Where do many Canadian ambassadors get their start?

Embassy magazine published this story in its September 24, 2008 issue. It notes that Carleton University tied for first place in a list of schools that produced the most Canadian ambassadors since 2004. Here is the full story:

This is the Desk Where Ambassador Wilson Sat…

A look at where Canada’s ambassadors studied reveals the stereotypical definition of who is leading Canadian diplomacy is history

by Jeff Davis

During the 1940s and 1950s, the so-called Golden Age of Canadian diplomacy, Canada’s elite diplomats were a pretty uniform bunch. Just look at the greats: Lester B. Pearson; Hume Wrong; Norman Robertson; George Ignatieff. All of them were male, Anglophone, foreign-educated Oxford men and, with the exception of Pearson, Rhodes scholars. In terms of subjects, Canada’s top diplomats had focused their studies almost exclusively on history, politics and economics.”Early on in the department, there was a kind of Oxbridge-Harvard-Sorbonne cabal,” who ruled, says journalist and author Andrew Cohen, who has written extensively about this Golden Age.
Times, however, have changed.

Through an analysis of the educational backgrounds of 206 Canadian ambassadors appointed since 2004, Embassy has discovered this rarefied Canadian diplomatic archetype is now a thing of the past.

As it turns out, today’s Canadian diplomats are a much more diverse, and largely Canadian-educated, group.

In analyzing the educational backgrounds of Canadian ambassadors, one finds that the overwhelming majority of them, 81 per cent, were educated exclusively in Canada.

In addition, even amongst those who studied abroad, almost all Canadian ambassadors gained their first degree at home in Canada.

Topping the list of schools that produced the most ambassadors were the capital’s own University of Ottawa and Carleton University. Beyond the beltway, graduates of schools from across the country are also represented in the ambassadorial ranks.

After Ottawa and Carleton are Ontario’s University of Toronto, York University and Queen’s University, and in Quebec McGill University, the Université de Montréal and Université Laval. Western Canadian institutions, particularly the University of Alberta and the University of British Columbia, also fed a number of future ambassadors into the foreign service.

Of those who studied abroad, the vast majority studied in England, the United States and France. While fewer in number than yesteryear, degrees from these countries continue to come from first-class educational institutions.

Those who studied in Britain, as before, clustered around Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics. Those in the United States stuck largely to Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC.

Of those educated in France, the largest group attended L’École nationale d’administration, an institution that has long fed graduates into the top diplomatic, bureaucratic and political strata of French society.

With such results, foreign affairs watchers say the Golden Age’s narrow typology is now truly a thing of the past.

“The perception was very much that a Rhodes scholar Oxbridge crowd managed Canada’s foreign affairs,” says Fen Hampson, director of Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. “This demolishes that myth.

“What hits you front and square is that DFAIT talent is largely homegrown and home-educated,” he adds. “This is a very strong vote of confidence of the quality and product of Canadian educational intuitions, including two homegrown schools in the capital.”

Mr. Hampson says that, culturally, the traditional “Oxbridge, Ivy league finishing school component that used to be seen as being necessary to having highly successful career seems to have waned.”

Former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations Paul Heinbecker was not very surprised to see this change, noting the proliferation and development of high-quality educational institutions in Canada.

“Back in the Golden Age, we had about four universities in Canada,” he says. “We’ve become a country in the meantime.”

Mr. Heinbecker adds that he’s glad to see DFAIT going for homegrown talent.

“What does it say about our self-confidence if we have go to Oxbridge to recruit?”

Mr. Cohen takes a different view.

“I’m glad that these folks have gone to school in Canada, as they should,” he says. “I’m less impressed they have not studied anywhere else.

“The idea of recruiting people who have only studied in Canada strikes me as creating a narrower foreign service which may not be as…intellectually diverse.”

With regards to subjects Canadian ambassadors studied, the traditional fields of political science, history, economics and international affairs remained dominant. Also frequent are degrees in law, as well as Master’s in business administration and public administration.

Beyond these disciplines, there is a broad smattering of mostly liberal arts degrees in subjects ranging from literature to philosophy to geography to journalism.

Scientific and technical degrees are essentially absent, with only four such degrees held by ambassadors appointed since 2004.

This increased diversity in the educations of Canadian ambassadors reflects a concerted effort on the part of DFAIT over the past years to recruit a more diverse crowd.

“We would want to have the foreign service reflect a broad range of academic experience,” says former Foreign Affairs deputy minister Peter Harder, who pushed for such changes during his time heading the department until March 2007.

“The traditional emphasis on international relations, economics and history has been balanced somewhat over the last number of years through intake of other studies,” says Mr. Harder. “That’s probably a good thing.”

Tips From the Pros

Embassy asked a number of former top diplomats and DFAIT watchers what advice they would give to young people with ambitions to join the foreign service.

They were pretty consistent with their advice: study hard, work and live abroad, and study languages.

“Almost certainly you need a Master’s degree,” says Mr. Heinbecker. “I’m not saying people with BAs can’t [get in]…but a Master’s shows a little more determination of attitude.”

He adds that working abroad, particularly with NGOs in developing countries, is also a good bet.

“If they get out and work in Africa, they come back much more sophisticated,” says Mr. Heinbecker. “It gives a world view that you’re not going to have living in southern Ontario, southern Alberta or wherever.”

Gordon Smith, another former deputy minister of foreign affairs, stresses the importance of learning foreign languages. But not just any languages.

“When I say foreign languages, I mean the rarer ones,” he says. “Spanish in that sense barely counts because so may people can speak Spanish.”

Ditto, he says, for French.

“How about Arabic? Or Mandarin?” Mr. Smith advises. “They increase your chances quite substantially.”

Mr. Harder says that in the most recent batch of new diplomats, about one-third held Master’s degrees or PhDs, about one-third had studied abroad and about one-third spoke two or more languages.

A Different Perspective

While one would think a sterling education, foreign experience and knowledge of languages would be one’s best bet to get into the foreign service, not all agree.

Barry Yeates, a former foreign service officer, is in the business of helping people jump the many the hurdles on the path to becoming a diplomat. His Ottawa-based business, Foreign Service Examination and Career Counselling Inc., sells study packets for the foreign service exam and coaching for the interviews.

“Where you went to school, what your degree is, what your marks are, what your scholarships were, what experience you have and what languages you speak is all completely irrelevant,” he says.

Instead, he charges, it all comes down to the highly instrumental and “pseudo-scientific” entrance exam.

In the last round of exams, some 8,500 people applied for the foreign service. Of those only about 120, about 1.4 per cent, were hired.

With such a huge number of applications, he says, the exam is necessary simply to thin out the huge numbers of applicants. Plus, he says, even if you get to the higher phase of the selection process, resumes are still not considered.

Instead, he says, behavioural psychologists administer tests aimed at gauging your adaptability, flexibility, judgment, teamwork skills, interpersonal skills and oral communication and many other skills.

Your marks on all these tests, he says, are how applicants are picked. Even with just a BA, you still have a shot if you do well on the tests.

This, he says, is no accident. Affirmative action requirements started in the late 1970s and require the department to have an ethnically, socially and gender diverse workforce. By testing all applicants by the same yardstick, the department increases the chances of getting people from a wide diversity of backgrounds.

“What they want to do is to be more accessible from non-traditional backgrounds: Ethnic, academic, linguistic, cultural, experiential,” Mr. Yeates says. “They want to cast the net as wide as they can to enable more people to participate.”

Number of Ambassadorial Appointments Since 2004 206

Highest-Level Educational Attainment
Bachelors 75 (36.6 per cent)
Master’s* 110 (53.7 per cent)
PHD 20 (9.6 per cent)
*including Bachelor of Laws

Countries Canadian Ambassadors Studied In
Canada only 167
England 17
United States 12
France 10
Jamaica 1
Scotland 1
Poland 1
China 1
Côte d’Ivoire 1
Egypt 1
Brazil 1
Mexico 1
Holland 1

Educational Institutions Where Canadian Ambassadors Studied
(excluding institutions with only one graduate)

In Canada:
Carleton University 27
University of Ottawa 27
University of Toronto 25
McGill 24
Université de Montréal 22
Université Laval 17
Queen’s 14
University of Alberta 12
York University 10
University of British Columbia 10
University of Victoria 9
University of Saskatchewan 6
Université de Sherbrooke 5
University of Western Ontario 5
Concordia 5
Dalhousie 5
Waterloo 4
Université de Moncton 4
Laurier 3
Osgoode Hall Law School 3
University of Calgary 3
Memorial 3
University of Manitoba 2

Abroad:
Oxford 4
Cambridge 4
London School of Economics 4
Harvard 3
Columbia University 3
École nationale d’administration (Paris) 3
Yale 2
Universite de Provence 2
Johns Hopkins University 1
Peking University 1
University of Sussex 1
University of California at Berkeley 1
Monterey Institute of International Studies 1
University of Nottingham 1
University of Toulouse 1
University of Amsterdam 1

What Canadian Ambassadors Studied
Politics/Political Science 58
Economics 35
History 33
International Relations /International Affairs 27
Law (LLB, BCL, LLM, LLL, DCL) 26
Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) 16
Literature 14
Public Administration (MPA) 11
English 9
Sociology 8
French 8
Philosophy 7
Soviet Studies 6
European Studies 6
Development 5
Geography 5
Communication 3
Journalism 3
Engineering 2
Finance 2
Education 2
Psychology 2
Mathematics 2
Cinema 1
Architecture 1

jdavis@embassymag.ca