This will not be a particularly easy post to write, not because of what happened at work during the time, but rather what happened in my personal life. I was about to experience grief, really for the first time in my life. I say this upfront as I talk about my dad, and while you might be here to read about work, and lessons learned, if you are dealing with other forms of grief right now, you may want to skip this one. Consider it fair warning, although it won’t be particularly maudlin.
m. Contractor, DFAIT — I was back at DFAIT and gearing up for the APEC summit that was taking place in Indonesia. There were a couple of other contractors working too, APEC was getting bigger and bigger and we needed more help sometimes, but they weren’t very good in my view. Great at talking about how great they were, but when the crunch came, they were too busy schmoozing to work. I began to see that like employees, not all contractors were created equal. There were some that were flashy, some that could write, and some that were workhorses. Flash got hired and paid well, workhorses got renewals.
I was offered the chance to go to Indonesia, and I turned it down. Honestly, they needed someone to hold the fort while they were gone, and more importantly, working right up to the departure time on things like briefing books and logistics. Someone else could do the stuff on the ground. I had no interest in meeting the PM or any of the leaders. Not on my bucket list, so to speak. I preferred to remain behind the scenes. Things went well, I was getting used to the routine, and people knew who I was around the Branch.
On the income front, I had pushed the first contract through the temp agency so that I could keep paying into EI just in case. DFAIT extended and gave me an option for a large contract, so I said yes. And things were going so well that as we pushed near the end of the contract, I started hearing new words. Like “employee” and “term”. The freeze had lifted, and they could hire me as an actual term employee.
On the personal front, the option to be an employee was good news but wasn’t guaranteed. I was struggling with the finance side of paying back the money I owed on the GST file, on top of rent, student loans and everything. It was a pretty stressful time.
My bosses pushed for the job to go through, and for it to be an information officer job. The classification people were struggling with the job. About 45% of it was straight admin work (an AS position); another 45% of it was dealing with the external rep of the program (an IS position); and then about 10% of it was just other duties. It eventually came back as an IS-03 position. And I transitioned to it.
n. Term IS-03, DFAIT — I became an employee as of April 1996. Three years and four months after I had first shown up as a co-op student. Sure it was only term, but of course, I would be applying for the Foreign Service, right?
I wasn’t sold. I had made it all the way to the interview stage before, and while I learned A LOT about competitions and things, I wasn’t really sold on being a foreign service officer. I still thought highly of the workforce, and DFAIT in general, but some of the FSOs were, well, not my kind of people. I didn’t want to hobnob on the Hill, I didn’t want to schmooze at parties. I’m a blue-collar guy at heart, even if I work in an office. I eschew formal whenever I can, yet I was working in one of the most formal places in government. As a joke, my boss had written something in my co-op evaluation about how “glaringly inadequate” my tie collection was (mostly fish and fowl motifs), and how it was “not right for DFAIT”. It wasn’t just my ties.
So I wasn’t sold yet on the Foreign Service jobs. But, to be blunt, they WERE hiring when some others hadn’t started doing so again yet.
Despite being an employee and my income and things stabilizing, my work life didn’t change that much. I was basically doing the same thing I had been doing before I was a term. We changed the location of our offices, it was all good. I decided to transfer all my credits from UVic to Carleton and just finish my MPA (law school wasn’t an option, nor did I want it to be)…I promised myself that I would finish it. Signed up for two classes in September ’96, one through email.
I was on track. I even got to do my first international trip. I went to the Philippines in June as part of the “advance” team, along with my Foreign Affairs supervisor, a security guy, and a person from the Prime Minister’s Office. His niece actually. I schlepped stuff over the week, checked out all the arrangements with the hotel (my job), and managed to celebrate my 28th birthday in the Philippines after a 28-hour flight. I had intended to keep it a secret, but the check-in people were looking at my passport and noticed the date. So they wished me a big Happy Birthday in front of everyone, which meant we had to celebrate.
Kind of surreal being in the Philippines with the PM’s niece, my boss, a guy from the Embassy and where were we? At the Hard Rock Cafe listening to Alanis Morrissette. Don’t ask. I had a good trip, got to see Hong Kong too, and got some stamps in my passport. Like I said, I was on track.
Then in October, my father died. He had been sick on and off for most of a year, and six weeks before, he had been in the hospital. He had surgery that he wasn’t guaranteed to survive, but he did, and he was back home. Things were improving, he had rallied. And then he was down again.
I was going home for the weekend to visit and I had all my luggage at work. I was going to work until early afternoon, fill out my application for the Foreign Service and CIDA, drop it off that day on the way to the bus terminal (it was due that day), and take a bus around 5:00 p.m.
I phoned my sister in Oshawa, just to connect and talk about scheduling on the weekend but my sister wasn’t at work. I got her boss who confirmed first who I was, I’d spoken to her before, and she said that my sister had rushed to Peterborough suddenly that morning. Okay, that was weird.
I called the house in Peterborough, nobody around. Usually my mom or my brother would be there, and if my sister was in town, perhaps her, but nobody was home. I called the hospital, was put through to my dad’s room, and the person in the other bed answered. Yes, my family was there. No, they couldn’t talk, they were all out in the hallway talking to the doctors. WTF?
My brother-in-law came to the phone and spoke to me. He was hedging his words, nobody knew anything, but it didn’t look good. When was I coming home? I looked down at the pad of paper with the bus times. 5:00 was written, along with a note of an earlier bus at 12:30. I don’t know why I wrote that down, I had never planned to take it, I had to work that afternoon. I was always planning 5:00. I told him there was a bus at 5:00, and he asked if there was an earlier bus. I asked if I needed an earlier bus. Yes. It was 11:50 a.m. and I wasn’t ready to leave yet. I had a bunch of international things to do before the end of the day, confirmations, etc.
I ran down the hall, interrupted my bosses, told them I had to go cuz apparently my dad was dying (something I hadn’t mentioned previously, not sure how they reacted to that surprise), gave them four or five things to manage, ran back to my office. I called the bus terminal and told them I was coming and to HOLD THAT BUS. I grabbed a taxi and made a 20 minute trip to the bus in less than 8 minutes, compliments of a hefty tip for the driver. I got in line as the bus driver started taking tickets, and he said, “Did someone call?”. That would be me, and so he was good to go.
On the way to Peterborough, I needed to distract myself. I had brought my job application stuff with me, so I filled out the forms while we drove. When we got to Peterborough, I grabbed a cab at 4:45, raced around the downtown to the post office, got them to take my application and stamp it with the time and date to show it made the deadline, and then rushed back to the cab. I promptly forgot about the application and went to the hospital.
I got to see him that night for a while, he wasn’t conscious, but I saw him. I didn’t talk to him, and I wish I had. He was sleeping with his eyes open, and they were pretty gray. It was freaking me out. He died the next day at lunchtime.
I had never experienced death before, not really. I never knew my grandparents, and I had never really been close to aunts or uncles that had passed. Grief was new.
And I was playing more of a part in the funeral arrangements than I expected, being the youngest. But if I was going to be with my mom for the week, I had two big problems.
The first was simple…I had come home for a visit, I hadn’t planned for a funeral. My suits were in Ottawa.
The second was more complex…I didn’t have a super important job at DFAIT, but I was responsible for a lot of things. Including all the logistics for a team of about 15 people who were leaving for APEC meetings in the Philippines in a week. Details that literally no one else knew. I couldn’t think of a good efficient solution, so the day after my Dad died, I borrowed my Mom’s car and drove to Ottawa. I grabbed clothes for a week, and then I went into the office. I spent about four hours getting everything in order so I could hand it off to two other people who would cover while I was gone.
I felt unprofessional. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t waffling in my choice, I just felt terrible sticking them with cleaning up my files. One of the downsides of being so doggone efficient was that nobody else normally needed to help me. I was self-sufficient. But not that week. They covered, everything worked out, the funeral happened, I helped my mom, and I came back to work.
I was numb. And just over a month later, I was on a plane again to the Philippines. I worked for about 10 days straight, and it was like a lot of summits. Hectic, intense, etc. There was a picture taken of me sleeping sitting upright in the delegation office one night. I was responsible for updating all the schedules for the next day for the PM, Ministers, Secretaries of State, DMs and ADMs, and we would print a fresh copy for the morning. This meant I would get all the updates up until about 12:30 a.m., put them all in the WordPerfect document in the delegation office, and then print. The photo was taken one night while I was printing a copy — I apparently pressed send, leaned back, fell asleep in an instant and was snoring, they took the picture, the printer stopped printing, I sat up, grabbed the copy and went to the business office without missing a beat. The ADM’s assistant would pick up the copies in the morning at 6:00 a.m. while I slept in a bit to 7:00 a.m. It ran like a well-oiled machine, mostly.
On the last day, we were getting ready to strike the office when we were told we all had to go over to the Embassy for a thank-you party. Party? I had work to do. I didn’t quite realize why, but my nerves were starting to fray. I just wanted to be done. But it was a command performance. The PM was there, and lots of people were getting photos taken. I couldn’t imagine why I would want one. I didn’t care about that stuff. But that wasn’t quite true. I know I absolutely would have gotten a photo if my Dad was alive. But he wasn’t, and I had no one to show it to that would really be impressed by it. Sure, my family, etc., but not like my Dad would have been impressed. He would have thought that it was cool. But since he wasn’t alive to see it, I skipped the photo opportunity and bailed.
I packed up the office, handed in keys, avoided just about everyone and got on a plane the next day. Not to head home, but to a small area outside Manila. I went diving for a day. It was my treat to myself. It ended up being a cliff dive (i.e. down the side of an underwater cliff), and it was just basically me. Behind me was blue ocean as far as the eye could see — up, down, left, right. It was exactly like the movies when all you see is a wall of blue. I had never felt so vulnerable or alone in all my life. It was physically scary. After the dive, I went back to my room and crashed. I was in a beautiful resort, but all I wanted to do was sleep. I grabbed dinner by myself, spoke to no one other than the wait staff whose English was non-existent. And went back to my room and cried my eyes out for several hours. The grief that I had pushed off for six weeks was finally hitting me.
The next day I got back on a plane, 48 hours after leaving Manila, and headed for Taiwan. I stopped and visited a friend for a couple of days, nothing exciting, and then on to Beijing to visit another friend. She had to work most of the time, not surprisingly, and I did some stuff with her on the weekend and then stayed another few days. I did a special tour one day to see the Great Wall, another to see Tiananmen, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. I enjoyed seeing it, but I really didn’t want to be there, and definitely not alone.
I worked my way back to Ottawa, and I crashed. I was miserable. I wasn’t really enjoying work, I got sick, as the delayed grief took its toll. My sister was planning a trip to Cancun at New Year’s and wanted to invite my Mom. I was sure she wouldn’t go, but the invite now might make her say yes to Florida the following year, so I said if Mom said yes, I would go too. To my utter shock, my mom said yes. The trip was a shit-show for me, I really had no business trying to do a trip right then. I just had no idea what was going on with me. I wasn’t the most pleasant of travel companions on that trip. Not with my sister, for sure. It did, however, show me that my mom would likely survive, and perhaps even thrive if that was possible. She would go on, as she had throughout her life. She had buried grandparents, parents, siblings and miscarriages, she could handle this. It was encouraging, in ways that I didn’t even understand.
I started back to work and life was buzzing. It was Canada’s Year of the Asia Pacific, and we were hosting APEC. I was coordinating logistics for the Canadian delegation while whole teams were handling the big logistics stuff. I had been invited to join it, but I didn’t want to live in Vancouver for the year. I liked where I was. Sort of, at least. I got to go to Victoria (yep, where I used to live, not that big a trip!), Montreal, Quebec City, St. John’s and Saskatoon. Halifax, Vancouver, and Calgary were potentially on tap.
I made more friends, including some really close friends. (Hi Aliza, hi Seb!) I moved from the suburbs to close to downtown Ottawa. My finances had stabilized. School was COMPLETELY screwed up as I had bailed on the two courses when my Dad died, so I had received incompletes on both (not great, but nothing I could do about it).
But while all this was going on, I got invited to a job interview at CIDA. My friend Aliza coached me on how to prepare (i.e. memorize Canada and the World), and I aced it. We moved on to reference checks. During the interview, I had mentioned in passing that I worked with some people at CIDA through my APEC work, including mentioning the name of Aliza’s boss. I was at a meeting in Quebec City in May, and the boss mentioned she had been called about me. I hadn’t listed her formally, so it surprised me, but it was a promising sign. She said they seemed to have been looking for a policy reference for me too, not just logistics, and I quietly freaked. I *had* two policy references, but they were both overseas. I hadn’t listed them, just my current people. I phoned CIDA the next day and spoke to the HR people, asking them if they wanted some more names. The woman said no, they were done with my file.
There was a very pregnant pause after I said “oh”. I’m sure she realized I was disappointed, as I figured that meant I was out. So she said, “And I’m sure you’ll be hearing good news from us very soon.”
She wasn’t supposed to tell me that, but I’m glad she did. I was over the moon. Did I have a burning desire to work at CIDA, born of a strong commitment to international development or to care for those in a humanitarian crisis? No, I wanted a permanent job and CIDA was hiring. I had applied to it on the bus the day before my Dad died. The application I filled out for Foreign Affairs also qualified me for CIDA, and I only kept doing it to distract myself.
The CIDA machinery kicked into gear. I received a letter that informed me I had made the cut-off and would be receiving a formal job offer. They wanted to know what date I was available and if I had any preference, not guaranteed, of a place to work within CIDA. I loved multilateral work, so I chose the Multilateral Branch. The UN division sounded like the pinnacle of Multilateral work, and I asked for it. In the history of any recruitment that CIDA had ever done, or probably has ever done since, nobody every requested Multilateral or the UN division before. They had a live one! The sole remaining question was my start date.
I mentioned that CYAP was going on, and APEC meetings would happen all the way to November. My bosses gave me a hard time about leaving early, but my new bosses didn’t want to wait from July all the way to November, nor did I blame them. The same DFAIT bosses were also giving a friend of mine a hard time about a job offer he had received…I was being offered a transition from term to indeterminate/permanent, and he was being offered a transition from contractor to a senior term position working in his dream area for work. And they were bitching we were leaving them stranded. I had no qualms, and I pointed out to my friend that each of those bosses were far more important than we were, and if they were offered an equivalent “promotion”, they’d leave skid marks in the halls. So we negotiated earlier-than-desired exit dates with the agreement that we would be “loaned” back to them for the Summit. Everyone should have been happy.
But a couple of my coworkers weren’t. Namely a senior analyst and a deputy director that I had to work with quite closely. Up until I accepted the new offer, they had always shown me at least a modicum of respect. Afterwards, I was being treated like crap. I finally had enough at one point, and said to the one, “Look, if you don’t like it, I can start work at CIDA way sooner, they’d be happy for me to start tomorrow.” He wasn’t normally a jerk, but he shaped up after that, and apologized. The other boss went the other way.
He called me into his office and then proceeded to chastise me in a very patronizing way. Culminating in explaining to me that I was really nothing more than a glorified file clerk and I should be happy to have a job. This from the guy who had no idea that his dream job that he missed down the hall had evaporated because he was known to be horrible to support staff, and the support staff in that area had basically told his potential boss that if he was chosen, they would leave. The guy was an idiot. Then he proceeded to try and tell me that, in the interest of my career, I wanted to suck up to them because at some point in the future, I might be at CIDA and want a posting and that he and his fellow bosses might be the Ambassadors that I wanted to apply for jobs with overseas. I’d had enough. I stood up, looked him in the eye, and said, “Do you honestly think I would be stupid enough to work for you again?”. I worked for them for another three weeks but that was the last conversation he and I ever had. D-bag.
I went to St. John’s, and then Saskatoon, and then I went back to Ottawa. I packed up a small knapsack, handed in my pass, and I was done at DFAIT. Mostly anyway. I couldn’t have worded it this way then, but I had pretty much gone as far as I wanted to go at DFAIT anyway. I had a different itch, I just didn’t know what it was. Maybe I would find a scratching post at CIDA.
And yet part of me couldn’t help thinking I would have loved to see my father know that I was “permanent”, that I had the start of a real path not only to continued reliable employment, something that mattered to him a great deal, but also to perhaps a career for life. I’m not sure he had ever understood how or why I walked away from law school, but he would have understood “permanent job”.