Transcript – Episode 54: Locally Engaged Staff: Serving Canada Around The World

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

Emmanuelle Tremblay: Locally engaged staff, or LES, as you may hear us refer to them during the episode, make up almost half of Global Affairs Canada’s total workforce and three quarters of the staff at missions abroad. These employees are hired locally through a network of 178 missions in over 110 countries and jurisdictions around the world. When we use the term “mission,” we are referring to Canadian embassies, high commissions and consulates around the world.

Most locally engaged staff are nationals of the country where the mission is located, but there are also people with dual nationality, for example, or even Canadians working abroad.

National Public Service Week is a great occasion to highlight and celebrate unique contributions of locally engaged staff. Even if—legally—locally engaged staff are not public servants, they are employees of the Crown and are really the backbone of our diplomatic and consular missions abroad. Through the various functions they perform at missions, whether as gardeners, senior consular officers or people responsible for organizing important events or visits, they really support and contribute to serving Canada and Canadians through their meaningful presence abroad.

Hello and welcome to Episode 54, Locally Engaged Staff: Serving Canada around the world. My name is Emmanuelle Tremblay and I will be your host today. In today’s episode, we’ll hear from three of our LES (Locally Engaged Staff) who work in different parts of the world. First of all, Blanchine Mazanga, who comes from Kinshasa and who has been living there and working in our embassy there for 13 years. We also – we also have Bjorn Hernes, who has been a policy officer at our embassy in Oslo for over 30 years. He’s our veteran on the panel. And finally, Caroline Urlacher, who has been working for a few years at our embassy in Managua in the consular area.

So, first and foremost, we will ask Blanchine Mazanga from Kinshasa to introduce herself.

Blanchine Mazanga: Thank you very much, Emmanuelle. I am Blanchine Mazanga. I am a locally engaged staff member (LES) at the Canadian Embassy in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. I joined the Embassy 13 years ago in the position of Common Service Officer. Along with the MCO, the management and consular officer, I am in charge of all the teams related to logistics, administration, finance and human resources, and procurement at the embassy.

Before coming to the embassy, I had spent almost seven years in my professional career – always in operational management positions really related to logistics, human resources management and contracting in South Africa and DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo). And in April 2009, I joined the embassy team to supervise all the teams. We’re what they call a small embassy but we have 16 employees and our team, my common services team, we comprise the largest part of the LES, the locally hired staff, because there are about eight of us. We support the embassy’s programs in terms of service delivery.

Emmanuelle Tremblay: Thank you very much, Blanchine. So, over to Bjorn to introduce himself. So, Bjorn, the floor is yours.

Bjorn Hernes: Thank you, Emmanuelle. Great to be here. Well, my engagement with Canada started back in 1986, when I went to start at university at Carleton in Ottawa. And then, right off university, I started working at the embassy. So I don’t know anything worse or anything better, I guess. I started off working in consular and, over the years, I’ve done some driving, you know, mowing the lawn and anything from that up to attending a state dinner at the palace in Norway during a state visit. So I currently work both in foreign policy and diplomacy services, political, public affairs. And I also work partly with the trade side of the mission on creative industries and education marketing. And this is what I’ve done for basically the last 30 years.

Emmanuelle Tremblay: Thank you, Bjorn. In French, we say homme à tout faire [handyman]. You can do anything. Now, we’ll turn over to Caroline to introduce herself. Hello, Caroline.

Caroline Urlacher: Hello. Thank you so much for inviting me on this podcast. I am Caroline Urlacher. I am a locally engaged staff member at the Canadian Embassy in Nicaragua, in Managua to be specific. Currently, I am the Administration and Consular Assistant, Common Services. Before that, I worked for the UN and also for Canada at the Visa Application Centre for Canada. I was in charge of the visa application office in Nicaragua. And I also held an interim consular position for a year. That was my first post at the embassy in 2012. So, that’s when I started working for Canada. And that’s where I’ve been from that day on.

Emmanuelle Tremblay: You all have a connection to Canada now. For some of you, it’s a longer-lasting connection than others. But I’d like to know what makes you want to work for Canada and promote Canada in the world as part of your work. What are the elements of Canada that you like and that really made you wish to work for a Canadian mission abroad?

Blanchine Mazanga: What I’ve really enjoyed about working for Canada was the ethical values of Canada that are reflected in the work, in the colleagues, in the way we work in government in administration. Bureaucracy exists everywhere. We know that. But there are a lot of – let’s say in a micro-mission like ours, we are all colleagues. There’s not that real sense of hierarchy where people are inaccessible, especially in times when there is – crisis or need. We are all very close and there is a lot of support among us, whether it is the Canadian employees called CBS [Canada-based staff] and the LES.

For me, it will sound a little bit clichéd to say that because most of the people it’s what they say when we ask them “Why do you want to go to Canada? Why do you like Canada?” Most people always talk about human values, democratic values, but for me, it really is something very important. Because when I joined the embassy, I was working for Nokia International. It was a multinational. And it was also a very focused and dynamic learning culture, highly competitive, etc.

And when I came to the embassy, that’s what I found again. And for me, it was pretty amazing because I thought, the embassy, in any case it’s still public service. But I found this whole open dynamic to learning, access to learning, results oriented. And working at the embassy for me, it allowed me to see that we can be a State. We can be the public service but be really, really based on good governance, based on effective resource management, on human capital development in order to move a nation or even an organization forward. So, for me, that was the key point for me to join the embassy.

Bjorn Hernes: I mean, as I mentioned earlier, I started, you know, mid-80s in my engagement with Canada. And, you know, ever since then, I always say that I either lived in or worked for the best country in the world. So that’s a pretty fortunate situation to be in. I think when I started working for the embassy, I had a very strong sense that there was a lot to learn from each other between Canada and Norway. Both are, you know, very engaged internationally and are somewhere in between sort of the American dream and the European whatever. So, I think, for Canada, I think, you know, one of the sort of major attractions … it was also the fact that, you know, Canada is somewhere in between Europe and the United States.

And I think that in bringing some of that free entrepreneurial spirit from North America and marrying it to the more sort of older European traditions, and so on and so forth, I think, was kind of … it’s been a draw for me and, of course, you know, my love for Canada is something I want to share with my fellow Norwegians and, you know, and then there’s so many interesting files, you know, here with Norway, anything from the Arctic to multilateral, and so on and so forth, working with Indigenous peoples in Canada and in Norway. So, it’s a very … you know, I feel very fortunate.

Emmanuelle Tremblay: So, there is this dual and complementary reality between stability and change. I’d like to hear from you about what you see as the opportunities and perhaps risks associated with this coexistence between two parts of the Global Affairs Canada workforce.

Blanchine Mazanga: Personally, I think that the positive element that I took from this – and this is where we can really say that Global Affairs Canada gives us the opportunity to experience what we call multiculturalism because that is what Canada is all about. It’s the cultural diversity and being locally engaged staff; you’re directly exposed to that in every rotation. Because you have all this cultural diversity of immigration that is reflected in these Canadian employee positions. And it allows you to have experiences with African Canadians, Asian Canadians. And it’s really a very rewarding aspect for a person to say I had the opportunity to be exposed to so many nationalities coming from 1 country. And for me, that’s the best part of it. But the strength of the local and Canadian employee dynamic is this very diversity, these experiences that come together for the good of Canada in each country.

Caroline Urlacher: We know very well that, in general, everything is very well managed Everything works, quite quickly I’d say, quite well in general. It’s – but in missions, especially in complicated missions, they need a bit of time, a few months to adapt and see that things have to be done differently sometimes. So, instead of trying to follow a protocol that is already established, or pre-defined, we have to look for ways to achieve a result. I mean, the result of the work we need to do, but adapting.

So, sometimes it’s a challenge for them, but in the end, we’re there to explain things, to tell them and especially to help them in this process of adaptation and also of learning about the reality of the country, in fact, where they are, where they are arriving.

Emmanuelle Tremblay: So, if I understand you well, locally engaged staff often serve as interpreters—interpreters, not only linguistic interpreters, but social and political and ethnographic interpreters. So, Bjorn, would you like to say a few words about this connection between Canada-based staff … so, the diplomats and the locally engaged staff?

Bjorn Hernes: I think you have to recognize also, as locally engaged staff, that it isn’t always easy for Canada-based staff to come to a mission, a new country, bringing a family and whatnot and, you know, sort of, maybe not having the adequate … or training or, you know, preparations before coming and whatnot. So it’s quite easy to fall in a trap. You become critical. So I always make sure, or try as much as I can, to sort of give time, both for my own kind of, you know, reaction to new people and also for them to sort of get to know me. It’s a little bit about engaging on various levels as well, you know, on both parts.

And I think … and, you know, it’s often said that the LES is sort of the hard disc … and, of course, as the sort of the corporate memory and whatnot, I always say that I don’t feel like, and I don’t want to be thought of, as a hard disk. Sorry, it didn’t come over so well. But anyway, I think that’s part of the thing. I think, it’s also recognizing, you know, the active role that LES do play in missions. And I think one of the other things that’s quite important as well is for Headquarters to see the same.

Emmanuelle Tremblay: How has the work of LES evolved over time? And how has technology, for example, changed the work that locally engaged staff perform or how they perform their work? So, maybe you have a few stories for us.

Bjorn Hernes: Well, I mean, I think, like I mentioned already in the beginning, when I started working here, I had an electric typewriter. And now we’re on to Office 365. So obviously, there’s been a big technological shift. But I was thinking about this a little bit because yesterday there was this new transformation announcement with Global Affairs Canada as well. And I was thinking, you know, over the years, you know, if I look … I have files from my predecessor who started working here in 1950 something or other, you know. And if I look at them, you know, what we actually do today compared to what they did in, you know, the ’50s and ‘60s, isn’t that different.

What we actually do … it isn’t such a big difference in terms … but it’s more around how we do it, right? It’s more … as different ways of gathering information about, you know, local politics in Norway or whatever, you know. In the old days, you’d go and have, you know, meetings with the political parties and, you know, before an election, and you’d write a report about politics. But nowadays, you know, you read online blogs and you go to seminars and all that kind of thing. So, you know, the core of what we do in our servicing or, like, being of service to Canada here in Norway, isn’t … hasn’t changed all that much.

We do cultural events. We do education. I mean, you know, we issue passports. We do all these kinds of things that, you know, help Canadians who live here, and so on and so forth. And, but you know, it’s just more the way we’re doing it … the way, the tools we have. But Canada was quite early on adopting this—or Foreign Affairs, you know—email. I remember my ambassador at the time was sort of really scared, you know: “What’s going to happen? I don’t have control of this.” But, you know, he had … did not realize that actually we had telephones we could use as well.

So, I mean, it wasn’t that big a deal, but, you know, I spoke to the Norwegian embassy at some point in time as well. They had, like, 1 machine that had email and this was, you know, several years after we had email, right? They had to sort of run over to that machine and sort of send emails. So I mean … so, yes, total change in that way, but like I said, why we’re here and what we’re doing hasn’t changed a lot over the years. So I think that’s kind of sums it up in a way. Yup.

Caroline Urlacher: I just have one small thing to add. For me, I’m a person, I try to follow, too. I know that Canada is very focused on that issue, on ecology. So, for me, it’s really when I see all the administrative records that we manage. All payments that are recorded on paper. So, every year we have to burn hundreds of boxes of records. So, now with digitization, I try to use as little paper as possible. And also, for the consular work, it has made our job so much easier, because of the ability to contact people, people who are registered in the consular system.

We know they are in the country. It is a system that has really made it easier for us at the consular level to have contact with Canadians, and communication is much easier for us. I think those are two things that have changed a lot for the better.

Emmanuelle Tremblay: So, relying on technology has brought some fluidity that didn’t exist before and that is not only for your work as locally engaged staff, but it’s also servicing Canadians. And, Blanchine, you had something to say about that too.

Blanchine Mazanga: So, what I’d like to point out is that the LES (Locally Engaged Staff) framework has not really evolved over the years. The technological aspects, as Bjorn said, have evolved because that is the very dynamic of society. But what I have noticed that has nevertheless evolved in Global Affairs Canada. It’s the … we can see that now GAC has the willingness to listen to the LES. Because, since 2019 … I think it was the first time we had an LES symposium, a symposium that actually gathered LES from around the world. Because we knew that we are the workforce.

When you say that you are using us: “Just do the job and that’s what we are expecting from you guys.” But since 2019, we’ve seen a dynamic of, OK, you’re here and we want to listen to you. We want to see how we can improve your working environment, improve your sense of belonging to Global Affairs Canada so that you are more than just employees, but really part of the family.

Bjorn Hernes: Blanchine was mentioning the symposium in 2019. And, really, I mean, that sort of … the group of—what was it—50 or so locally engaged staff from all over the world were all just working for Canada. And there was just a tremendous energy and it’s … to me, it’s quite important that, you know, there is that sort of chain of contact and link directly from LES at missions to, you know, key divisions or whatnot at Headquarters at Global Affairs. And being able to sort of highlight, you know, the contributions of the LES and also sort of, you know, the engagement—also locally engaged staff—in some of the work that’s being done at Headquarters, I think, is really important, you know.

We’ve had some work, you know, with the, on the trade side. There’s been some engagement with LES as well and also I, myself, have been part of a project office under the deputy ministers, you know, working on harassment and trying to prevent that. But you know, engaging also LES … and I think that’s such … it’s actually, I think, a very big step forward in sort of … in the relations between LES, locally engaged staff, and Headquarters. It’s very far away and most haven’t been there and I think also for, you know, the staff at Headquarters, sometimes, locally engaged staff are also quite removed from them. So I think, sort of, bringing some more closeness and direct contact is super important.

Emmanuelle Tremblay: Could you share with us a moment that has been really memorable for you? Maybe share a meaningful moment for you. And this may be an occasion to also explore the diversity of your experiences, depending on what you do at the mission.

Bjorn Hernes: Well, I mean, there are so many over the years, but one that I sort of keep coming back to is back in 2004, something like that. There is a festival in north Norway called the Riddu Riđđu Festival, which is an Indigenous-performing arts festival. And that year they had a focus on the Inuit from Nunavik. So, and it’s a, you know, small, remote place with no hotels. So it was me and my colleague from the Quebec House in London. We went up to represent Canada and Quebec. And, so, we ended up staying at someone’s home, but we had to share a room, actually.

So, it was one of the kids’ rooms. So being a good federalist, I let him sleep in the bed and I slept on the floor. And as part of this festival, there’s also a big, you know, the featured people, they have a day of cooking, right? They had brought … they normally bring some caribou, but in northern Norway, it’s the reindeer, which is a relative of these. So, they were supposed to, you know, the delegation with … from Nunavik was supposed to, you know, prepare some dishes and so we went up to the school to help out and we came there and then a Sami, which is an Indigenous person from Norway of this part of the world­—come in with the, you know, the carcass, you know, the reindeer, and just threw it on the table.

And there was this one guy who lived in Oslo—and the other one lived in London—you know, was looking at the thing. “What do we do with this?” Because there was no one else there to help us at the time. So it was quite a bit of a … eventually, you know, some of the ladies from Nunavik came in and they sort of showed us how to chop the animal up and, you know, and get the bone marrow and whatnot. And it ended up being a good experience in the end. It was sort of … the sight they must have had of these 2 guys just looking and not knowing what to do. It was kind of a memorable moment from my side anyway.

Blanchine Mazanga: The memory that has marked me the most because often we are advertisers for the work. We do the job well. We deliver. But one thing that really touched me was when I went back to school in 2015 to do a master’s degree and I talked to my supervisor at the time, a wonderful lady, Marie-Claude Fouché (ph). She said, yes, I encourage you. Go ahead. It was hard for me because I finish at 4 p.m. I would go to the class at the other end of town at 5:00 p.m., finish at 9:00 p.m. I would get home at 10:00. The next day I had to be at the office at 7:30 a.m.

And I was keeping that pace for two years. And at the end, I had to present my thesis. On “D” day I told my supervisor that I had to go. She encouraged me. I left. But what really touched me was the human aspect that is sometimes missing between Canadian and LES employees, and the fact that people show it. These are still memorable moments. I think my colleagues would agree with me.

So, I arrived back at the office and on my table I found a bouquet of flowers with a little note and it was my supervisor who had bought them for me and said, we are very, very proud of you. And I thought, this is wonderful because it’s beyond what is expected of us as employees and co-workers: we can say that somewhere, they also value the person that we are. And they also are there to actually be there for us when we need it, when it’s not work related. That’s really my most memorable experience.

Caroline Urlacher: And then for me, the most memorable experience in every sense was, well, just two years ago, the evacuation flights that we had to organize. Canada had finally organized them and, we, we had to evacuate the Canadians who were there, while – there were only three administrative and consular staff in our mission. So [to evacuate] 3,000 Canadians, it was a lot. So between us, well, we were able to make the lists, manage the flights, manage the – it was really a very, very, very complicated job.

Everyone had multiple functions in multiple areas. This really allowed us to rise above ourselves and our own stress, because it’s true that in times of pandemic and socio-political crisis, everything is happening at the same time. We were really stressed out in our personal lives and it was like we put that aside to help – to do our work. A month later, of course we received congratulations from HQ (headquarters), saying that if they knew that a micro-mission that was able to handle such a complicated situation, anyway it was – this recognition for us,

Emmanuelle Tremblay: it was appreciated, let’s say.

Caroline Urlacher: There you go; it was very much appreciated, there you go.

Emmanuelle Tremblay: Thank you so much to all of you. It’s been really great having you all here today to share your stories. It’s been a pleasure, Blanchine, Bjorn and Caroline. Thank you so much for your time. And I should also point out that not only do locally engaged staff serve GAC missions, but it’s really a whole-of-government workforce. Thank you so much for listening, tuning in and see you soon. Talk to you soon.

GAC Files is a production of Global Affairs Canada. All of the opinions expressed in this podcast are that of the individuals and not necessarily that of their employer or Global Affairs Canada. For more information on locally engaged staff, visit Be sure to subscribe to our podcasts and thank you for listening to GAC Files.

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