Transcript – Episode 24: Chat with Antoine Pouliot

David Morrison: Antoine Pouliot works in the area of mission support at Global Affairs Canada, where he’s developing programs around cultural diplomacy. His pre-GAC life included stints at an advertising agency and as a kind of impresario for a major youth event hosted in Ottawa called One Young World. Antoine came by the GAC Files recently to talk about his family in Quebec City, including how an illness suffered by his father shaped his own outlook on life, and how what he learned in the private sector is applicable to what he is now doing at GAC. Antoine Pouliot, it is great to see you. You work in the Mission Support division here at Global Affairs headquarters on advocacy and cultural diplomacy. So we are gonna talk about that a little bit later. I do want to start in Quebec City, where you have told me you grew up in a bilingual household but were considered Anglo because you spoke English. Tell me about your family background in Quebec City.

Antoine Pouliot: Absolutely. Well first off, thanks so much for having me on the podcast, David. I think this podcast is something really, really special for the department in terms of telling our stories to each other, but also to Canadians kind of more broadly at large. Yeah, I grew up in Quebec City and on a small place called Île d’Orléans. I was adopted, and an only child, and came into a family, yeah, that had a strong connection to the St. Lawrence and to seafaring. So, yeah, my father was a maritime pilot on the St. Lawrence. And my family has a bit of a history going back in that I believe I’m the first male in about four generations to not become a pilot or a ship captain or something like that. We do have some of my cousins, who are continuing on that tradition, which lives on. But it’s a tremendously interesting profession. It’s a nexus to the world.

David Morrison: Help us, because I found this extraordinarily cool. The profession, or what your father and grandfather did, they were pilots, so the ships would come up the St. Lawrence and then at a certain point they’d go out on a tugboat, or they go and they take over the bridge, or how does it work?

Antoine Pouliot: Yes, so they climb up a rope ladder in all kinds of weather. Now sometimes it’s a gangway. In day or night, rain, sleet, snow—you name it—and then act as an adviser to the captain aboard a ship, and sort of help share their local knowledge of that particular stretch of river that’s a very difficult-to-navigate stretch of river. And that so many of the goods that are shipped around the world pass through. So you really get a sense, even though this happens in your own backyard, but just how connected the world is.

David Morrison: Do they all work together? Or do they work on their own account? If I’ve got some cargo to take out of Canada from the Great Lakes and I have to pass by that tricky bit of water, do I call your family?


Antoine Pouliot: There are different authorities, depending on the stretch of river, with about 50 to 100 pilots or so that specialize in a given area, and then they pass the baton as you go down the river.

David Morrison: And you told me that when your father was quite young, in fact, it wasn’t an accident, but he had a cerebral hemorrhage. And what happened? He lost his livelihood?

Antoine Pouliot: Yes, absolutely, yes. My father was 52 years old when he had a rather serious CVA [cerebrovascular accident]. It really came out of nowhere, and as a result he could no longer speak, he was partially paralyzed, he had trouble walking, he lost the use of one arm. For us it was an overwhelming shock. It’s the kind of thing that can happen from one day to the next, and then suddenly your life is very, very different. But I think—

David Morrison: How old were you?

Antoine Pouliot: I was 14.

David Morrison: Yeah.

Antoine Pouliot: Yeah, yeah. But, no, going through all that, it was quite an experience that really made it possible to imagine a very, very different empathy, I would say. The notion of resilience and of care as well, and that it doesn’t just affect one person, it affects an entire family.

David Morrison: The whole family, sure.

Antoine Pouliot: So my mom’s been a caregiver for him ever since. And so, yeah, they’re really a real example of courage and of character, I would say, as well, in that my dad can’t speak, but we’re able to have a conversation just through being expressive. And it’s surprising how much you can have an exchange that way. So, you learn to become very, very patient, but you also, as part of a recovery like that, you also learn to become really impatient in a way, and push really, really hard to get what you want. But I think coming back from all of that you get a sense that life is very, very short and that we have to be really deliberate in how we spend that time, and—

David Morrison: So that’s how you have demonstrated your own resilience, is—

Antoine Pouliot: Absolutely.

David Morrison: —is trying to live that, it seems.

Antoine Pouliot: Yeah. Yeah.

David Morrison: It’s interesting what different people feature and what they tell us before they come on this podcast. And I did want to probe a little bit, because it’s obviously that family experience has obviously shaped who you’ve become. You decided, four or five years later, I guess, to move to Ottawa and undertake your university here, and after work in Parliament. Was Trade Team Canada your first connection with this department?

Antoine Pouliot: Yeah, absolutely. So there’s an organization called Global Vision, which runs a program called Junior Team Canada, which is modeled after the old Team Canada missions. And that program has been around for a little while now. It started in 91, when globalization was at a different point than it is today and where “global” wasn’t really that buzzword. But where kind of the realization that if Canada was going to be an economy that would play globally, that young people had to be engaged because we are a trading nation in that from a young age. So I was lucky enough when I was 17 to be part of a youth-led trade mission to Brazil, which was a huge eye-opening experience.

David Morrison: You were at the University of Ottawa?

Antoine Pouliot: I wasn’t even yet. I was just coming out of high school, actually, about to go into CEGEP [junior college], and that really opened my eyes. It’s an amazing program. And I think the biggest take-away from that is that there is a pretty wide age range. It went from about 17 to 30 years old, but some of the top, top people were actually some of the youngest. And we were able to have access to some pretty amazing leaders and rooms and C-level people in finance or in ag-industry, a whole bunch of different drivers that you don’t necessarily see as a consumer, but that are really, really big and important economic players. And to realize that even if you’re 17, that you can sit across the table with some degree of credibility and talk about businesses from your part of Canada, from your community, that are looking to export on the world stage, is something pretty special. And I think for the different—I ended up working with them a few years later, so I’ve been on quite a few trade missions and summits with them. But I think what’s really interesting is working with missions, because for missions in a lot of places, what better ambassadors for the messages and the values that Canada stands for than having young people be at the forefront of that.

David Morrison: But you’ve also had the opportunity, I think, to travel quite a bit here in Canada.

Antoine Pouliot: Yes, absolutely.

David Morrison: You told me that knowing your own country is almost essential to be an effective representative. You’ve travelled throughout Canada?

Antoine Pouliot: Yeah, yeah, I was lucky enough through that program. A lot of the outreach we did was to go from coast to coast to coast. So we went all around, including to the North, because, yeah, there’s amazing stories to be told throughout our own country. A lot of southerners don’t get to go up North and see what is really a very, very different life than we live in the south. But all across the country it was really interesting to see amazing, amazing talented young people who are already leading companies, who are already sometimes even inking deals abroad at 21, 22 years old. They’re running for office in their own community. You see that out there. And I think it’s something that due to the nature of our work, where there is a certain degree of hierarchy, and of time, throughout a system such as ours, it’s really interesting to see how active young people are at a certain age.

David Morrison: You abandoned the family business by not becoming a ship’s captain or pilot. You do some pretty cool stuff early on in Ottawa and around public policy, public service. I may have the order wrong, but because I do want to talk about One Young World and that part of your experience. But for some time, you were a partner in an ad agency.

Antoine Pouliot: Yeah, that was an amazing adventure.

David Morrison: So that’s real-life private sector experience, where you had to meet payroll and develop clients and so on. So tell us about that.

Antoine Pouliot: Yeah, absolutely. I was a—I left Ottawa for a little while I was working in Toronto for an organization called Global Citizen in the international development space and building the movement and extreme poverty through engaging with the governments and companies and citizen movements. And I had an opportunity to come back and work with some good friends of mine through an agency called Jack Pine. And Jack Pine was a pretty interesting model and pretty radical idea around how to structure a creative business like that, where it was all about bringing very, very diverse creative perspectives together. People from different walks of life, different professions, rather than only having graphic designers and people who study marketing. To put those people together and really delve into emerging culture and through that to garner business insights that would be valuable for business decision-making. So we did design, we did branding, all of those different things, a lot working in a lot of different disciplines. A little bit of urbanism, a little bit of spatial design. We designed restaurants, we worked with auto racetracks, we worked with hotels and developers and professional associations, all of those different types of clients. Very, very different businesses where we weren’t necessarily the experts in their business. What we were experts in was a process, about bringing together creative people and walking them step by step through an understanding process to then garner creative insights that would be useful for businesses.

David Morrison: So what did you? I mean, I’m sold. I would hire you. What did you, why did you do that? And what did you learn that you still think back to? Because it is actually, and I know you didn’t do it for that long, but it is actually quite rare amongst public servants to have had an experience where you feel the pressure to sell. You feel the pressure to meet payroll. Or maybe I’m getting it wrong, maybe you felt different pressures. But what did you learn from your experience?

Antoine Pouliot: Yeah, absolutely. Well I think, first of all, what drew me to working there was to learn, right! And I think for the time I kind of came out of university was right after the financial crisis. There was very much a sense among our cohort in those years­—I graduated in 2011 from my undergraduate. But there really was a sense that you would have to take your career into your own hands and that you had to be more entrepreneurial. You had to go and get really, really unique experiences to differentiate yourself. And so that experience was really interesting. But really, what I took away from it really was running a business. I was vice-president there. We had a team of 12 full-time, plus some freelancers. Yeah, thinking on your feet, problem-solving, because ultimately the buck stops with you. So if you’re facing a problem or an issue you’re gonna have to be the one who really solves that and you’re gonna have to do it quick. And so you become really, really creative, you become really, really fearless because you have to just to keep going. But it was a heck of a lot of fun. It was a wild ride. I remember that the first project I ever did, the day I moved to Ottawa, was we designed and built a restaurant in seven days. And I got a phone call in the U-Haul as I was moving to Ottawa that I would be the person managing that project. And so, yeah, so many experiences like that. It’s sort of almost like a strange, real-world MBA of sorts, where even though after that I’ve done quite a few things, that was probably actually one of the biggest challenges that I—

David Morrison: That you’ve taken on.

Antoine Pouliot: Yeah.

David Morrison: So let’s switch to One Young World. I’m sitting in front of some photographs of young Antoine with the Prime Minister, with Cher. [Antoine laughs] So there’s a little bling to this guy. And what you’ve told me is—I mean, there’s an extraordinary photograph with the Peace Tower in the background. But what you’ve told me is the first time that the lawn of the Centre Block was used for something other than Canada Day. So what is, or was, One Young World and what was your role?

Antoine Pouliot: Absolutely. So, One Young World is a forum that brings together really top, top young leaders from around the world and from basically every sector out there. And we worked as a group in Ottawa, in partnership with Mayor [Jim] Watson, in partnership with Ottawa Tourism, on a bid to bring it to Ottawa. It had never been to Canada before. And we won that bid. We beat out two fairly large Asian cities with much larger economic basins than Ottawa to do that. And part of the reason we did that was about this story of young people in our city and how they’re at the centre of so much of the big changes that are going around, whether that’s in government, whether that’s in tech, whether that’s in the public affairs or political space, the civic space, you name it, urbanism. And so One Young World brings together—we had young leaders from 194 countries, which is pretty special in and of itself. Only the Olympics bring together—

David Morrison: And there’s only 193 members of the UN.

Antoine Pouliot: Exactly. Exactly. So we brought them together. And you bring them together with global leaders. So we did have Prime Minister Trudeau and the Prime Minister’s Youth Council as a big part of that, but we also had world leaders and business leaders as well. So people like Kofi Annan, Professor Muhammad Yunus, Mary Robinson, and a few people from the entertainment world who are very involved with social impact and social causes.

David Morrison: I was going to say, Cher is not young.

Antoine Pouliot: Yeah. No, no. But Cher does a lot of great work around the environment and climate change, and around LGBTI rights. And people like Emma Watson, who does great work with HeForShe. And you bring these people together. Meghan Markle was part of it as well. But beyond all that, part of what that helps with is just sharing this story through mass media and the fact that attention is such an important thing in our busy and noisy world today. That to break through and talk about some of these issues with a big platform you have to bring those types of leaders to the table. But really, it was all about the young people that they were with. I mean Kofi Annan brought a group of 10 exceptional, we would call them human rights defenders, but exceptional young people who were taking action to counter radicalization and violent extremism, some of whom had very, very powerful personal stories. I think of some of the young women fighting for gender rights in the Middle East and the right to drive. I think of the founder of the first LGBTI organization in Iraq. He’s young, he’s under 30.

And so you bring these people together with corporate leaders, with government leaders, with leaders of social movements and technology companies, and get them to work together on very, very concrete solutions to some of these big issues. So that was the pitch. That’s why we did it. And it was, yeah, it was an amazing—I think it was a really good thing for Canada and a really good thing for Ottawa as well, as a capital. And that whole piece about our, Canada’s role as a convener, of bringing people to the table to have these conversations. And the importance of not just conversations, but actions.

David Morrison: It sounds like Davos, but with less gray hair.

Antoine Pouliot: Yeah.

David Morrison: So after all that, you join the department proper.

Antoine Pouliot: I did, I did.

David Morrison: You came in two years ago I think. Have you worked in mission support since then?

Antoine Pouliot: Yeah.

David Morrison: So we met each other then when I was ADM [assistant deputy minister] Americas. You started on a term. And for listeners, there is a unit that shows up on the organigram as part of the Americas Branch, but it’s actually, it provides support to our network of missions worldwide. So it supports all of the geographic branches plus the multilateral branch, which looks after the missions to the UN system, and so on. There’s also the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development]. But in any event, this is a group that provides vital services and planning and some financial management when it gets to the administration of certain funds, including a cultural fund that I want to talk about in a second. But did you answer a job ad to come in to do that? Or how did you actually come in?

Antoine Pouliot: Not exactly. And I was thinking back about that, actually. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a job through a job ad, which is partially from where I had my experience before. But I think it’s also, it speaks to—

David Morrison: I’ve—you know those ads in the Economist magazine? I’ve gotten jobs through those.

Antoine Pouliot: Wow!

David Morrison: So it does work.

Antoine Pouliot: Whatever works. Whatever works.

David Morrison: But I interrupted you. Tell me, how did you find out about coming to GAC and taking that kind of a position?

Antoine Pouliot: Absolutely. So, it was not planned. If you had asked me a few years back if I would have ended up here, I had been exposed to the department quite a bit through my work before, but the public service was not a natural desire for me, nor was necessarily this department a few years ago. And what changed was, partially, the situation in the world, and in a way world events are going where I think that with the focus not just of our government, but with the dynamics of international relations right now, we’re going to have a lot of work ahead. And I think the younger generation is going to have to sort of take this on and push the ball a little bit further than the generation before. So I actually, when I was running One Young World, so my role there I was the Canada director there. We were based in London and I was kind of the boots on the ground here in Canada with one staff person and an amazing team of volunteers and partners at Ottawa Tourism. But really it was a fairly small, nimble organization. And I met someone at a music festival, who worked at the Privy Council Office. This music festival had a whole panel series on reconciliation and we started chatting after that, made a connection, and then that person knew someone here who was looking for people, and the stars kind of aligned that way. I recognize that it’s fairly typical, and I was very, very fortunate to have that opportunity come at that particular time. Yeah.

David Morrison: Do you think that what you were looking for had also changed? Were you thinking longer term about things like job security? I’m always fascinated by why we make the choices we do. You ran an advertising house or were senior in an advertising house, you did some pretty cool project work, Cher and Kofi Annan do not usually frequent Global Affairs. Did you consciously trade off this sort of high-profile thing you were doing for the relative security and obscurity of Global Affairs?

Antoine Pouliot: I think it’s a question of scale. What’s really special here is the scale of impact that we can have through an organization the size of ours. Even though we’re a medium-sized country, we can have some pretty outsized impact in some very, very specific areas, and that’s kind of what drew me to that. And, yeah, bringing that together and I felt that I precisely because I had a bit of an outside perspective, I thought that would be a good match. Coming from a little bit of a different background. There’s no standard background here. But, yeah, it was a little bit different that way. And, yeah, I wanted to take that decision, though very much with a long-term vision in mind. Yes, I could have come in and done a few years and then gone back out if it didn’t work out. That’s fine. But ultimately, it’s to say there’s a lot to learn in this business. A lot to learn and it takes a long time to do that. So you need—

David Morrison: The scale of the platform matters.

Antoine Pouliot: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

David Morrison: Now, above all, Canada can actually lead and that’s attractive to many of us. You started as a term, I ran into you in the cafeteria the day you landed an indeterminate contract. So you now have that security. We’re going to run out of time, but I would like to hear a little bit about cultural diplomacy, which seems to be a passion of yours.

Antoine Pouliot: Yeah, absolutely. So I joined actually at a really interesting time, and we were starting to look at culture and how Canadian art can be used as a conversation platform around some of the biggest foreign policy issues that we work on in a very, very specific convening role. So a lot of our work, we work in advocacy, which is the space of helping missions influence and the tactics they can use to become better at influencing decision makers, influencers, the public, etc. And then on the culture side I’m kind of rebuilding the capacity and the toolbox for missions to work with local cultural institutions and work with Canadian artists in terms of being a very, very unique platform to have conversations, that can sometimes be difficult conversations, about some really, really big issues. So it’s all about that, helping missions get access.

It can be a bit of a golden ticket when you have an amazing Canadian artist coming to town that speaks to a theme like LGBTI rights or that speaks to art in a post-conflict situation, or—there’s a number of different contexts when that can happen. But we hear it all the time from heads of mission who are really, really thankful to have that tool to bring people together, because local contacts pay attention. And in a lot of parts of the world, to be considered a serious political player you need to be active in the cultural space as well. So that’s part of what we’re building right now.

There’s a trade aspect to it and we work very closely with the Trade Commissioner Service and Canadian Heritage, Canada Council for the Arts. But bringing it back together, and I would be remiss if I didn’t point out we have a few really, really amazing locally engaged staff without whom building this back up as an area that the department is active in, that wouldn’t have been possible. So folks who’ve been around for 20, 30 years who’ve maintained contacts in institutions and who allowed us to build that back up. So it’s a really, really interesting time right now. Submissions are coming up with some really, really innovative ways of engaging locally through Canadian artists and culture. And not in an instrumental way, but really using it as a platform for exchange and collaboration.

David Morrison: I’ve just returned last night from Paris, where the cultural centre, which has existed for years, but was not co-located with the embassy, is now actually part of the embassy, or is sort of next door. You go in a common door. But that’s a great model for getting people into the building and pursuing all sorts of agendas, as you had said. Final question, Antoine. Now that you have landed the coveted indeterminate contract, what are you looking at for the future? Are you going to try to stick with cultural diplomacy or move elsewhere?

Antoine Pouliot: Ah, it’s hard to say. There’s so many interesting challenges that we work on as a department. Right now there’s some great ones in culture and advocacy that I’m working on. So I’ve just been entrusted with a very small, but mighty, team working on some of these issues. So right now my big priority is to build that out and support our team that way. But I think in the long run, very open to a lot of the different challenges, whether they’re internationally, whether they’re here. There’s a lot of, I think, change management discussions about how our work is evolving. You’ve chaired the Missions of the Future discussion, which brings out a lot of these issues about how the world is changing, how we’re changing. The department is a technology company now. That’s part of our business. But yeah, a lot of different policy challenges. And people. People’s a big space. How we bring people on, how we train people, how we get the right skills in the right places in a business that’s very much evolving. Those are interesting files. Those are interesting challenges.

David Morrison: Those are interesting questions. Antoine Pouliot, it’s been a pleasure, thank you for coming and good luck.

Antoine Pouliot: Thank you very much, David.

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