Transcript – Episode 23: Chat with Canada Beyond 150 participants Aleena Esmail, Andreia Santos, Poya Saffari and Roxanne Hamel

David Morrison: Aleena Esmail, Andreia Santos, Lucie Verreault, Poya Saffari and Roxanne Hamel are GAC employees at the early stages of their careers. They were amongst an elite group of about 80 early-career public servants selected from nearly a thousand applicants for a nine-month project called Canada Beyond 150, policy for a diverse and inclusive future. This small group of GACers wrestled with some of the leading challenges facing Canada today. Lucie couldn't make it because she's currently on posting in Haiti, but Aleena, Andreia, Poya and Roxanne came by my office recently to talk about their Canada Beyond 150 experience. Well good afternoon everyone, Poya, Andreia, Roxanne, Aleena we're going to try something a little different today on the GAC Files. You are four early-career professionals here in the department. You've been involved in a project across government called Canada Beyond 150. We are counting on you to solve some of the great problems Canada is facing. And I think that was the genesis of the Canada Beyond 150 experiment. But before we get to that I want you to tell our listeners who you are. So let's start with Poya.

Poya Saffari: Sure! So, I currently work in a division that does corporate planning performance and risk but I work actually exclusively on experimentation. I came to GAC on a secondment from TBS in the month of May, so I am a fairly recent arrival here. Before that, I was at TBS for four years and that's where I started in the public service. I kind of came into the public service a little later than most. But yeah, and before that I had a few other careers that aren't, you know, they're a little different.

David Morrison: I am not…you can't get away with that. What...give us a sense of who you are.

Poya Saffari: So...I started out like with my education in the area of public policy, you know, a long time ago. And then kind of got disenchanted after my BA and went off and did very different things, so I for a while I did a carpentry course. I worked as a carpenter. I taught carpentry and then I was also involved in an organic small organic farm. So I did that for about five, six years and then went back and did a Masters. And after the Masters ended up...

David Morrison: Then we got you.

Poya Saffari: the government.

David Morrison: Where'd you grow up?

Poya Saffari: A little bit all over. I was born in Iran. We moved to Canada when I was five. And so we lived in Saskatchewan for a little while and we also lived in Ottawa. But before coming back to Ottawa I spent about 12 years in Montréal.

David Morrison: Okay. Andreia.

Andreia Santos: So my name is Andreia and in my bio I wrote that I had a hyphenated identity because I think that's really what defines me. I'm the proud daughter of Portuguese immigrants, so I think that's always defined sort of me and the way I see the world. Growing up, seeing my parents struggle was very impactful on me and, but I also saw the testament and how powerful a community can be, including Portuguese-Canadian communities in Toronto. And I think that's kind of where I want to give my parents return on investment for kind of their the sacrifices they made but also return on investment. I want to give back to Canada too and I can’t think of a better way to give back than to serve and give back to the country that really kind of afforded me and my family with all these wonderful opportunities.

David Morrison: Amazing! And at what stage of their lives were your parents when they came to Toronto?

Andreia Santos: They were 30. So they immigrated quite late in the game and my first language was actually Portuguese.

David Morrison: Right.

Andreia Santos: So yeah

David Morrison: Great. Roxanne.

Roxanne Hamel: Yes, Roxanne Hamel, I’m a trade commissioner in the Greater China Division. Before joining GAC at Employment and Social Development, and also at Transport Canada as a policy analyst. I’m originally from the city of Québec.

David Morrison: For…for

Roxanne Hamel: It’s been almost

David Morrison: Centuries?

Roxanne Hamel: For centuries, no. It’s been…it’s been about five years, in fact, five years exactly since I moved to Ottawa.

David Morrison: But your family?

Roxanne Hamel: My family, oh, yes, I don’t know…fourth, fifth, sixth, nth generation.

David Morrison: From the city of Québec?

Roxanne Hamel: From the city of Québec, yes, yes. As far as I can tell from…from…from France.

David Morrison: And do you have any…any members of your family who have worked for the federal government before you?

Roxanne Hamel: No, actually, I’m the only one in my family who lives in Ontario now. I’m the only one who sort of moved away from the city of Québec. My brothers, my family works…they are…in fact, no one ever understood why I wanted to leave Québec, why I was interested in international relations, but there you are.

David Morrison: That’s kind of what I’m wondering.

Roxanne Hamel: No, it comes from, I don’t know, I’m sort of, well, sort of the ugly duckling or the rare bird of the family.  

David Morrison: Okay Aleena.

Aleena Esmail: Yes my name is Aleena Esmail. I feel like I just learned so much about these people that I've been working with for the past year and a bit. So, just to give you a little bit of background I grew up in the GTA. My family is of Indian origin and I moved to Ottawa for university about eight years ago. I started my career at Global Affairs at the emergency watch response centre. So in the kind of consular emergency-management world and now I am a strategic communications advisor for Europe on the foreign-policy side. I think you wanted us to talk a little bit about the, you know, Canada Beyond 150 program and how we got involved, so I'll take the opportunity to thank my manager at the time for really giving opportunities to me and other young people or new employees as we might say in the department to get different experiences from what you're used to. You know coming from consular I had never worked in the policy world before and I think I really learned the value of getting different perspectives from that from this experience.

David Morrison: So let's step back. My understanding is that this the Canada 150 or Canada Beyond 150, policy for a diverse and inclusive future was an initiative to get small teams of young or newish public servants together to work on complex policy challenges. And you all had to apply. Take us through how it started. You obviously, were you nominated or how. Tell us a little bit about the process.

Roxanne Hamel: So the program was put in place by the Privy Council Office and Policy Horizons Canada. That’s the government organization that conducts foresight studies. There were, in total there were 80 participants in the program. There were, I believe, nearly 800 –1,000 applicants at the beginning, so we applied, you had to be, one of the important criteria was being a public servant in the early stage of your career. The interesting thing about the application process, we realized afterwards, it’s good that they didn’t set any quotas in terms of diversity, we noticed that the 80 participants, the diversity was incredible in terms of…with regard to French speakers, with regard to everyone’s origins, with regard to departments, there were participants from all over the public service, including in the regions. As you mentioned, we were asked to study complex problems, thorny issues. My colleagues Aleena, Andreia studied the issue of feminist government. You, Poya, what did…what were you doing?   

Poya Saffari: It was reconciliation.

Roxanne Hamel: Reconciliation. Me, I worked on the future of work. There’s also, we also have a fifth colleague whom I mentioned, Lucie Vereau, who’s on assignment in Haiti right now, who was also working on feminist government. So, we were divided into small groups for

David Morrison: How big?

Roxanne Hamel: It depended really, because we were given free rein to choose the issue we wanted to work on. My team had eight people. I think there were some teams that were a bit bigger?

Poya Saffari: Yes, I think there were 17 of us at the end.

Roxanne Hamel: Perhaps 15 for us.

David Morrison: And so applied, were by some mechanism selected, you all get into the same room one day. I mean there's kind of a kick-off event. You're divided into five groups on these five complex themes and I'll just yeah, reconciliation, sustainable development goals, open and transparent government, socio-economic inclusion and feminist government. And you have a year or nine months to do what?

Poya Saffari: So I guess at first it's we all self-selected. We decided which of these themes we wanted to pursue. So then that's part of the reason why the size of the groups are vary a bit. And it's hard to maybe to summarize everything but, but I think really from my perspective of our team anyway the goal of the project was to kind of reflect on this big complex issue, using some tools that we might have not otherwise been introduced to like Forsite, design thinking,

Roxanne Hamel: Co-creation.

Poya Saffari: And with those tools in hand. So firstly to learn about those tools and then with those tools in hand to kind of learn about the each of the topics, each of the areas that we were kind of investigating looking into. And then to develop ideas for how we as a public service, as a government can kind of tackle those issues. So I think it varied, I think the kind of the problem definition the ways we went about kind of coming up with solutions if you will vary by team.

Andreia Santos: But I think that was the most interesting piece about this project is that we came in with these very broad themes and didn't have the problem defined for us. So our response, like our role, was to define that problem. And the way we did that was by talking to stakeholders and asking stakeholders to define the problem, which is very different from how we do kind of work here at GAC. And I think that was kind of one of the most, one of the best learning experiences, because I do know in my experience when we typically consult on something there is we've already as, you know, as Global Affairs have already defined what we think is the problem is.

David Morrison: Sure, because we're really smart.

Roxanne Hamel: That's right.

Andreia Santos: And I think, I don't want to, like I think in our group we had a vision for what...

David Morrison: And your group was?

Andreia Santos: Sorry the feminist government team.

David Morrison: Right.

Andreia Santos: We had a vision of what we thought was the most critical issue to work on...on it like within the feminist government team and we ended up with an entirely different kind of intervention in the end. Which initially we were, you know, concerned with issues relating to SGBV and pay equity and we ended up with an intervention on immigration and how to get the skills of immigrant women recognized here in Canada and just, you know, how can we, yeah.

Aleena Esmail: It's a very rewarding experience in the sense that you might not get a chance to experiment, you know, or be wrong about something at first. So I think all of us are pretty grateful to have had that opportunity to try and fail and.

David Morrison: You were doing this full time or...

Aleena Esmail: No, one day a week.

Andreia Santos: Yeah. And that was the other great part is that there really was space to fail, but it wasn't like it was intelligent failure, right? We learn from that. And I think that was also a tremendous experience to learn that your failures aren't actually failures, they are opportunities to course correct.

David Morrison: Give...give us an example of what it meant to fail in this context? I mean what was the, how did you know you had failed?

Andreia Santos: So, do you want to talk about Winnipeg or…?

David Morrison: Hang on. What happened in Winnipeg?

Andreia Santos: Do you want to talk. I feel like I am talking a lot.

Roxanne Hamel: Poya has a great example of failure and...

Poya Saffari: So Winnipeg firstly was...midway through the nine months, we had the opportunity to all travel to Winnipeg. Spent a few days there kind of in a, you know, at a conference essentially where we had the opportunity as teams to kind of continue our work and kind of do a deep dive.

Roxanne Hamel: And get out of the Ottawa bubble.

Poya Saffari: Yeah and to leave Ottawa. So I guess for one of the things we did in preparation for Winnipeg was develop...kind of these insights as we call them based on our foresight work and our kind of. Essentially, we were looking into the future at the beginning, we were scanning, we were looking for signs of what related to each of our areas. What were some of the challenges and what were some of the opportunities. What were the things to come in the horizon. And so my team working on reconciliation we came up with these ideas. We I think from the beginning we had a sense that we didn't have a great grasp, but nonetheless we came up with certain ideas about what things could look like in 10 or 15 years. And we develop these insights. And when we arrived we met with stakeholders in Winnipeg. So I guess one little caveat too is that we really our intention was not to really view them as stakeholders was from the beginning to take an approach where we saw them as partners.

David Morrison: Right.

Poya Saffari: As people that we were to develop something with. So when we arrived we came with ideas, but we were open to, you know, to the idea that they were going to have a different views.

David Morrison: Crash your ideas.

Poya Saffari: Exactly and that's exactly what happened. And one of the most poignant things they told us was look like you know you're looking 10, 15 years down the road. We haven't even solved, you know, 150 years ago. So your kind of intentions are a little bit misplaced in this situation. We have to kind of first look at the past and the present before we can even work our way toward the future. So it just goes to show you how foresight, like it's not every context and not every situation is necessarily ripe for that kind of approach.

David Morrison: So you all of you sort of experienced some kind of going off the rails and bringing it back on. I'm getting, this is a podcast, so they can't see, but I'm getting lots of nodding heads.

Andreia Santos: Absolutely!

David Morrison: You know it's often said we learn more from our failures than our successes. So, that's probably good. In a personal sense these tools that you worked with – Foresite, design thinking, co-creation – are they new? Are they...I mean, we won't have time to unpack those three concepts, but were they helpful?

Roxanne Hamel: It’s sort of the latest thing or almost the latest thing in policy development. I can talk a bit about co-creation. For us, co-creation, we sort of learned the hard way what that meant. I was working, as I said earlier, on the future of work. It took us a long time to try to define exactly what the problem was with the future of work. I think that everyone here in the room would have a different definition of the challenges ahead in the world of work, and that’s sort of what happened for us, too. It was weeks before we got to a problem that we wanted to solve; everyone had different views. Then when we presented, it was…the problem we had identified was what’s called the gig economy, the rise of contract work, fewer stable jobs. Then, we went to Winnipeg, we met with our stakeholders which in this case were employment agencies, and people who work in the world of employment in Winnipeg, and we presented our problem to them, trying to work with them to find solutions. What they told us was that, for them, the concept of the gig economy didn’t mean anything because Winnipeg is mostly workers anyhow. It’s a city of workers, not many office jobs, everyone is already doing contract work. So then we realized that, well, ok, we can’t define our problem on our own from Ottawa, as young public servants with incredible job stability, we’re not the ones who are going to define what the problem is with the future of work. So we decided that instead of defining the problem and then going to talk to our stakeholders, we were simply going to cut out the step of defining the problem, go to see our stakeholders and ask them what they think, what’s going to happen with the future of work, what won’t be effective, and how, what do we need to solve? And in fact, so it’s, I’m back to the concept of co-creation, it’s not engagement or traditional consultations where we prepare a document or a file or a policy solution and then present it to our stakeholders. It’s really developing the policy as a whole from A to Z with our stakeholders. And for us, that was really a lesson and a success.

David Morrison: So that's sort of the second time I think I've heard you guys say that one of your learnings is you got to get the other people involved really early. And speaking from where I currently sit I think that this that holds true as well for here at Global Affairs. Like consultation does not mean you do your own thing and then you pass the piece of paper around for an afternoon and get inputs. It actually means you start at the beginning and work, you know, work on it together. Problem definition becomes super important, but our system in Global Affairs, but it's replicated across the government doesn't lend itself to that, right? Because everybody has vertical accountabilities rather than incentives to work horizontally. But two of you have said that one of your learnings is that, you know,  it's the old proverb that I think I've used on the podcast before, "if you want to go quickly go alone. If you want to go far go together" and you need to start by going together, it seems. On the issue of your work groups and the diversity within those work groups. How did that play out in terms of what you learned from each other?

Aleena Esmail: As someone who started her career at Global Affairs Canada I have never worked in other government departments. It was an extremely eye opening experience to be able to work with people from different departments. I learned so much about what, you know, people are doing, you know, in British Columbia or, you know, even in other departments in Canada. So that experience was, well I think everyone's experience is quite different and to be able to look at one problem through so many perspectives is pretty unique.

David Morrison: I've also gone through that experience quite recently although at a much later stage of my career. Many...I think we at Global Affairs can lose sight of the fact that for many many departments they deliver services directly to Canadians. They are actually dealing directly with clients and they are the face of the federal government. Other than the consular area where you started, there is not a…and some of the trade stuff where you're dealing directly with companies. We are several steps removed from the Canadians that we're ultimately serving. And that's what the rest of the government does is a thing that I think everybody and the standards to which it is held is a thing I think that everybody at Global Affairs needs to be mindful of.

Andreia Santos: And just we have so much, I think at Global Affairs we tend to look outward for the answers, but we have so many of these answers in our own backyard. Like I remember working on youth issues on the like on the development side of things and then meeting a colleague that worked at the labour program and thinking had I known that there was somebody working on these exact issues and had and has an incredible amount of knowhow I would have, you know, also consulted them instead of looking you know to external stakeholders all the time. So I think sometimes we just don't appreciate the richness of experience that we have in our own backyard. And I think I've developed that reflex to consult my colleagues at other departments much more so than I did before I participated in this project. And I also think that made me think about kind of one of another really powerful lesson was in terms of like your diversity of stakeholders. For example we were working on the feminist government on issues relating to feminist government but we brought together a diversity of stakeholders who weren't necessarily experts in feminism, but like in feminist government, but really really made us think and like unravelled so many of our blind spots like we're like think about this or think about that like, you know, the architect would be like, “well you know buildings need to have lactating rooms” and just things that we wouldn't naturally think of when we spoke to just our, you know, our experts on feminist on feminist governments. And I think that's like if I have a if you know if you're working on a project on refugees like calling your environment expert, because they'll tell you about environmental refugees, calling your architect because they'll tell you about how to build a good you know camp or system or whatever. Like just that diversity of stakeholders and diversity as a thought really makes a difference in terms of program and policy design.

David Morrison: The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland was on some kind of consultation recently and was made aware that in one of the things that would be useful in terms of a feminist approach to foreign policy, but also the department is availability of feminine hygiene products in all of our.

Roxanne Hamel: Yes.

David Morrison: In all of our washrooms worldwide.

Roxanne Hamel: Can I or at least in the vending machines.

David Morrison: Yes, so believe me she has become seized of this issue and her deputy minister and her associate deputy minister have taken this on board and if she's listening I just want her to know that we are seized of the issue. But it is a, I mean I'm partly joking, but it is an extraordinarily powerful thing when you do consult and you think you're going to talk about grand policy and you end up with something that actually matters deeply to people's lives. And where you find out you do hold the keys to fix that particular problem even if it's not the grand strategic problem. You've all shared a couple of things that you've learned. How do you feel about the future? Are you, I mean you're all I for listeners I tried to guess at their ages before they sat down and I did very badly. So we settled on this notion of early career. How are you feeling at the earlier stages of your careers? About the kinds of challenges that Canada is facing and the role that the federal government can play in helping to solve it? Big question, but...

Poya Saffari: I mean I would just say for me, well it really depends on the issues we're talking about. Obviously all of these issues ahead that we had for this project...for this program were definitely incredibly complex and difficult. For reconciliation, I think in a way it was a little bit of the oddball in the sense that it was a problem that we as a team didn't feel we were equipped necessarily to deal with being predominantly non-Indigenous. And also I'll tie it back to your question that I think so for me when it comes to reconciliation in particular I think one of our biggest challenges is having giving Indigenous peoples the voice to be able to actually respond to these challenges in a meaningful way alongside the federal government, through the federal government. And I think that is one that we still have a long way to go on. And my experience kind of in a way highlighted that just because again we were you know we were given this complex problem, but in a way maybe we weren't the right people.

David Morrison: Right.

Poya Saffari: And I think that was a lesson and maybe one that going forward could seed some...

David Morrison: Good lesson to learn. Others optimistic, pessimistic?

Roxanne Hamel: I'm I don't know. I have mixed feelings. I think we are still in the process of figuring out what it is that we want for Canada in the future. And though there is a lot of emphasis on the future of our workforce, on the next generation we have a prime minister that's so keen on advancing youth issues and feminist issues. While we figure out what we want, are we doing, are we putting as much energy in defining what are the key issues will be for Canada in the future. And what, you know, climate change is a big one, but there's major issues that are facing not only Canada, but other nations. And frankly I'm a little worried. And I think partly because I'm a mom as well. I don't know what the world's going to look like for my little son, but I hope that more people can look, have a forward-looking approach at policy development.

David Morrison: So let me switch up the question just a little bit. When Ian Shugart became deputy minister one of his first days actually or first weeks he had to give a speech to all of our Heads of Mission who were gathered here in Ottawa and he used the phrase which I've thought about a lot since about policy and he said something like, “policy is the answer to the question, what are we going to do about this problem?” And when I...I mean I share your, there's some really tricky problems out there. Climate change being a great example, which are actually existential, right? I look at AI in a you know there is a big thing coming, great potential on the upside, great potential or great caution on the downside. And all things cyber would be the same. You know, not many years ago, cyber was going to be the answer to everything. And now it's a thing that we're actually trying to protect ourselves against. So the modified version of the question that I'd like to ask is whether you are given to optimism because of your experience with experimentation and this kind of policy design? So even if you can't, even if some of the questions are really really big and hard, do you believe, do you have reason to believe that the approach that you guys took shows promise in terms of helping to solve some of these problems?

Aleena Esmail: If I can answer that I'm not sure if I would point necessarily to the procedures that we use, but to the people that we met and worked with. You know we have different methods and we have different, you know, ideas of how to approach different problems than those will always change depending on the nature of the problem. But after working with about 80 of these amazing early-career public servants I'm inspired, you know, like I learned so much and I think that, you know, the resolve of these people to tackle these problems. You know the passion that I saw is a really good sign of how we can tackle those issues in the future.

David Morrison: Others?

Andreia Santos: I would yeah. I really just have so much faith in kind of the future of the public service. I mean these are super savvy, super engaged individuals who are genuinely passionate about these big issues and invested in them. So I think that alone, a genuine willingness to make Canada Beyond 150 like a better place for all of us is just is what keeps me, that's what keeps me hopeful. Yeah. I'm feeling really invigorated by all the all my colleagues in the program. For sure.

David Morrison: Poya?

Poya Saffari: No, I mean I would definitely echo the same sentiment. I think for me when I first saw the application for the program and I saw these themes I was a little bit in awe, I just I didn't expect to really see the opportunity to work on these things that a lot of which I really cared about. So that in itself was really encouraging to me. I was a little bit, you know, it just it warmed my heart to know that you know we had the opportunity we were given the chance to kind of work on things that we cared about. And I think that's that it goes to what everyone else is saying like we it brought people to the table that really cared.

David Morrison: Right.

Poya Saffari: And I think that was a, it was a surprise to me in a way and a warming, a good one.

David Morrison: You know this I'm also we'll run out of time, but I'm you know one of the things that I'm curious about is the day-a-week model. You know the Google pioneered the 10-percent model where if you have a cool idea you got to spend 10 percent of your time on it. That created Google Maps, that created Google Earth, you know, because it's actually the people that are like in a decentralized way working on things that can sort of see things that corporate doesn't. So I want to give the last word to Roxanne. Just overall reflection on this method of experimentation and Canada Beyond 150.

Roxanne Hamel: I think that one day a week was, it was an interesting model. I think that it worked well for some of us, less well for others, depending on our workload. But in all cases, I think that it allowed all of us to explore some topics, to explore some processes that we would not have had the chance to learn about otherwise or that we would not have been able to work on otherwise. So I think, overall, it was an extremely rewarding experience for everyone in the program, and we have really been left with a network, a very strong network of contacts, we learned to work with fantastic tools to improve our work here at GAC, and we hope that it will enable us to better contribute to GAC in a significant way.  

David Morrison: And final final question do you guys have any fun or what goes on in Winnipeg stays in Winnipeg?

Aleena Esmail: We created really close friendships with the people that we worked with. Yeah we're going to have a Christmas party next week.

Andreia Santos: A lot of these people are my mentors now, so.

David Morrison: Okay.

Andreia Santos: Can we just give a shout out to Alyssa for championing the Canada Beyond 150 program.

David Morrison: In my books, you can always give a shout out to Alyssa.

Andreia Santos: Yeah and she was kind of instrumental in just, you know, providing advice and really championing us.

David Morrison: Well Alyssa is an example of someone who deeply cares about these issues and about the power of government and of passionate people to affect real change. So, Poya, Andreia, Roxanne and Aleena thanks for coming by. Go out there and solve the problems.

Andreia Santos: Thank you!

Aleena Esmail: Thanks.

Roxanne Hamel: Thank you.

Poya Saffari: Thanks for having us.

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