you think that younger colleagues can aspire to careers such as you’ve had.

Peter Boehm: Well, why not? I mean, I never . . .

David Morrison: Maybe not the Transylvania part.

Peter Boehm: Well, that’s kind of good . . . good background, too, you know—especially in the nocturnal times. Anyway, if you, if you . . . I didn’t have a plan, career . . . career-wise and it sort of all happened. And some people will say, “Oh yeah, well, we always knew you wanted to be ambassador to Germany” or whatever, but yeah, sure, that . . . that was great. I didn’t really think it would happen, so, things sometimes line up to your advantage. But I think the best advice is don’t be afraid. And usually, fear and bureaucracy, they kind of go together. But don’t be afraid . . . don’t be afraid to ask questions, don’t be afraid to to show yourself, but also keep your perspective because there’s nothing worse than a colleague who thinks that they know it all.

David Morrison: Well, thank you, Peter, I know you’re rushing off somewhere else. But this has been terrific. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and a little bit of your journey in life and here at Global Affairs.

Peter Boehm: Thanks, David. Happy to come back in a few years.

David Morrison: Okay.

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