Transcript – Episode 5: Chat with Patricia Peña

David Morrison: Patricia Pena is Canada’s ambassador to Chili. Not only is this her first HOM posting, it is her first posting period as she is a relatively recent entrant to the Canadian public service. Patricia stopped by my office recently to talk about how her family first came to Canada from Spain, the importance of asking for what you want, taking risks and going with your gut. And how life is going with 3 children and a trailing spouse down in Chili.

David Morrison: Hey Patricia thanks for coming by. You're currently our HOM in Chile, one of Canada's closest friends in the region, land of great red wine. I want to talk to you all about that, but I actually want to start at the beginning because I only recently learned that you are a relatively recent entrant to the public service. Only a decade ago you are already ambassador in Chile. But you're the child of Spanish immigrants. When did your parents come to Canada and why?

Patricia Pena: Hi David, it's funny my identity as an immigrant I only really started crafting it as I became ambassador to Canada. When you leave your country that you kind of have to start your story and I just thought of myself as a Canadian. My parents well they actually met here.

David Morrison: Okay.

Patricia Pena: So my mother left Spain as a 10 year old with her family for political reasons. Life under Franco was a bit difficult, so they sought a better life. A middle-class family, but looking for something different. So she came when she was 10 moved to Toronto. She probably bore more of the brunt of what it's like to come as a young immigrant. My father, economic migrant, left after he finished his high school, went to Germany because that's where he could get a job, did the whole lottery system. Really wanted to go to Australia, but his ticket came up for Canada. And so he landed in Toronto one day and after a few years they met and I have the...the privilege to be, you know, the first member of my family and as far as our family tree can tell to be born outside of Spain and born in Canada.

David Morrison: Where did they meet? They met just randomly in Toronto? Or were they part of, I guess my question is were they part of a diaspora community or did they see themselves almost instantly as Canadian and they just met as two young Canadians?

Patricia Pena: My father lodged with a German family because he didn't actually speak English, he spoke German at the time and so they themselves were immigrants. So he stayed with them for I guess awhile, I'm not quite sure how long. And my grandparents in order to make ends meet, you know they immigrated a bit later in life, having had their family after the Spanish civil war and they, my grandmother ran like a boarding house. So, when you know Spaniards came it was kind of a bit of a stopping point.

David Morrison: Right.

Patricia Pena: And my mom jokes, you know, she had gone to a wedding and met this young guy who was a bit annoying. She gets home from school one day and he is sitting in her kitchen. So he ended up being a boarder now I'm not recommending that as a way to meet necessarily your future partner, but it worked in this instance.

David Morrison: OK.

Patricia Pena: But that's also that it points to the paths that people take when they are...when they're kind of moving to a new country.

David Morrison: Right.

Patricia Pena: And sometimes it isn't obvious and those stopping points of you know other people who have made the path before you and you know.

David Morrison: Sure.

Patricia Pena: Whether it is rooming as is or offering a job to someone that can create sort of a community.

David Morrison: Right. So that's a good segue to your own departure from Canada. You were born in Toronto. You went to U of T and then you went over to the UK to the London School of Economics and for reasons I don't know you stayed. And I'm wondering given your parents story whether that had to do with your husband.

Patricia Pena: So I started at U of T, you know with a modest family, with modest means and a great university in your town, so why would I go anywhere else. I felt hugely privileged. I did go away from my third year and so I got a little bit of a taste for what it was like go abroad. I, you know, when people talk about the benefits of an international education, I mean I felt that.

David Morrison: Right.

Patricia Pena: So I went to France and there was an exchange program between Ontario and the Rhone-Alpes region of France. So I applied and thought well I have nothing to lose. And I got to spend a year there and it really you know the education was great, but it was more the experience of living in a totally different context. And people throw out words like inter-cultural awareness. I lived it as a 20 year old. What is it like to actually have to go and figure out how you're going to buy toothpaste in a country where you're not quite sure how pharmacies work? Or where do you buy toothpaste in this country?

David Morrison: And at that time, were you already speaking French or the goal was to learn French?

Patricia Pena: I already spoke a little bit of French. I did my education, in immersion in Toronto. There were not many people who spoke French. But I was really a francophile, and I realized, I was at the University of Toronto, then I realized that it was good to work during the summer, to earn money. The Ontario Ministry of Education had both English and French language portions. On the French side they paid one dollar more per hour. I have always been very francophile. I speak spanish, so it helped me a little bit. I did not study French in France, I studied politics, but I learned a lot. I came back with a really mixed accent, French-Canadian, French.

David Morrison: But you decided on graduate school?

Patricia Pena: You know actually that was a funny story and it taught me a lot about advocating for yourself. So I actually applied for a few different graduate schools. I applied for scholarships because, you know, I had to find a way to be able to finance this. I didn't have, you know, savings, so I actually applied for a scholarship at the University of Birmingham. It was a very generous one and I had also applied to the London School of Economics and I got the one in Birmingham and I got an entrance to the LSE, but I actually was a bit bold. I, you know I guess in common language maybe I leaned in and I wrote back to the LSE and I said, "I'd love to go to your school. However I got this great scholarship from Birmingham, can you do something for me?" I mean I'm sure I wrote it much more nicely. And surprisingly they came back and two weeks before leaving I changed my mind.

David Morrison: There's a refrain that has come up a couple of times in this podcast, which is you don't get what you don't ask for. So and I guess as you say in modern parlance that's lean in. Any how you went and you stayed and you ended up with a career or a good stretch in local government.

Patricia Pena: So the idea was to go do a nine-month master's at this amazing school and it was fantastic. And I went there with my boyfriend at the time, now my husband. You know we were around this university context and he said you know I think I might want to do a PhD. So we had come over from Canada together and he started a PhD, so then I said to myself I have got to find myself a job.

David Morrison: And is he also Spanish?

Patricia Pena: There aren't that many Spaniards in Canada. Just putting that on the table. But...but we met through a common friend. So, I have been jokingly asked, "was it an arranged marriage?" No, because if it was he would be from the same region that I am, my family is from in Spain. He is from a totally different area. They speak a different language. But yes we're just...

David Morrison: Right.

Patricia Pena: It worked.

David Morrison: Good.

Patricia Pena: So he did a PhD and then I had to find some...some work.

David Morrison: So you worked for a long stretch in the UK and then my understanding is you came back to Canada and into Canadian government in the RPL program, the Recruitment of Policy Leaders. Talk to me about that. And in…in…for listeners this is a mid-career or early mid-career-high flyer type program designed to bring people into government for the first time. And many of the successful applicants have actually studied or worked abroad. So it is my assumption is it's by design trying to get new blood, new ideas into the Canadian policy, the federal policymaking system. But I've always found it a bit of a strange mix with foreign affairs because you don't come in as rotational. But you came to CETA, why?

Patricia Pena: When you come back and I thought to myself I have always done public service. That's actually probably one of the uniting threads in my background, whether it was working at the ministry of education in Ontario as a summer student, going to the UK and having to make a choice. I had a job offer at Mars, the chocolate company. I found they had a graduate program, I thought this is kind of neat and then I got the offer from what eventually became the Electoral Commission's equivalent to Elections Canada. And I just I have always gone with my gut. It felt right to go to the public service side. So I came back here and I thought this is great, you know, I have something to offer. I have done public service in other countries and other spaces. I can, I should be able to do this in Ottawa for my own government. And it was, you know, it was remarkably hard to find an entry point that didn’t require me to take on a student entry job. I had 10 years of experience.

David Morrison: Right.

Patricia Pena: So this policy leaders program was really like one of my only options other than taking on temporary work, which, you know, I kind of felt like I should be able to get in, not entitled, but I had enough to offer.

David Morrison: You felt you could, right.

Patricia Pena: With the amount of jobs that there are in this government there should be a space for me somewhere.

David Morrison: And you came in at the director level?

Patricia Pena: No I didn't actually. So I had, I mean and it was a bit of a leap of faith because I had a very senior job in the UK. I was overseeing all of the political financing in the whole country for four elections. And I came in as what was at the time an EC6, so a policy analyst. But you know I had faith.

David Morrison: Right.

Patricia Pena: I really wanted to participate. And I said okay well I'll take this as a starting point. If it doesn't work out then I'll look at something else, but it felt right. And so I for a development agency, which I had never done any development.

David Morrison: But do you consider yourself a risk taker? You know there are lots of criticisms of the public service and of public servants as not taking enough risks. You did, but I'm wondering whether you think of yourself like that.

Patricia Pena: I think so. I think I am more comfortable with trying to do things differently, but they are qualified risks. Like I am taking the risk because I actually think that not doing anything is worse.

David Morrison: Right, not doing anything is a choice as well.

Patricia Pena: Yes, one of the things that we have to do better and one of my personal kind of interests is measuring the opportunity cost of what we are doing. And that's, you know, when...when you decide to sit that is actually a cost, but we are not very good at evaluating it. Whereas stepping out, you know, on an edge or questioning a rule or trying to push the boundaries of something, you know, it's not comfortable, but it's the right thing to do sometimes. And I'm willing to take the responsibility. But you know it doesn't always work out. Sometimes...sometimes I have to step back from the ledge and get in and cover myself with a blanket.

David Morrison: But it seems to have worked for you, because were at CIDA when I arrived in 2012. You had a very strong reputation despite having only a couple of years before then. Never had any experience in international development. Talk to me about your time at CIDA and what you brought with you into the amalgamation in 2013.

Patricia Pena: So I came into CIDA with a firm kind of belief in the importance of democratic governance, human rights issues, transparency and inclusion. These are things that I had done in my job in the UK but were also personal interests from my studies. And I was able to continue these. I mean for me CIDA was this world of learning and experience, people so committed to what they are doing, that was you know I wanted to come to work every day. So maybe I hadn't studied it before, maybe I hadn't worked in the field. But I felt that there was a link there. And it was a great place to work. And I would say that culture is what really kind of sealed the deal for me to join. I felt it immediately that this is a place where I can be a contributor, but also come in as a manager. And I would say I have been given a lot of opportunities, but I really tried to focus on being a good manager with and for people. And that's one of the things that I think I can carry with you regardless of what you are doing.

David Morrison: So let's probe that a bit.

David Morrison: What is a good manager? What is the Patricia Pena philosophy of being a good manager because everybody wants to be that, but…and you certainly have that reputation. But what do you...what's your secret?

Patricia Pena: I don't think there is a secret. I'm always trying to, let me see, I listen, I try to listen better. It's something that I had to work at because usually the clues are out there and ideas are out there. I try and focus on how can I work through people, so not do things myself, but get others to either join an idea or...or empower them to deliver it. I try and build teams that are varied. I am very conscious of the fact that your natural tendency is to associate yourself with those that are just like you. And I have deliberately tried to, you know, and without being stereotypical, you know the loud one and the quiet one, you know make sure you can kind of build teams around that.

David Morrison: Phyllis Yaffe who's our Consul General in New York told me at one point that if, you know, you're spending time with us if you are a leader and you're spending time with people that agree with you you're not doing your job. So there really is something to be said for…for diverse viewpoints, but still as…as leaders in the public sector actually getting the best out of people is…is a real art. Which is why I agree with you when you say it's there's no simple answer to the question that I was trying to ask you. So you worked at CIDA in a number of capacities you like many of us came across the river at the time of the amalgamation from the CIDA headquarters to 125 Sussex. At that time did you realize that a new vista was opening up to you in terms of foreign postings?

Patricia Pena: The amalgamation, I call it the six months of baptism of fire because the team that I had been working with was mixed in with a whole new team that really was this example of what it meant to, you know, I like the French term fusion. You know the fusion of different works, so we had people that came from what was quote unquote traditional form policy work. We had a few people who'd worked on trade issues and then we had a team that had been working on development. And day one, they actually had to geographically be sitting beside one another. These people had never worked together.

David Morrison: Right. And this was in the…this was in the M branch which went from being purely multilateral at CIDA to doing a whole number of things in the…at Global Affairs.

Patricia Pena: So it was a time of great uncertainty and you realize that people adapt and face change

David Morrison: in different.

Patricia Pena: In very different ways. And it was very hard for some people. So we talked about it a lot. I…we tried to set up a bit more of an open space, so not the kind of cubicle culture in the same way and build camaraderie so a lot of, and frankly I think at the beginning some people thought we were just doing a whole bunch of things, we’re wasting their time and diverting them from the real work.

David Morrison: From the real work, sure.

Patricia Pena: But building up that kind of that culture of working together and interaction I think really helped out. So it was quite good. I think, you know, a team of 40 people about a third coming from different spaces and within a year we had, you know, we got our mojo and you know there was this one moment where I found myself in Washington at a meeting of the World Bank where I was sitting in a meeting on climate change and where I looked at my notes and it was this aha moment where in two lines it talked about a pressing geopolitical challenge to climate change the impact on people living in developing countries.

David Morrison: So you worked in the same capacity for three or four years. So you really saw it through and then you put your name forward to be a head of mission and listeners can't see, but Patricia is smiling at me because that was a pretty big jump. You have told me that you… it just wasn't on the radar screen not…not because you didn't want to be a head of mission but there's a lifestyle choice that you make and that you make your family make in a certain sense. So talk to me about that. I mean I if I had my postings I think are mostly behind me because if I suggested it I think my children would…would mutiny. You have three girls all of a sudden they're at the other end of the hemisphere in English or French or Spanish-speaking schools. Anyhow, huge…a huge decision for you guys as a family last summer. So talk to me about that.

Patricia Pena: Yeah I mean I…I met colleagues that say, you know, all I have ever wanted to do was be in the foreign service. I've never had that idea of pursuing a particular job. But I've always had an international orientation. Whether it's studying abroad, part of my academic studies were kind of looking at international issues, travelling. So there was always this other thread which was kind of international. And you know when I reflect on what I've done for the last four years before going out. I think it was diplomacy, we don’t talk about it that way. I would go to negotiating tables, I’d sit beside all these other countries, there would be a flag in front of me and I would press the buzzer and I would speak and deliver speeches and so I was doing diplomacy but not with this title of ambassador.  

David Morrison: Right.

Patricia Pena: So making it work for my family I mean I've got three kids, two are teenagers. One is younger, seven and I think they always knew it was on the radar, so I had kind of laid the little seeds for doing this, but making it work at this point in time. And I couldn’t share information with them until it was happening. So you know it's been, they, I have to say, you know, they were willing to go for it. They complained. I am going to miss my friends. It's the unknown. And also for my husband, my partner. You know, we are a great family that works because we're both working.

David Morrison: Now is he on leave?

Patricia Pena:  He’s the reason we came back to Canada. He’s a Professor at Carleton and he's actually been able to continue working, which is pretty amazing. Studies are changing in university, a lot more courses online. And so he put his hand up to teach…to teach online courses. And so as far as his students are concerned, they don't know where he is. It’s an exciting time for him too because we get to, you know, do this adventure together. But also for him professionally, learning a different way, being a university professor. So he's just finished his first course and I think it has gone pretty well. It was a bit of a rush to, you know, kind of change things and then figure out a new way of viewing his work, but also stepping into this role of (inaudible).

David Morrison: So I'm interested in that because in a certain sense the, your whole family gig has changed. I was down in Santiago at some point earlier this year and…and Patricia was kind enough to host a lunch or a dinner for me at the residence. And one is always conscious at such times that I, you know, kids are somewhere and your husband is somewhere and ,you know, one feels ever so slightly one’s intruding on…on…on your family life, but you carried it off with great aplomb as if you'd been doing it forever. But like how does…how does that work in a family sense when you have the likes of me and other strangers frankly traipsing through your…your living room and dining room.

Patricia Pena:  I think it's been helped by the fact that before we went I put all the cards on the table. I said this is what it's going to be like. You're going to live in a house that's a working house. We already were quite social as a family so the idea of having big dinners didn't come as a surprise the fact that they don't have a seat at the table always.

David Morrison: Do they get the leftovers?

Patricia Pena: They get nice leftovers. I think they’re okay, they wouldn’t have dessert every day otherwise. And actually it’s funny that you would mention that because during that dinner which I think you know it was really great it's part of what I'm doing regularly. So my husband did a Skype call with one of his students in a room somewhere else then. The kids came back from soccer so a bit of carpooling going on. They had their dinner. But then after everyone left we had a bit of a…a get together ourselves and just kind of finish the day with a bit of a chat. And you have to be flexible. You know there are some good days and there are some not so great days. I think that some of those might be due to the fact that I just had teenagers.

David Morrison: Right.

Patricia Pena: But sometimes, you know, they are due to the fact that there’s been so much change and that's when I have to say to myself, “okay, you know what? I'm going to not attend something for the next day and I’m just going to focus”. It’s part of my own well-being, it’s part of their well-being and just chilling out.

David Morrison: Yeah. It sounds a lot like family life in Ottawa sometimes with the challenges. You…you get to work in the capital city of a country which is one of Canada's closest partners. You, new government, they're like-minded with Canada in almost all ways. What have been the challenges? I mean when things are going so well between the two countries and you’re the rep is it all sort of milk and honey? Or what do…what do you struggle with in the professional side of what you are doing?

Patricia Pena: I mean the timing of my arrival as an ambassador was I think very interesting because you're sort of saying goodbye to an existing government, but then also finishing up initiatives. And then you’re really looking ahead to see, “okay, this is great. There’s this new team, we have this great relationship. How do we make sure we keep it great?” and I think that’s sometimes more challenging because the initial reaction for people can be, “oh, Chilie. That's all great, that's all good, you’re fine. And then they turn their attention to something else more pressing. So I think one of the challenges is keeping the attention. There's a lot of enthusiasm. I worry about over promising, under delivering on the part of the bilateral relationship you know there are so many tangents. You know, not to name specifics but it’s very diverse, you know, we got fisheries with a government that is still figuring out its plans and priorities, that’s shooting on all cylinders. But you can't deliver on all of those. So I think one of my initial challenges is how do you stay focused, how to you find those best areas where you can both work together in the most effective way. I find the government very open. I can, you know, there’s…there’s good relationships with Canadians, good understanding of Canada and they're looking forward to hosting APEC.

David Morrison: Yes.

Patricia Pena: You know that's in a year and a half time so now we’re May 2018, by the end of this year, so in the end of 2018 they'll be hosting their first meetings and meeting up to a full year of what is an Asia Pacific oriented local discussion on a variety of themes and I can see they’re looking there and I’m looking there too, so that's my second challenge.

David Morrison: Okay, so great days ahead Patricia. We'll follow that closely. Peru did the same thing this year so that coast of Latin America is certainly looking to Asia. And I know you'll be right there with them. This has been terrific. Thanks for coming by. You have told listeners that you've leaned in and you've asked when you thought it appropriate. You said to go with your gut and you've said that sometimes you have to have a little faith. And those all certainly strike me is…as words to live by. So thanks for coming by and all the best.

Patricia Pena: Thank you so much David, this was actually a lot of fun.

David Morrison: OK bye.

Date Modified: