Transcript – Episode 21: Chat with Alison LeClaire
David Morrison: Alison LeClaire joined what was then the Department of External Affairs in 1987 right out of university. Her political stream class that year consisted of Alison, one other woman and 18 men. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Alison about her life as a woman in the department as well as her range of significant and exciting assignments, including her current incarnation as director general for the Arctic, Russia, Eurasia and a bunch of other things.
Hey, Alison, it’s always great to see you. You are currently running what you describe, but I think I agree, as one of the department’s most interesting bureaus because it deals with both countries and…and the theme of the North in the Arctic. The countries are non-trivial because they include Russia. So I want to get to that. You’re the, what’s it called? You’re the director general of…
Alison LeClaire: My full title is director general for Arctic, Eurasian and European Affairs.
David Morrison: Okay, that’s a mouthful for a business card, but we’ll get to that. I want to first talk a little bit about you. A couple of things that I want to probe. One is, before you joined the department, I think you hadn’t travelled, and when you joined the department, I think you told me you were, there were only two in your class of political officers, two: 20 people, two women. So those are two places I’d like to start. But back to Richmond Hill.
Alison LeClaire: Well, first let me say, David, thank you for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to be here. Yes, well, looking forward to talking about…about the bureau, but indeed my early years. So I grew up in a town that at the time was a fairly small town by the name of Richmond Hill, a southern Ontario town. Toronto was the big city surrounded by farmland and…
David Morrison: Just for full disclosure, for several decades I’ve thought Alison was from Forest Hill, and she had to correct me about the difference between Forest Hill in Toronto and Richmond Hill somewhere outside of Toronto.
Alison LeClaire: Which, which for me was a dead giveaway that David was not from the Toronto area because he would know very…yes, there’s a big difference between Forest Hill and Richmond Hill. Richmond Hill remained for many years the un-gentrified part of the 905 belt. But as I said, it was a…it was a small town when I grew up, and it’s really now part of the Greater Toronto Area. I didn’t come from a family that travelled very much. We had the usual American cousins that we visited from time to time, but you didn’t need a passport to do that, so…
David Morrison: Where were they?
Alison LeClaire: Mostly in New York, Connecticut area, New England.
David Morrison: So you would drive across?
Alison LeClaire: So you would drive across, yeah. I think the furthest afield we went was Disneyland when I was in my mid-teens. So my first passport was, in fact, a red one when I joined the department right out of university. I wrote the exam in what was, you know, the traditional recruitment exam. I wrote in the last year of my undergrad, got a job offer.
David Morrison: What did you study?
Alison LeClaire: International relations—political science—international relations. Really, very male-dominated area. I don’t think it is anymore, but it certainly was when I was going through it. Particularly given the bent that I had toward security policies. So, a lot of guys talking about guns and things.
David Morrison: Missile throw weights.
Alison LeClaire: Missile throw weights and diameters. A lot of millimetres. I never really understood what that meant. In any event, so I got the job offer, and the counsel at the time was just because you get it this year doesn’t mean you’ll get it again. So while I had intended really to carry on studying and get my master’s degree, it was a wonderful opportunity. One I wanted, so off I went to Ottawa.
David Morrison: Had you…did you know Ottawa before?
Alison LeClaire: Not at all. No.
David Morrison: And that was back in the day when they did cool things like a cross-Canada tour, and did you get in on all that good stuff?
Alison LeClaire: No, word on the street at the time was because of the not wonderful behaviour of a few of the previous classes, the cross-Canada tour—
David Morrison: Just for the record, I was after Alison.
Alison LeClaire: It had been suspended and wasn’t seemed to be a good use of funds. So, yeah, unfortunately, I didn’t get to do a cross-Canada tour at all. In fact, I should say, is one of the very cool things about the job I’m in now, is how much I’m discovering my own country.
David Morrison: Right. Nice. So you…you joined, and like all people that joined in those days, you scurried around wondering where you were going to be posted to. Where was that?
Alison LeClaire: So my first posting was in Brazil. At that time, of course, the CFSI was not even a twinkle in anybody’s eye. It was, our training was a two-week orientation, and then they put us into training jobs for three months. So I spent my first three months in the Human Rights Division and then went off to the South African Task Force, which would give people some hint of what I joined, because apartheid was still a thing, and then to the Latin America Division. And so a posting to Brazil was a fairly logical carry on from that. But if I may just to go back, David, one of the things you did ask me about was the male-female—
David Morrison: Right.
Alison LeClaire: And the recruitment at that time. So, as you say, in my year there were, I think, there were 60 officers hired, 20 in each of the trade streams and the political streams. Ten in, we had all four streams at that time, so there was an immigration stream and a development stream. But my…so in both the trade and the political each had 20 officers, and there were two women in each.
David Morrison: Right.
Alison LeClaire: And then in the political stream, my one female colleague went off on her first posting and met an American diplomat and resigned. So it was, yeah, it was still in the time—
David Morrison: So you are down to one. And so, of the four of you in those two streams, are any besides you still in the service?
Alison LeClaire: Two of us. So…
David Morrison: Okay, so you went off to Brazil. In those days was language training offered?
Alison LeClaire: Ah yes. Yes. I had a wonderful language-training opportunity. I did part time here, but then they sent me off to spend a month in Rio de Janeiro. I spent it on the grounds of a still active—
David Morrison: I thought you were going to say Copacabana Beach, but go ahead.
Alison LeClaire: No, it wasn’t down on the beach. It was on one of the hills of Rio in a convent. It was a convent that had become very active in that whole liberation theology movement. But there was on the grounds of the convent a little building that they rented to a language school. We lived on the second floor and learned Portuguese on the first floor. And so I spent a month roaming around Rio on my own and learning Portuguese with missionaries. So it was a fabulous experience and one—and really set me up to speak, to be very comfortable in Portuguese—but I think, unfortunately, isn’t the sort of thing we do very much, with certain exceptions in the difficult languages.
David Morrison: Yeah, from there to São Paulo for how many years?
Alison LeClaire: No, Brasilia.
David Morrison: Brasilia.
Alison LeClaire: Brasilia for two years, the first postings were two years. Fantastic experience, that at a time when the junior officer in a post like that did, you know, public affairs but also consular, a little bit of management, so you really did get a good sense of even a little bit of programming.
David Morrison: Yeah.
Alison LeClaire: Because we had the local initiatives fund.
David Morrison: I would, I mean, in my…in my own experience, which was a little later, but the same sort of job, the junior political person, I was in Havana, and my commission was third secretary and vice consul.
Alison LeClaire: Right.
David Morrison: So you had to do Canadians in distress. You had to do all of the public affairs. You had to do the political reporting. It was a great way to…to tap into whatever your interests might be, but also to be forced to…to learn the department’s business. What did you do when you came back?
Alison LeClaire: So I came back to join another task force on the UNCED, or the Rio Summit. So that was the 1992 environmental summit. So, working with Michael Small, who’s recently retired, and again great experience thematic work, but still tied to Brazil, because Brazil was hosting it. So in fact, I was back in Brazil a year later for the actual summit and saw the framework convention on climate change signed by then-prime minister Mulroney and…and then stayed with the Environment Division. Got my first taste of doing the Arctic before the Arctic Council was formed, but did…did a couple of years on international environmental issues. And I guess that’s when I started my family journey, as well as professional journey, because I left that job to have my first child. Shall I just carry on with my career path?
David Morrison: So, but you were part of an employee couple, which…which brings its, I mean, that’s an interesting dimension. I think certainly when I was a single person in the department, we all sort of thought employee couples had it figured out, because you…the issue of trailing spouse at a junior level didn’t really apply. It was, you know, couples could get…could get posted. You had a child here, but then you…you had a child on posting, I think, as well.
Alison LeClaire: Yeah, so, so, I yeah, I’ve done the employee couple thing. You probably, as I, were warned in your first months in the department, if you were going to marry a colleague, make sure it’s somebody from a different stream. So that was certainly one of the…now I think the…I think the issue became a little more prevalent once the department actually started hiring more women, which I think had taken a hold by the time you joined it. It jumped very…very fast to about 50/50. And then they created the Canadian Institute, but in any event, so my employee couple’s situation was not with a rotational colleague; it was with a non-rotational colleague. Those were growing in the department, so I wouldn’t say that it was “had it all figured out.”
David Morrison: Right.
Alison LeClaire: Because both of us going on posting was not—
David Morrison: Was not clear.
Alison LeClaire: It ended up working out really well, because he…he focused on trade and trade policy, and I was on the political side, so it effectively became, I suppose, a two rotational.
David Morrison: Right, right.
Alison LeClaire: So…so yeah. So I had a baby in Ottawa. I had two babies in Ottawa, and then we left for Sweden, and I had a baby there. Now I, so, I wasn’t actually, I was on leave without pay when I had a baby in Sweden, so I wasn’t the groundbreaker that a couple of other colleagues were, because, you know, because there weren’t that many women in the foreign service—the whole policy issue around what to do.
David Morrison: When someone has a baby.
Alison LeClaire: With mat leave.
David Morrison: Ya, sure.
Alison LeClaire: So mat leave, but then daycare, particularly in a country like Sweden, you’re not in the nanny belt. And for those of us who then, and as I was a year in, went to work, the daycare issue was really, really tough, because in Sweden they have daycare centres like we have schools. So it’s just, it’s a…it’s not an issue for mother…you choose to go back to work for reasons that are unrelated to the cost or availability of daycare. So, but it was, you know, no experience is lost. And I think that the recounting of that experience to Labour Relations, or not Labour Relations but to the collective bargaining people, certainly contributed to what the department has now done in terms of establishing that policy framework.
David Morrison: I mean, it’s extraordinary to think back to just how challenging it must have been for even getting things on the agenda, right, when probably the whole executive cadre was men, and they’re hiring two women out of 20, in each of the, at least in the two major streams they hired in your year. Did you have any sense, as part of a small cohort of women, as to are you active? Now there’s the Women’s Network, and they…they put things on the agenda. Did you have any sense of being a pioneer back then? Did you guys have things you were advocating for?
Alison LeClaire: That’s a tough question to answer because I think at that time it was waxing. It was kind of going up and down. So in my year it was very low, but we had a few years before us. The 1982 really, really large recruitment, and I had heard there was a women’s group that had then sort of fallen off, so it wasn’t really active when I joined. I would say two things. I would say no, we had no sense of being a pioneer. And if anything, we were just doing our best to fit in. We wanted to succeed within the status quo. So the notion of there being anything systemic or…
David Morrison: Another way of doing things.
Alison LeClaire: No, and so when I think back, and I think I mentioned to you this…this to you earlier, a colleague in one of my first assignments, or he was the deputy director, when the issue would come up about women in the…in the department, he said, “You know, it’s not that the department isn’t trying to recruit women or promote women, it’s just that they join and then they get married have babies and quit.” And that would be a really offensive remark now. It was a remark, I mean, of course I challenged him, but not without any sense that this was, this was something symptomatic of something that was just really not right in the system. So I would say that it was an example perhaps of you need to have a critical mass, and that critical mass started to build a few years later. At the same time, I would also say that I do feel that I have asked the department for unusual things, and I have never felt resistance. On the contrary, I would say after I had my second baby, for example, I wanted to work from home. Now this was before the internet. And not only did they say yes, they came out and set me up and wired me so that I could work from home with the…the whole, what was at that time a very clunky kit.
David Morrison: You were where—in Stockholm?
Alison LeClaire: No, this was when I…when I came back from my first baby, I then went to work in personnel as an assignment officer, and then I left to have my second baby with a view to taking, I had planned to take a year off even though it was six months at that time. And they…they needed somebody to come back, and I said, well, I would, but I didn’t want to come back full time. And they, you know as I say, I proposed a flexible working arrangement that would allow me to work from home, and they were quite supportive. I mean, they were looking for those kinds of initiatives at that time.
David Morrison: Sure, sure. I mean it’s interesting how…how progress happens, and it’s good to know that in onesies and twosies, they were accommodating, but you know arguably real progress doesn’t happen until, as you say, the critical masses has…has been reached. Let’s, were moving along. So you were in Geneva for some years, you came back, you…you were the corporate secretary, and maybe you can just give us a quick riff on that, and then I do want to get to your work on…on the Arctic and on Russia as those are some of our hottest files. But tell us quickly about being a corporate secretary.
Alison LeClaire: So corporate secretary, I suppose it’s not a job for everyone. It’s one certainly though I enjoy it, particularly because it was a really interesting time. I took it in 2014. So, it was two years after, one year after the amalgamation and then moving into an election.
David Morrison: An election, sure.
Alison LeClaire: And managing a transition. So that was fascinating, but you’re dealing with the departmental processes, making the machine work and…but with a lot of quality time with the deputies and with the senior table of the department. So you get really an excellent—
David Morrison: That can cut both ways.
Alison LeClaire: Well, it was an excellent bird’s-eye view and…and actually an opportunity to contribute to policy discussions that you wouldn’t otherwise have. So it was…it was an interesting opportunity, I would say. As with any corporate job, it gives you an experience that you…you use because you do get a deep understanding of the plumbing of the department.
David Morrison: So just for listeners who don’t understand what the corporate secretary does and just how vital it is, all of our briefing materials, ATIP…
Alison LeClaire: Ministerial correspondence.
David Morrison: Ministerial correspondence. I mean it really is…
Alison LeClaire: Cabinet.
David Morrison: All Cabinet affairs. It really is the engine room, and it’s replicated, I think, across town; every single department has to have a corporate secretariat to…to do its day-to-day business, especially as it syncs up with the town. Next, Russia and the Arctic.
Alison LeClaire: Yes, Russia and the Arctic, the creation of the branch, it didn’t exist prior to my arrival. It was the decision of Deputy Minister Shugart to move the responsibility for the Arctic from the section responsible for strategic policy to rejoin the section responsible for Europe, and to have once again two directors general responsible for geographic, when it comes to Europe. So, the easiest division in terms of how to divide Europe was the old one we used to have—Western Europe and Eastern Europe. So…
David Morrison: That’s actually, it’s not an illogical division right now given some of the political trends.
Alison LeClaire: Indeed. I mean, you have EU membership, which still makes the Western Europe side very big.
David Morrison: Predominant, right.
Alison LeClaire: Yes. So…so I became director general of this hybrid bureau that I describe at times as a bit of a toggle switch: the multilateral thematic work of the Arctic division and then the geographic of not only Russia, but Ukraine, which of course is a huge priority for us; our relations with Turkey, very interesting global actor; Central Asia, where a lot of very interesting things are happening; and then very recently, in an effort largely to equalize the work a little bit, as well as I would say operational synergies, I’ve taken on bilateral relations with the Nordics.
David Morrison: Okay. Tell us why, what, why is the Artic important to Canada’s foreign policy, international relations, and do you see that importance growing? Do you, I mean, I would wager that most people in the department don’t know a lot about what the issues are. How is it different than other parts of the world and other partnerships that we have? I think it’s one of the only places that we are currently fully engaging with Russia, for example.
Alison LeClaire: Yes, that’s absolutely true. I think I would start by saying that the Arctic is an area where Canada is a really, really big player, and we shouldn’t underestimate that. We have 25% of the Arctic, and that means that we have an automatic leadership position when we’re talking about international Arctic issues. The Arctic itself, of course, is gaining more attention globally because of this anticipation that it will be more, that its resources will be more accessible. So, then you have the prospect of global competition in this part of this world that is changing rapidly and that is fundamentally fragile.
David Morrison: Fragile ecologically.
Alison LeClaire: Ecologically.
David Morrison: Right.
Alison LeClaire: Absolutely. So it means that that global competition needs to be managed really, really carefully. And we’re a big player in that…in that competition, that geopolitical, as a geopolitical interest or priority on the Arctic rises, Canada is by virtue of its geography a very important player. And for us, I would add, it is a sensitive area because the communities that live up there are predominantly, particularly in the east, predominantly Indigenous.
David Morrison: Sure.
Alison LeClaire: So for particularly for this government, I would say, with its reconciliation agenda, our posture on Arctic issues, our engagement in the Arctic Council is important globally and domestically.
David Morrison: And domestically.
Alison LeClaire: At the same time, as you say, there is a…a convention that remains, that we collaborate, that we work together with all of our circumpolar partners to maintain the Arctic as a zone of peace, stability and cooperation. And that includes Russia.
David Morrison: Right.
Alison LeClaire: So it is one of the very few issues where we are still seeking to collaborate with Russia.
David Morrison: So, is it an exaggeration to say that climate change and the…the environmental impacts of climate change have made…made it more apparent to the world that there’s money to be made in the Arctic, and that’s what’s leading to some of the geopolitical interest? China, for example, I mean, I’m struggling with whether when I see, or when we see photos of ships of different nations increasingly making their presence felt up there, is this something we should celebrate, be worried about?
Alison LeClaire: Well, depends on where you sit…where you sit depends on where, or where—what is the expression? —where you stand depends on where you sit.
David Morrison: Where you sit.
Alison LeClaire: So I’d be, but in answer to your…your main question, absolutely, it is climate change that is a key driver, and it is the warming of the Arctic and the melting of the ice. So the impact of that is not entirely predictable, but the Chinese, for example, issued an Arctic policy that looks out 80 to 100 years, that foresees a navigable Arctic, both above Russia and through and around Canada, and the prospect of a commercial fishery in the high seas rate in what they call the doughnut hole at the top. So it is, that is the…the competition is because the ice is melting.
David Morrison: Right, right.
Alison LeClaire: Yup, but whether that is going to, particularly in Canada’s Arctic, you know, climate change is more unpredictability. So the ice may be melting, but that doesn’t necessarily result in navigable seas. So it is…it is, our international Arctic engagement has, is driven by the need to, desire to maximize opportunity and to mitigate risk, particularly for those who live there.
David Morrison: Well, also, it’s not like diplomats at Global Affairs are short of things to do, but you’ve, I think, just outlined that the Arctic is a real growth area for, if those trends persist environmentally, in terms of Indigenous communities, which of course historically have not paid attention to national borders. So there’s a domestic angle, there’s an international angle, there’s a resource angle, there’s a geopolitical angle. So, I would wager you’re not going to run out of things to do any time soon.
Alison LeClaire: Absolutely not, absolutely not. No, but it’s…it’s, I think, it is one of the most fun jobs in the department right now. And you know, I’m just back from Iqaluit, arrived back yesterday, and you know, this is a growing, bustling community that wants to be, to benefit from the modern economy, but they want to retain their lifestyle. You know, they don’t want the Arctic to not be the Arctic anymore. So yeah, how you do that in a time of really rapid and unpredictable change is, is a huge challenge.
David Morrison: Thanks so much. This has been great, and I look forward to hearing at some point of how that challenge works out.
Alison LeClaire: Thank you. Merci.
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