Staffing the Foreign Minister’s Office

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The people behind foreign policy: A look inside the foreign minister’s office
Former diplomat says ‘first-rate people’ are working for Stéphane Dion.

Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion walks down to the House of Commons chamber with his press secretary, Chantal Gagnon, on budget day, March 22. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright


PUBLISHED : Wednesday, April 27, 2016 12:00 AM

Political staffers, no matter their ambition, don’t always get a chance to shape events outside the walls of Parliament.

In the case of those hand-picked to work for Global Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion (Saint-Laurent, Que.) that’s exactly what they’ve been hired to do. A new government invariably wants to project a new image of Canada to the world. Not just anyone can—or should—be trusted to paint that picture.

Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat, personally knows a few of the people working in Mr. Dion’s office, including Christopher Berzins, director of policy, and Jocelyn Coulon, senior policy adviser.

Mr. Robertson said he’s impressed with how the new Liberal government has been hiring “first-rate people.”

“They’ve recruited people based on subject matter expertise and ability to get on,” he said. Getting along is important when you’re working with an administration that touts government by cabinet, he said. Inter-departmental relations are important, but so are a ministerial office’s relationships with civil servants—the people actually implementing the policies government decides on.

“One thing this government, I think, does want to do differently is I think they want to work well with the civil service,” Mr. Robertson said. The ministerial mandate letters handed out by Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau noted ministers—including Mr. Dion—should engage in “meaningful engagement” with public servants, something they accused the previous Conservative government of doing poorly.

Mr. Dion was named a cabinet minister right off the bat when he became an MP in 1996, serving as intergovernmental affairs minister under Jean Chrétien and later as environment minister under Paul Martin, before his stint as Liberal Party leader from 2006 to 2008. Ergo: he is no stranger to staffing offices on the Hill. He seems to be hiring from a more pragmatic standpoint, Mr. Robertson said, something that could be attributed to his previous academic background.

“The people I have met have been hired probably less for their political conviction than for their policy smarts. Which I think is a good thing. In that sense I think this will be a much less ideological government than the last one.”

Take Julian Ovens, for instance, Mr. Dion’s chief of staff.

Mr. Ovens comes from a mining background, having spent 14 years in the industry. He worked for Canadian mining company Alcan before moving to BHP Billiton, where he stayed until November 2015 before moving into the minister’s office, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Mr. Robertson said that experience is relevant for the business side of foreign affairs. “I think that probably gives him a highly practical sense of ultimately one of the goals of foreign policy, which is to protect Canadians and advance the national interest. You advance the national interest by generating opportunities for us to do business,” he said.

Canadian mining and international business go hand in hand, of course. Mr. Ovens previously told The Hill Times that he had travelled to more than 60 countries in his life. His work in the mining industry took him abroad to Paris, London, and Singapore, as well as all over Canada.

Mr. Dion has also recruited several serious academics to work with him in advancing Canada’s international agenda.

Pascale Massot, for instance, is a policy adviser who recently completed her PhD at the University of British Columbia in comparative politics and international relations, with a focus on political economy and Chinese politics. Her supervisor, Yves Tiberghien, had nothing but glowing things to say about her, raving that she was “really the complete deal.” He said she’s a “very thoughtful, deep thinker,” good at rationally assessing situations and “very savvy in terms of human relations, social issues, and policy issues.”

Mr. Tiberghien said he’s not surprised in the slightest that she was recruited by the minister’s office because she really has the eye and the interest for policy.

“Pascale is not at all your typical academic,” he said.

Mr. Robertson said as much about Mr. Dion himself. “I remember briefing him and he was extremely rigorous. He came in looking like a bit of a student, he had his backpack on and the rest, but when we sat down it was like doing the defence of your thesis.”

Jocelyn Coulon, Dion’s senior policy adviser, was recruited with a specific emphasis on peace operations—“which is of course one of the things that the new government wants Canada to get back involved in,” Mr. Robertson said. Mr. Coulon also served on Mr. Trudeau’s International Council of Advisors, set up in December 2014 ahead of last year’s federal election campaign.

Mr. Coulon was in the media recently for penning an op-ed in La Presse about the government’s controversial arms deal with Saudi Arabia.

“Let’s not be naive. The Saudi and Iranian regimes are two dictatorships—the first decapitates women accused of murder and the other stones them for adultery,” he wrote in a column published Jan. 10.

Six weeks after that, Mr. Coulon was hired to the department. Despite Mr. Coulon’s previously-stated opinions, it wasn’t long after that that Mr. Dion took essential steps in finalizing the deal.

In April, Mr. Dion signed permits allowing $15 billion in light armoured vehicles to be exported to Saudi Arabia. Though the contract itself was signed by the previous government, Mr. Dion’s office came under criticism for implying there was no turning back—and for only releasing the export permits publicly when a lawsuit required the department to do so.

Mr. Robertson said, “Anybody who joins government knows that, ultimately, government is about compromise. And if you’re that uncomfortable, then you resign or you don’t take the job.”

Other policy advisers in Mr. Dion’s office include Jean Boutet, who was with Mr. Dion when he was environment minister. After the 2006 election bumped the Liberals into opposition status, Mr. Boutet worked at the environment department before returning to Mr. Dion’s office.

Joseph Pickerill is Mr. Dion’s director of communications. Most recently, he worked as communications director for the Centre for International Governance Innovation. He was only there for about three months before being approached by the minister’s office. Tammy Bender worked under him at CIGI, and said he was an admirable leader and an “extremely effective communicator.” He was incredibly well-liked there and they were sad to see him go, she said.

Dahlia Stein is Mr. Dion’s director of operations and also comes from an academic background. From Calgary, Alta., she used to work as a senior policy adviser for Health Canada. According to her Facebook profile, she studied the economics of climate change at the University of Cambridge.

Rounding out the top staffers in the office, Jamie Innes is Mr. Dion’s director of parliamentary affairs, and is the only one in the office with a strictly political background, having made his way up through the Liberal Party of Canada.

Chantal Gagnon serves as Mr. Dion’s press secretary.

Mr. Robertson told The Hill Times that Global Affairs Canada has approached him for advice on staffers who might have good expertise on both the Americas and the Middle East, as they are still looking.
The Hill Times
Canada welcomes new top diplomats; Dion hiring

Governor General David Johnston receives a letter of credence from High Commissioner Clarissa Sabita Riehl of Guyana. Rideau Hall photograph by Vincent Carbonneau


PUBLISHED : Wednesday, May 4, 2016 12:00 AM

Canada welcomed three new heads of mission on April 26 when they formally presented their letters of credence to Governor General David Johnston.

Clarissa Sabita Riehl, the new high commissioner for the Cooperative Republic of Guyana, succeeded Harry Narine Nawbatt.

Ms. Riehl was the one of the first female military officers in Guyana when she joined in 1966, the same year Guyana achieved independence. She eventually entered the political world in 1992, when she was became a member of the People’s National Congress, and also served as deputy speaker for 14 years.

The other two heads of mission are posted in the United States, but will serve Canada from there. Hassana Alidou will be the new ambassador of the Republic of Niger. She presented her credentials to U.S. President Barack Obama on Feb. 23. Her background is in education, with a specific emphasis on educating African children in their native language rather than colonial English or French.

The third head of mission, Elisenda Vives Balmaῆa, is the new ambassador of Andorra. She holds six degrees, including two postgraduate degrees in law and comparative politics and a PhD in history and a master’s in gender differences. She speaks four languages: Catalan, Spanish, English and French. Previously, she was posted to UNESCO as the president of the Andorran National Commission and as the permanent representative of Andorra to the United Nations. She is posted to New York, N.Y.
Dion looking for new policy adviser

Minister Stéphane Dion’s office is apparently looking for a new policy adviser.

Former Canadian diplomat and current Global Affairs Institute fellow Colin Robertson told The Hill Times that he was approached by director of policy Christopher Berzins about possible suggestions for people who might be knowledgeable about the Middle East and/or the Americas.

“Because we have extensive networks through our fellows, and they’re looking for someone with specific research skills, so that’s why…They just asked if I knew anybody,” he said.

He said he thinks they’re looking for “various positions,” and that the areas they inquired about included Latin America and the Middle East.

He said he just spoke to the policy director as recently as two weeks ago.

Joseph Pickerill, Mr. Dion’s communications director, said in an email, “All I can say at this point is that we’re always looking for good people to cover policy in both geographic and thematic areas but we do not elaborate further on human resource decisions.”

Currently, the office has two policy advisers in addition to three senior positions. Julian Ovens, the minister’s chief of staff, has extensive experience working in the mining industry. Christopher Berzins, director of policy, is well-versed in Europe and the United States, having spent the past two and a half years at the Canadian embassy in Washington, and was the deputy director for North and South Europe at Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, which has since been renamed Global Affairs Canada.

Jocelyn Coulon is the senior policy adviser, and according to Mr. Robertson, was brought on for his expertise in peacekeeping. He is a former journalist and was on the board of governors for the International Development Research Centre, and has written several books on peacekeeping.

The remaining two policy advisers have expertise in China and the environment. Pascale Massot has a PhD specializing in the political economy of China, and Jean Boutet worked in the public service at the environment department.

Carlo Dade, director for the Canada West Foundation’s Centre for Trade and Investment Policy, said if Dion’s office was looking, Mr. Robertson is who they should go to.

“Colin’s an old hand. He’s kind of the dean on North American issues, foreign policy issues…He’s more of an insider,” he said.

Asked whether or not six months into its mandate was a long time for Mr. Dion’s office to still be looking for policy advisers, Mr. Dade said he “wouldn’t read too much into it.”

He said that while the Conservatives may have had trouble finding self-identified Conservative experts in foreign policy, he’s “not too worried that [the Liberals] haven’t had access to people who have some background.”

However, he said that when it comes to policy on Latin America, he could see the Liberals having trouble finding someone who is moderate enough.

“A lot of the Latin Amerincanists are left of centre, to be blunt about it,” he told The Hill Times. “This government is centrist. I don’t think they’re going to want someone who’s said that NAFTA’s been terrible and that trade agreements are terrible,” he said.

This future policy adviser, whether it’s one person or more, has potential to shape Canada’s foreign policy in these regions.

“Trudeau appears to be letting his ministers have free rein,” Mr. Dade said. “So this person could actually have some influence rather than just executing.”

A former adviser to multiple Conservative ministers, who spoke under the condition of anonymity due to his current political position, said that political staff can develop the ability to influence what a minister might decide to do because they “know where the minister’s head is.”

While a junior policy adviser might not have that much influence, having the minister’s trust can mean you develop some influence, he said.

He also said that when it comes to the different file assignments, “you don’t always have to have a neat, cookie-cutter approach to ‘this is what this person is doing.’ That works in the civil service, but in the political world, it’s more fluid than that.”

If Dion is looking for one person to fill both files, it’s likely because all the other files have already been spoken for, said Dade. That specific combination of regions would be hard to find in one person in academia, though would be more common in someone with a background in the foreign service, he said.

“Stéphane Dion kind of knows his way around internationally, and he has some very strong opinions. So it will be interesting,” Mr. Dade said.