A Conversation with Deborah Chatsis

In August 2010, Deborah Chatsis (LLB ’86) became Canada's Ambassador to Vietnam. Born in British Columbia, she moved with her family to Saskatchewan as a child. Her parents, now deceased, both grew up in Saskatchewan, hailing from the Ahtakakoop and Poundmaker First Nations. Chatsis lived in North Battleford and Prince Albert with her family, and eventually started university in Saskatoon, entering the College of Engineering. Though she discovered quickly enough that her interests lay elsewhere and she would pursue a law degree, she nonetheless completed her BSc in Mechanical Engineering in 1983 before entering law school. Chatsis worked for an intellectual properties law firm in Ottawa, before joining the Canadian Foreign Service in 1989. She received a Master of Laws from the University of Ottawa in 1998.

Ambassador Chatsis shared these thoughts about her current role and her career path in Canada’s foreign service.

Question: You’ve been Canada’s ambassador to Vietnam for just over six months. Can you describe the job, the experience of living there, and anything that has surprised you about either?

Deborah Chatsis: As Canada’s Ambassador to Vietnam, I have two main roles. As the head of mission, I am responsible for managing the embassy, the staff and the resources of the embassy. I also have the more traditional role of Ambassador as the representative of Canada to the government and people of Vietnam. With the embassy team, I advocate on behalf of Canadian interests, whether political, cultural, commercial or related to development assistance, at public events, in meetings or through correspondence. The embassy also provides a full range of services to Canadians, including consular services.

I’ve found it interesting to live in other countries and learn more about their histories and cultures and Vietnam is no exception. It’s been wonderful to find out how much Canadians and Vietnamese people support our work in Vietnam. I’ve travelled within the country, including to some more remote provinces, and have been touched by the enthusiastic welcomes we receive.

Q: Your previous work in Canada’s foreign service took you to many parts of the world: Beijing, Bogota, Miami, Geneva, Nairobi, New York. What in your experience has been more striking – the differences or similarities among these far-flung locales? What would those be?

DC: I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had postings in many different parts of the world, doing a variety of jobs - immigration, consular, human rights, political and legal. While the countries and the postings were different, my experience has been that Canadians are well-regarded and their contributions appreciated. Within the Canadian missions, I have worked with some excellent colleagues, both Canada-based and locally-engaged. The quality of the staff and the work they do underline the strength of the Canadian missions abroad and the foreign service community. (I did not have a posting in Nairobi, but was there on temporary duty.)

Q: You’ve worked extensively in areas of human rights during your career. In your time in Vietnam so far, what particular areas would you identify where you hope to influence change?

DC: The promotion of human rights remains a central part of Canada's bilateral relationship with Vietnam. As Ambassador, I engage with the government on human rights. To support our advocacy efforts, the embassy monitors the human rights situation in the country. The embassy also works to build capacity on human rights, whether at universities or at the grassroots level in rural communities. As someone who has studied and worked on human rights issues for years, I am keen to engage with students on the subject and share my views and experiences.

Q: What led you to study law? What aspects of your law studies help you in your current role? Are there any memories you would share about your time at the College of Law at the U of S?

DC: It’s hard to recall exactly why or when I decided to study law. Nevertheless, it was a good choice. The courses in administrative, constitutional and international law have been valuable to me in my career in the foreign service, particularly my time working in the Legal Bureau at Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada.

I have many memories of the College of Law, particularly the first year classes, moot court and exams in the library but mostly about the people in the College – classmates and professors – a good number of with whom I am still in touch. I have gone back to the College a few times, to speak to students about the foreign service and international law which has been a treat.

Q: You provide inspiration and are a role model as a Canadian woman of First Nations descent. How do you feel about that? What has your background as a member of the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, who grew up in BC and Saskatchewan, brought to your current role?

DC: I’m proud that I can act as a role model for Aboriginal youth and wish to encourage them to reach out to the world. Growing up in Saskatchewan, I was interested in travel but only vaguely aware of diplomacy as a career choice. Now that I have this job experience, I’m able to speak to Aboriginal high school and university students about the foreign service career and to give them a glimpse of what opportunities are available to them and how they can contribute.

Q: At this point in time, what do you see on the horizon for yourself? Do you have particular plans or hopes for the future?

DC: I’ve been with the federal government for over 20 years and have had a very interesting career path. I expect that when my term in Vietnam is complete, I’ll find another interesting opportunity, whether in Canada or abroad. At some point, I’ll return to Western Canada which I still consider to be home.