FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Gitane De Silva
August 30, 2016
When I was planning my recent trip to Washington, DC, I thought, “while I’m there, why not interview our man in Washington?”. I know Alberta has an office there – we’ve had Murray Smith, Gary Mar and Rob Merrifield – so I thought I should try to get an interview with the new guy ...
Well, the new guy isn’t a guy. She’s a she – career diplomat Gitane De Silva, who has been in her role since January 1, 2016. I knew nothing about her, but I thought she would be a great get for FACILITYCalgary, to see ‘Washington and that role’ through her eyes.
A few emails and phone calls later, it was set …
And, I learned, the Alberta office is within the Canadian Embassy – what a treat, I could get a tour most tourists can't get. And Alberta isn’t alone. Ontario has an office there too. The Canadian Embassy (next door to the new Newseum) on Pennsylvania Avenue enjoys a fabulous location, well worth seeing and view from the roof-top patio is stunning – and the art ‘we Canadians’ have there is awesome.
After getting through security, it was time – escorted upstairs by my host, met her assistant and we began this interview in her office at the end of the day. She’s nothing I expected – my research had indicated she was previously an Ottawa/career diplomat, but I didn’t expect she was ‘one of us’ to the degree she is. Yay! Her resume is certainly impressive but leaves out so much. Sure, I was interested in her previous role in Edmonton as Deputy Minister of International and Intergovernmental Affairs (she served in that role during Redford, Hancock and Prentice governments) and her boss now, Jason Krips, the new deputy minister, used to work for her. Yes, she’s on the sunshine list – earns a deputy-minister level salary, $280K.
Friendly, charming, forthcoming. Clear, direct, professional and she didn’t disappoint in terms of her competence – we discussed oil & gas and pipelines of course, but when we got talking about agriculture and forestry issues she demonstrated to my great pleasure, we aren’t represented by a ‘political’ person but rather by a highly skilled diplomat who isn’t just there to be a connection, lobbyist and networker – she really understands the broad range of Alberta issues top-to-bottom. For someone who says “I’ve never had a career plan”, good thing for us she’s found this one …
Let’s go back first – way back. Born in Norman Wells, her mom was a stay at home version (Gitane is second of four siblings), dad was a helicopter pilot working on a pipeline project – and his job moves gave the family lots of travelling. With a surname ‘Smith’ her mother thought she should have an interesting given name, so she was named Gitane (pronounce JE-TAN), French for Gypsy. And perhaps she’s lived up to her name a little. When she was 10 months old her family moved to Edmonton, and later to Calgary, then Kelowna. She attended Western Canada High in Calgary and finished high school in Kelowna. She attended University of British Columbia, earned a B.A. (International Relations) and followed up with an internship in Ottawa. Her career choices teetered between ‘be an interpreter at the U.N’ or 'work in the foreign service as a diplomat for Canada in the Middle-East'. She didn’t get to the Middle-East, but she worked on that file from Ottawa. Her success in that role and moving up led to working on U.S. energy matters, then she was posted to Washington in 2002. Moves, title-bumps, Privy Council office in Ottawa when Paul Marin was P.M. Then back to Alberta – Economic Development and Trade, and then to her current gig.
Along that zig-zag path she met and married a serial entrepreneur – and they have two children, seven and nine.
Her staff of four play two key roles – serving the Notley government, and serving Albertans doing business in the United States. Her current attention is on the pipelines, ‘new rules coming on drones’, forestry (our softwood deal lapsed in October 2015, so she’s working on putting that back on track – though she reminds me Canadians have been at odds with Americans over lumber industry trade since the 1890’s), and agriculture – having stickhandled the ‘country of origin’ labelling issue.
As she describes a large part of her work involves meeting with ‘people of influence’ in business and politics – but her agenda is clearly not political. I liked that – strikes me the diplomatic training and intergovernmental experience is a valuable asset.
Why are you successful? “hard work, strong work ethic, knowing my own competencies – and some luck. When opportunities have shown up, I’ve taken them whether or not I’ve felt completely sure – and I’ve got transferable skills. It involves handling a lot of stress.”
What has held you back? “nothing has held me back. I believe you CAN have it all – just not all at the same time!”
She’s come a long way – from a Norman Wells trailer park to Washington – quite the journey and she’s still ‘early on’ in her career. I think Albertans are lucky to have her – and her office to call one for wayfinding and support when doing business in the U.S.A.
How do you see your business – advocate for Alberta – going forward over the next quarter?
… I think things are going well, but it is hard to get anyone’s attention in Washington in an election year when 40,000 civil service managers, several layers under the Cabinet secretaries change when government changes – quite different from Canada. We send 87% of Alberta’s exports to the United States, compared to the rest of Canada who ship 70% to the U.S. – our trade relationship. And we are having lots of dialogue about climate change, about Alberta’s policy initiatives.
And over the next five years?
… I think we’ll be focusing on our primary industry issues – oil & gas, forestry, agriculture – and we’ll be making advances on climate change policy.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… ethics are very important. People who play fair. I like to work with and do business with people who give back. I don’t always have a choice – but when I do, I look for value-for-money.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Gitane De Silva, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… I’m very charming! My leadership style. The way I work. My experience as a diplomat.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… I’d like to think I’m fair – and I’ve had good mentorship, so I try to mentor my staff. Inclusive.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… I’m not a worrier.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… very supportive parents. Jason Krips.
… spending time with my kids, bike, like to bake, read, walking two old dogs (we used to foster dogs) but we kept two that weren’t adoptable.
What do you read?
… a lot of fiction. I love the library – I borrow a lot of e-books, read them on my iPAD. I’m working through the Harry Potter books with my daughter.
… I ride the bus to work – we live in Georgetown; I have a 2012 Mazda5 for running kids and dogs around, it’s easy to park.
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