Transcript – Episode 52: A chat with the GAC Government of Canada Workplace Charitable Campaign champion and co-champion along with GAC employees and volunteers

Welcome to the GAC Files, a podcast about the people, issues and ideas driving Global Affairs Canada.

And now, introducing your host, Global Affairs Canada's Deputy Minister of International Trade John Hannaford.

John Hannaford: Hello, everyone, and welcome to another conversation regarding our community within our department.

This is a conversation about our charitable campaign.

This is a really important topic for us. You know, this is, every year we collectively contribute to the overall well-being of our society in general through the charitable campaign. And it's an opportunity for us not only to make that kind of contribution, but also to reflect a little bit on how fortunate we are to be in the positions that we are in and to be in a position to contribute to the well-being of others.

That's one of the things that drives most of us in the public service generally, and this is a very specific application of that and is a real opportunity. And so I'm delighted to have a chance to chat with a series of colleagues who are contributing in various ways to the campaign and also to civil society and to the well-being of others very directly.

We have Mala Khanna who is our champion this year for the charitable campaign and in her day job as Assistant Deputy Minister for Sub-Saharan Africa. We have Marissa Fortune, who is our co-champion for Global Affairs and is an Analyst for the International Assistance Envelope Management in the International Assistance Policy Bureau. But we also have a couple other guests: Hasnat Johnson, who is a Senior Policy Analyst for Data Results and Delivery, and Jérémie Bérubé, both of whom will discuss some of their experiences working very directly with people.

But we'll start with Mala. Mala, I guess I'm kind of interested in hearing your experiences in steering the campaign this year. It's obviously, it is a challenging period in which to be operating a campaign given that we are still largely working remotely. But, you know, the fact that we are working remotely also reminds us the challenges that we have all going through, and that's particularly felt in some of the most vulnerable parts of our community. So I'm just kind of interested in the experience that you've had so far where you see, you know, our successes and where you see some of the things that we need to collectively kind of think about.

Mala Khanna: Great. Thank you very much. I couldn't agree with you more. So first of all, as champion, I am just so proud to have that role and really inspired by the work that's done by Global Affairs employees every day. And so I think that this campaign just, it so naturally flows from that. You know, a big part of the mandate and the mission of Global Affairs is about giving and acting and caring. And so this is really an opportunity to have a very concrete application in our community. And I think, what I think right now, you know, is we have a year—more than a year—of having lived through this pandemic and all of the challenges that that has brought with it. And, but we've also learned a lot. We've learned how to do the virtual. And so, I think, you know, with the give-a-thon, which we had to launch the campaign, that was just such a great way of really using that virtual platform to bring people together and really talk about why, why this matters, why it's important for us as public servants to give. And I really think, and I'm really looking forward to hearing from others, but my own sense in sort of playing a role on this campaign is there's a real dynamism and a real energy. And I think part of it is also that, you know, COVID has been hard and this campaign feels like a really positive antidote to that. And so I think that's what people are responding to. I think that's, anyway, what I feel like I'm responding to.

There are other areas where we have learned about organizing events safely in person. For example, many branches have organized outdoor events such as walk-a-thons. Marissa, my co-champion, and I have heard a number of people say that in addition to giving back to our communities, the campaign has served as a way to connect with one another.

On a personal level, I have been with the department for a little over a year, and I joined the department right in the middle of a pandemic. This campaign has allowed me to meet new colleagues, such as Marissa, the core team, which does a great job behind the scenes and, of course, the branch ambassadors.

John Hannaford: Excellent. And one source of that energy is obviously our colleagues—and our slightly younger colleagues, probably, in particular.

Marissa, what has been your experience regarding the campaign and what motivates your leadership, and what are some ways to increase the level of engagement for our community in general?

Marissa Fortune: Yes, thank you. First of all, I agree with everything Mala has already said about what motivates her. For my part, a number of reasons pushed me to volunteer for the campaign this year. For me, it's all about connection. Personally, I know—and I know it's the case for many young employees—I started my position at Global Affairs Canada during the pandemic, when I wasn't living in Ottawa, and that meant I didn't have the opportunity to meet my colleagues in person, or have a sense of connection to the workplace.

It's no secret that the pandemic has caused a lot of isolation, so for me, the GCWCC is something that helps us come together, engage, meet our colleagues and also motivate us to do good in our community. And the second reason I wanted to participate is I think it's important to prioritize generosity early on in your career and therefore to make it a habit. Mala and I have talked a lot about this concept of the habit of generosity that resonates within us and it's not something that happens by accident. It's something you have to cultivate intentionally and it's easier to do when you're young and still discovering how to live in line with your values.

So, when you make generosity a part of your life, it becomes a part of you, and so, I wanted to take a concrete step in that direction and encourage other young employees to do the same.

And finally, I wanted to join the campaign to get more young people on board, and to show that even though our financial contributions are modest, our voices are strong and our impact is important.

And as for me, even though I didn't always have a lot of money to give, I gave in other ways, such as through volunteering and advocacy work, and I want to use this co-championship to highlight the importance of these contributions, which are just as important as financial donations because they contribute to the impact and sustainability of the campaign. So, to sum it up a bit, for me, the campaign, I would say that the GCWCC is about connection, generosity and inclusivity.

John Hannaford: Thanks, Marissa. Look, I think one of the things that both you and Mala have highlighted is the importance of the contributions that we make, you know, to people outside of our immediate settings. And we're very lucky to have with us Hasnat and Jérémie to talk a little bit about that and some of the effects that our generosity can have on community more generally. And maybe start with Hasnat, I'm kind of interested in the experience, I understand you've done work in a crisis centre in Hamilton, where obviously people who are among the most vulnerable in our community have received services. And I'm just kind of interested in that experience and anything you think that our broader audience should be aware of as we're thinking about the contributions that we could make.

Hasnat Johnson: First of all, thank you so much, John, for including me in this episode and for giving me a space to share my experience. You know, I have always been very cognizant of the value of local organizations in providing support to communities. When I was 9 years old, my parents immigrated to Canada from Bangladesh, and my family and I were able to access services to help integrate us into our new community. You know, from things like being offered winter clothing, language classes and, particularly for me, after-school programs really helped with that integration. So I know how valuable those services are. So when I had the chance to give back to the community through my work at the centre, which, by the way, is a recipient of the funding of United Way from this campaign, I did not hesitate for a single moment. I'm a woman from a visible-minority group and, as such, I've always been committed to social justice and my work at the centre really provided an opportunity to deepen that commitment.

I worked at the 24-hour crisis support line doing overnight shifts. I was a full-time student during the day, so I would take the overnight shifts. And in my role, I was able to support survivors of sexual violence with a safe place to talk, to help explore options and share available resources to them. And many of the women I've spoken with shared just how helpful they found the support line to be and how it really allowed them to take control of their healing. You know, some nights I would get a phone call from someone who is looking for an accompaniment to the local hospital to treat their injuries, and I would often meet them at the entrance of the hospital and would be an advocate for them as they navigated through their traumatic experience.

And some nights it would take 5 to 6 hours, and the resiliency the women had demonstrated would always leave me in awe. So, for me, that work in the centre was so, so integral. You know, many of the women have shared that they would not be able to go through the hospital experience had there not been someone with them. So it's really critical that the service that the centre offers when we're able to accompany women, whether it's the hospital or the police station or the courthouse, so they have that support because we know how isolating it can be to go through this experience. And the community services like the one offered by the crisis centre is just critical in offering that safe space to many survivors.

So I'm really grateful for my experience at the centre because I felt like it allowed me to contribute to my community, and I feel really grateful to United Way for providing the funding for these key services. And I even credit that my involvement in international development started with the centre because it brought me this connection between how does social justice looks like in action.

John Hannaford: Thank you for giving that very specific example of how the contributions we make can contribute to the well-being of individuals, because I think that that is something that's critically important for us to remember, but also just thank you for doing what you've done. I think it's terrific that people make the kind of contribution that you've made and it matters to our society generally.

Maybe we could have a more specific conversation with Jérémie about your contributions, because I  understand you are a volunteer for an organization called Project Genesis, and that's concerning housing in Montréal and the Côte-des-Neiges neighborhood. What were your experiences with that organization?

Jérémie Bérubé: Yes, so a few years ago I was a volunteer counsellor with Project Genesis, which is a community organization where the volunteer counsellors give information to people who come to ask for help with their rights and responsibilities as tenants, but also with questions on basic income, like Old Age Security, Family Allowance and Social Assistance. Often we were dealing with marginalized people or people living in poverty, and since Côte-des-Neiges is also a neighbourhood where a lot of immigrants settle, often these are people who don't know how our system works, who don't know the laws. So they can be victimized by their landlords.

So it really affected me to have the chance to help people who needed help sometimes to write letters and fill forms, to guide them through our system—which is a good system: we have a lot of social programs that help people. But there are always people who slip through the net because of different obstacles, poverty—all sorts of problems they may encounter. And sometimes they have to deal with several problems at the same time.

And that also lets them meet people in the same situation they're in, so they can organize and let the government know that sometimes public policies aren't fixing people's problems. So there's also a community-organization aspect that's very important. I remember some people, in particular. Like 1 older lady: she spoke Greek. She didn't speak French or English, so it was difficult for us to reach her. She was trying to register for Old Age Security, so we helped her write letters and make phone calls. And it was hard to reach her because she didn't have a telephone because of her poverty. So we had to telephone her brother, and when he saw her, he would tell her to come see us so we could help her.

Or there's something I saw often that affected me, which was women from the Philippines who come to Canada to work as live-in caregivers. You have to understand, these women leave their own families for years to come take care of the children of people here or of old people who are sick, and they hope to get permanent resident status and then bring their families here. And once they'd done that, when their spouses and their children came to join them, sometimes they came to see us to get help filling out the requests for Family Allowance so their families could keep going with a little bit higher income to help them get a better start.

John Hannaford: Thanks, Jérémie, and thanks for your contribution, too. What were the connections between this kind of campaign and the type of service available in your organization?

Jérémie Bérubé: I talked with Margaret van Newton, who was involved in Project Genesis as one of the people who supervised us when I volunteered there. And she confirmed to me that an organization like Project Genesis has more or less 15 employees, sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less. Volunteers do a large part of the work, but the United Way contributions represent a third of their budget.

For sure the contributions of government employees are a major part of the funds the United Way receives, so if they didn't have those, it would mean they'd have to cut a third of their staff, a third of their activities, so it's really a big...

John Hannaford: It's really essential.

Jérémie Bérubé: Exactly. It has a big impact, and it lets community organizations like Project Genesis help thousands of people every year.

John Hannaford: Well, look, these are extraordinary contributions you have made as individuals, but they really do remind us of the importance then of the kind of contributions we can be making through this campaign. Marissa, any kind of closing thoughts that you might have as to how people can make their contributions and what they should be thinking about in this sort of final phase now of the campaign?

Marissa Fortune:  Absolutely. Thank you so much again for having us. It was amazing to hear from Hasnat and Jérémie about their experiences, and I think I found it very inspiring just to hear the impact that this campaign has across Canada. And if I can offer some final words, I would like to share 4 tips for engaging with the campaign this year for those who want to get involved. So I would say reflect, research, donate and follow up. So, first of all, reflect on the causes that you care about and where you would like to make a difference. And then research the registered charities that are doing active work in those areas that you identified through the campaign. You can donate to any registered Canadian charity, and there are great resources online about the financial transparency and results reporting and the impact of whatever charity you choose to give to. And then number 3 is the easiest one, which is to donate through the GCWCC website. They make it very hassle-free. You can choose to either give directly or by payroll deductions up until December 3. And then, finally, the last step that I would recommend is to follow up your engagement with concrete action like those that Hasnat and Jérémie have done. So this could be volunteering for a charity that serves your community, educating yourself on an issue that you want to know more about, or giving your time to advocate and raise awareness for something that's important to you.

So to give a personal example, this year, I reflected that I wanted to be a better ally to our Indigenous people and more actively contribute to reconciliation. So I chose to donate to the Indian Residential School Survivors Society and decided to back up that commitment by educating myself through taking the Indigenous Canada course from the University of Alberta, which is free, and giving my time within the department and outside the workplace by having conversations with others on the importance of reconciliation. So I think the basic formula would be reflect, research, donate, follow up. And if we all did that, I think the impact of this year's campaign would ripple out in such an incredible way and make a huge difference.

John Hannaford: Well, thanks, Marissa, and look, thank you all of you for participating this morning, I think really there are fewer conversations that are more important. This is really one of the sort of critical aspects of our year, I think, in the government is this contribution because this is a chance, as I said at the outset, for us to make a pretty direct contribution to the well-being of our fellow citizens in this country. And I, you know, I think this is even more important during the period that we've gone through for us to reflect on how we could be making those contributions. And so thank you to all of you, and I'll look forward to seeing you all before too long.

Thank you for listening. And we look forward to you joining us for future episodes of the GAC Files, a podcast about the people, issues and ideas driving Global Affairs Canada. Don't forget to join the conversation online using #GACFiles.

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