KEYNOTE ADDRESS TO THE
2022 APEX LEADERSHIP SUMMIT & AWARDS OF EXCELLENCE CEREMONY
By Janice Charrette
Interim Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet
May 18, 2022
Hello everyone! Bonjour!
I want to begin by saying that I am speaking to you today from the unceded traditional territory of the Algonquin people of the Anishinaabe, and I thank the custodians who have worked so that I and my family could live and work here. I invite all of you to think about the traditional custodians of the land where you are and the contributions they have made to this country.
I am so pleased to have this opportunity to speak to you, and to celebrate the achievements of the Executive community. I want to start by giving special thanks to Carl who recently took over from Jacqueline as the new CEO of APEX – congratulations Carl, and I wish you all the best in your new assignment working to support this important community. And I also want to thank the team at APEX as well as the Canada School of Public Service for providing support to this event.
For over 35 years now, APEX has represented the interests of the PS executive community across Canada through strategic advocacy services, applied research, professional development, and advisory services. I encourage all of you to join APEX and become part of this vibrant community, if you are not already a member, today. Thanks Carl and the APEX team for all that you do, and for putting together such a fantastic program for this conference.
While the focus of this ceremony is this year’s extraordinary award winners, I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the amazing work done by the nearly 8,000 executives working for the public service across Canada – for your incredible service and sacrifice over the past year. Your leadership, which has enabled your teams across the country to deliver so much and so well for Canadians has been remarkable. I am so proud of all of you. Bravo à vous tous. Merci, and thank you all.
Thank You and Congratulations
I want to pause there for a moment and underline that – if you take only one thing away from my remarks today, I hope it will be my thanks for all that you have done.
These last two years have demanded a lot of public service leaders. And you rose to the challenge and delivered!
As leaders, you did your job and delivered while managing a workforce that had transitioned to a virtual, remote working model with almost no preparatory work. You straddled the need for rigour with the need for agility and responsiveness. You were creative problem-solvers who allowed government to be strategic in its responses. And, this was all happening in a governing context that is about as complex and complicated as anything I have seen in my career.
That takes leadership. It takes extraordinary leaders who hear the call to duty and respond…who get the job done…through collaboration and innovation, and value-added advice to your bosses, to your Ministers, and to the Prime Minister. Leaders who are thoughtful about investing the time and the effort to direct, to motivate, and to support their teams – modelling the very best of public service and of commitment, leading with heart and, at the same time, dealing with absolute unrelenting pressure yourselves.
I know that has involved a lot of hard work. Of stress. Of sacrifice. And I know that it has been difficult – I have read the APEX survey results very closely.
So, thank you. Thank you, for all you have done. For how you have done it. For stepping up to serve, and for your commitment to our core mission of serving Canadians and making Canada the best place in the world to work, and to raise a family.
Together with all of the Deputy Minister team, Clerk Shugart, Deputy Clerk Drouin and I are proud to be members of this community. You have our gratitude, you have our respect, and you have our confidence.
We don’t get a chance to celebrate executives very often, so I am thrilled to have this opportunity to recognize your achievements. The APEX Awards of Excellence are the ultimate recognition because they come from your peers. They are one of the highest honours you can receive as an executive in the public service.
So, I want to say to the 2022 APEX Award recipients:
- Claudia Sanmartin from Statistics Canada, for Innovation;
- Leanne Pelley from DND, for Community Contribution;
- Corinne Prince from IRCC, for Partnership;
- Roger Girouard from Canadian Coast Guard, for Career Contribution;
- The Honourable Jean Augustine, for a Public Service Citation;
- Ayesha Rekhi from the Canadian Embassy in the Czech Republic, for Healthy Workplace;
- Gail Johnson from the RCMP, for Leadership; and,
- Donna Achimov from FINTRAC, for the APEX CEO Award.
Bravo and Congratulations to all of you!!
This award I think is really important. It is a testimony to your passion, to your hard work, and to your spirit. I know that some days it feels like all we are doing is running around and putting out fires, but these awards highlight remarkable achievements that can happen even in the midst of so many crises.
I think these awards are particularly meaningful this year – to be recognized for your achievements in a year that saw remarkable work done by so many in the face of so many challenges.
So, let me just say a few words about the year in review.
Year in Review
Now, I know all of us are feeling that the last year has been a whirlwind – again!! Absolutely no one could have predicted how the second year of the pandemic would actually play out given the other extreme challenges we would face at the same time as we were dealing with a global pandemic, and the changes we would have to adapt to on short notice. For those of you who were fans of the TV show Friends, you may remember the scene where a bunch of them were trying to move a huge couch up a very tight set of stairs when Ross yelled “PIVOT!” – some of our challenges have called for us to execute similarly impossible maneuvers. It is remarkable how the public service delivered for Canadians at a time when they needed us the most.
Now when listing some of the accomplishments, one always runs the risk to leave something or someone out – it’s even more difficult in the face of such a demanding period. Nevertheless, let me try to review some of the highlights.
To start, the public service delivered for Canadians on Covid. This year, we delivered on life-saving vaccines – from regulatory approvals to purchasing, distribution, public awareness and information campaigns, to international assistance and cooperation. Oh, and a vaccine mandate for the public service and beyond, as well. We delivered on approving, purchasing, and distributing millions of test kits on therapeutics and biologics, and responding to requests for assistance from Provinces and territories. We provided incredible supports to indigenous communities. We continued to deliver through consecutive COVID-19 waves and new variants. We designed and delivered support programs to help keep Canadians safe and provide financial supports to families and businesses through waves of public health restrictions. Now employment is up even higher than pre-pandemic levels and we avoided some of the possible long-term effects on workers and our economy. Now, after Delta, Omicron and the other variants, I for one have no desire to be reminded of any more characters from the Greek alphabet!
Together, we helped Canada to manage through this and other crises. The PS supported Canadians during floods and wildfires, especially in Western Canada. And now we will work with Provinces and affected communities on the rebuilding effort. We supported extremely challenging international relief efforts including in Afghanistan when Kabul fell back into the hands of the Taliban on the same day as the 2021 federal election was called. Today, over 12,000 Afghans have already landed in Canada, able to restart their lives in safety and security, and work continues to help others to leave. And now we are in the eleventh week of the horrific Russian attacks on the wonderful people of Ukraine, necessitating another whole of government response. Together, we have navigated the challenges of convoys, border blockades and the occupation of Ottawa, requiring the invocation of the Emergencies Act, for the first time ever.
And beyond crises PS leaders worked to support the development and implementation of this government’s ambitious agenda for Canada. Together we worked to deliver the measures in Budget 2021 – the biggest budget in Canadian history – and deliver the stimulus programs necessary to support Canada’s economic recovery from Covid. That includes finalizing bilateral agreements on early learning and child care programs with all 13 jurisdictions in record time. And now that is going to make a very direct impact on the lives of parents across this country. Now we have another significant package of Budget 2022 initiatives to deliver. Canada announced its first-ever Emissions Reduction Plan to meet the stretch goals of reducing emissions by 40-45 per cent by 2030, while working on the pathway to plans to move to a fully Net-Zero economy by 2050.
We confronted the evidence of systemic racism and oppression in our society, and our institutions. We supported the government in helping all Canadians to advance on our journey of reconciliation with indigenous peoples and came together to grieve the pain of discovering unmarked graves of indigenous children at former residential schools and put in place ways to help heal the wounds that these findings have reopened.
Drawing on our core public service values of non-partisanship and commitment to democratic principles, we supported the government’s transition after the election. Even though the same government was returned, we were fully prepared for all possible outcomes and it is still a lot of work to be ready for a new Cabinet, for new Ministers, and for a new mandate.
And I know that despite what seems like this long list, there were other notable challenges and achievements. There were just too many to mention them all!
Regardless, you should all be incredibly proud of the story that it tells. It shows the volume and range of issues that you have faced. It shows the incredible opportunity that we have had as a public service and as public servants to be part of doing big, hard things. To help address or resolve difficult even intractable problems. To make a meaningful difference in the lives of Canadians. To be a change maker.
The Future of PS Renewal
I have been so impressed about how the public service – under your leadership – adapted and adjusted to deliver in this context.
For many years, we have been working on the renewal of the public service. Through Blueprint 2020 and then Beyond 2020, our goals have been to be more agile, more inclusive, and better equipped to deliver for Canadians.
Now over the past two years, I feel that our work on renewal has been on speed!
Think about how much we’ve learned and implemented over the past two years –
– How to deploy technology to better collaborate and modernize service delivery to Canadians;
– How to collect, use and report data including disaggregated data to better target our programs and services;
– How to move faster, mobilize our workforce and give public servants the tools they need to work effectively onsite and off;
– How to encourage diversity, equity and well-being in our teams.
I have been so inspired and so proud of how the public service has mobilized. One important feature of this response has been our ability to come together and focus on the outcomes we needed to achieve for Canadians – the results we needed to deliver. The government is pushing hard now for us to expand that relentless focus on outcomes and delivering results across all elements of the agenda – where success is measured on the basis of the substantive implementation of real changes and the measurement of the impact of government intervention on real people and on real families.
There have been some great innovations through the last few years that we should retain as we contemplate the future. Regions are better connected to headquarters, and we have been able to narrow that gap between operations and policy-making. We found new ways of engaging stakeholders and accelerate our processes. In many areas, there are demands for us to go even further, and even faster. And that certainly includes in the digitization of service delivery – I think all of that on-line shopping during Covid made our paper-based processes seem even more obsolete.
We can build on this momentum. Now is the time to integrate the best practices and lessons learned from the response during all these crises. Each of you has a critical role to play in this regard.
Now, these reflections I consider will be essential as we prepare for the move away from the model where working remotely was our default posture. That was the right choice during the crisis. We need now to create the new model – the hybrid workplace that will blend the best of our traditions with emerging new models that combine in-person and remote work in order to deliver the best results for Canadians.
That has to be our guiding principle as we move forward – Canadians deserve to get value for their tax dollars and to have quality programs and services delivered to them. That has to be our guide. Across departments and agencies, leaders at all levels are now experimenting to determine what works best for their operational requirements, and for their employees. I am hoping that we can hit the ground running in September with whatever our new model is going to be. Now of course I am prepared to allow for some customization to the differing needs of organizations across the public service, but we really need to avoid competition between us and aim for some alignment where it makes sense for the results that we are trying to achieve for Canadians.
Now I know that it will be challenging as always to manage this change, and I look forward to working with APEX and executives to provide the tools and support that you decide that you are going to need to lead our employees through this transition and manage the inevitable resistance and anxiety that comes with any change, particularly a change of this type after more than two years of working with a different model.
I don’t underestimate the challenges in front of us. But I know that public confidence in institutions is under pressure across our society, and that includes our public service. We need to show that we earned their confidence. And I am going to need your help in leading this transition, and in rethinking a management model to support a high functioning public service operating in a hybrid world.
Diversity and Inclusion
Another key factor in our ability to maintain the trust of Canadians is our adherence to our values. For us, one of the criteria is whether we can demonstrate that our public service is committed to being representative of the country we serve and a model of a fair and equitable employer.
Together, we have made progress in advancing our anti-racism and anti-discrimination efforts, building a workplace that promotes diversity and inclusion, and reducing barriers to accessibility.
But we have much more to do.
Leaders across the public service responded enthusiastically to Ian Shugart’s January 2021 call to action. It has inspired effort and stimulated change, but our employees and Canadians demand more from us – more action, less talk.
Let me be clear: this is a time for leadership. We need to modernize the systems and culture of our institution to take full advantage of the talent we are privileged to work with and to give everyone the opportunity to make their maximum contribution. That’s what living up to our values really means.
Here are three clear areas where I see more action is required:
- Some departments and agencies are still in the phase of building awareness and understanding and that is really important – but our efforts need to shift to taking real and meaningful action to address systemic inequities in our organizations;
- Individual leaders can act in their own right to address systemic challenges in their own organizations around things like: access to language training; sponsorship; allyship; who gets promoted; how we offer promotion and development opportunities for development; and, culturally informed mental health supports. Look around you at your own tables – are there voices missing? Are you setting clear expectations for your managers on these issues? How are you modelling the behaviours that you expect of them?
- I think that we can learn from our work on GBAplus to incorporate more sophisticated intersectionality into new policies, programs and initiatives – be they internal or external. Think about how we can better support and include persons with disabilities; LGBTQ2+ folks; members of religious minorities as well as indigenous, black and other racialized employees who often experience racism in addition to the discrimination and challenges that they face as members of those groups.
Now, I recognize that despite my enthusiasm for all of the progress that we have made on renewal and on our diversity and inclusion challenges during the last few years, not all of the changes that were made for a crisis are optimal for our work going forward.
And as gratifying and rewarding as our work is, the speed of change, the volume of work, the pressure of complexity and numerous priorities has been significant. Many employees have been going flat out for the past two years. Many are struggling for balance. Many are worried about burnout for themselves and for their teams.
The list of achievements and successes of the last year are remarkable – but it is a long list of big, hard things. It is hard to do hard things. And doing hard things while leading through the second year of a global pandemic is really hard. So people are tired. No, people are exhausted and no wonder. As fulfilling as it may be to be a change maker, and to lead in challenging times it is hugely demanding.
I told you earlier that I had looked carefully at the 2021 APEX Executive Work and Health Study. And I saw the struggle there. Our executives have high levels of pride in their work and a strong dedication to serving Canada and serving Canadians. The cost is high though – too high. The reports of extreme burnout and off-the-chart stress levels are very worrying to me. Long hours, a blurring of work and home lives, and few if any holidays taken partly due to the inability to travel during COVID. I am convinced that working remotely without the usual connections and support of colleagues also aggravates this situation.
This is not a problem confined to the public sector. But it is a wake-up call for all of us.
Leading organizations is demanding. Leaders need energy and personal resilience to be able to lead effectively.
There are no simple solutions to this problem.
The good news is that we are in a better position than we were 10 years ago because now we are talking about these things. There are better resources available to us. In general, people are more aware and, as a result, I think there is less risk of being stigmatized for seeking help. But clearly, we have a long way to go to create a culture that is based on clearer expectations and provides more space for recovery, including more deliberate use of office time.
To get there, we need to take care of ourselves and each other. In fact, taking care of yourself should be part of your job description! It is the only way to be truly present for your teams. Each of us needs to be aware of what we are doing and ask for help when we need it.
All of this reinforces for me the importance of approaching others with empathy. Mental health is a fundamental human issue. There are easy things that can help create a healthier environment, such as: greeting each other in the morning; checking in on an employee or colleague who has been struggling; and acknowledging and recognizing the good work of employees. It may not completely solve the problem, but it is the least we can do. By participating in this conference, you have already taken an important step in finding tools, resources and solutions, working with the entire leadership community.
Think about how you want to take control of your own situation, know that your employees are still looking to you as a role model, and ask for help before it’s too late. Please.
Now I know taking control and asking for help takes courage. For my part, I am committed to working at my level to improve planning, to reinforce the need to set clear priorities and stick with them and give people the time necessary to do the work that will be required in order to get the big hard things done and do them well.
I have to warn you though. The context we operate is unlikely to get easier, or the pace relent. The world is uncertain and the crises just keep coming.
What I can tell you is that we are all in this together. We are going to figure it out together.
You are leaders in the public service during one of the most demanding and tumultuous times in modern history. We can’t use our old models of leadership in the face of disruption. But we can invent new ones. You have done that – consider everything you have accomplished in the last two years. And you have led with such heart, and with such grit. The significant and meaningful impact that you have made on the country, amazing! No wonder we are all exhausted – but I hope that you are also incredibly proud.
Renewal presents a tremendous opportunity to create a first-class public service that is innovative, diverse, representative and leading edge. We are on the precipice of change in our public service, in our society and in the world.
I invite you to seize this moment. To be part of it. And to lead with courage and humanity. Each of us has the power to lead us into a brighter future. Congratulations again to the 2022 APEX Award winners – you inspire us all. Enjoy the awards ceremony. Take some time today to celebrate success and all that you have accomplished. Enjoy the conference.
I am proud to work beside you as my colleagues.
Thank you, merci, megweetch.