George Ross, editor in chief of Canadian Government Executive spoke with Dr. Janet King, president of Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency about public service in Canada’s North. Here is the full interview.

Janet, when I looked over your bio, I think its fair to say you have a remarkable background and set of experiences. You are a trained geologist, and you have had many years working with the federal government in senior capacities – as a scientist, in policy lead and more recently, with extensive executive experience focused on northern Canada. Your work on northern issues includes work on establishing the High Arctic Research Station, the devolution of powers from the federal government to the territorial government in the Northwest Territories and now as the President of CANNOR. I think our CGE readers would be really interested in learning a bit more about your background.

Well, with pleasure. I do look back – and there are more years than I would like to count right now – but as you noted, I actually entered the public service as a scientist. I was hired as a summer student in one of the summer programs that is ongoing and still bringing in young public servants. I was hired out of a Yellowknife office, so introduced to the North and fell for the North in my field of specialty at the time. I spent 10 or 12 years as a field scientist on the land in the North in the summers, creating new knowledge for Canada, which was and remains a career highlight. I then started taking on management responsibilities that led to policy work, program work and the federal public service.

There’s such an opportunity to work on such diverse opportunities and challenges in the public service! Through my post-research career, I’ve had the opportunity of doing regulatory work with Health Canada, economic work with Industry Canada, and I’ve worked with western economic diversification. But of course, I came back to the North as ADM of the Northern Affairs organization in what was then known as INAC, and had the honor of doing some really remarkable collaborative work with northerners. Another career highlight that you mentioned– leading the federal work on NWT devolution of lands and resources, and helping to design and build the Canadian High Arctic Research Station. The career I’ve had has allowed me to directly support Canadians, particularly in the North. And recently as the leader of CANOR, enabling communities and regions to work towards a sustainable economy.

When I look back, I realise that every piece of very diverse experience in my career has led to my ability to take on the next interesting responsibility. So I would say all of those activities allow me to do the job I am doing right now, and every one of them was fascinating and rewarding.

Let’s shift focus here a little bit and talk about CANNOR.  As many public servants and business people in Northern Canada know, CANNOR is a very important institution, and its reach is significant across the North. It has been very important in developing a more diversified economy in the territories. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your mandate at CANNOR: some of the things that have been achieved and your priorities in the future.

The CANNOR mandate: we work with partners across the North to foster strong, diversified and sustainable northern economies. The mandate, I should be clear, pertains to the three northern territories – Yukon, NWT and Nunavut – so that’s where we are focused. We have staff and people who work with stakeholders, clients, territorial governments, Indigenous organizations and governments. They are all our partners. We look for opportunity. We look for leverage. We look to pursue priorities that can really start diversifying and contributing to healthy and resilient economies. We have a couple of tools we do this with. I think the piece we are well known for, like other regional development agencies, is the delivery of contribution programs. So we are able to fund good ideas and good projects that lead to jobs and growth. We have a second line of business as well, called the Northern Projects Management Office, and our responsibility there is to work with major projects, often mines, sometimes infrastructure, that are proceeding through the environmental assessment processes.

We are responsible for helping to facilitate and coordinate the federal involvement in those review exercises. We work with, as I said, territorial governments, Indigenous organizations, specific communities. We work with industry, business, small enterprises, and we work substantially too in partnership with territorial governments and agencies with the intent of aligning our strategies and priorities with theirs so we can together achieve common goals in the North.

Working in Canada’s North as a public servant has, as you know, a lot of challenges associated with it: geography and distance, shared governance with Indigenous communities (some of which are working under modern treaties), and decentralized organizations. In your particular case, you also need to keep an eye on Ottawa as you carry out your activities. I wonder if you could reflect a little bit on those unique challenges and the opportunities to have an impact as a public servant in northern Canada.

Certainly. Let’s tackle the distance one first. So I lead an organization that crosses three or four time zones with offices many of thousands of kilometers apart from each other and distant from Ottawa. So as you noted, George, there’s a distance gap, and that has many diverse impacts. My goal for the organization is to have a high-functioning coherent team – and we are performing that way, I’m pleased to say – and to have coherent policies and activities. What’s really helped a great deal in achieving this is the evolving systems – the communication systems, information sharing systems – that are more powerful every year. We “live” on Webex! The government of Canada has built some very helpful collaboration systems internally [information access, sharing documents, building documents together, (GCconnex, GCpedia)], and all of these we employ to mitigate that distance, to help our team feel and act as a coherent team.

Then, of course, all of this just reaching to Ottawa, having that ability to bridge those distances using technology and start to link, using those personal connections over Webex, video conferencing if we have to, to start to increasingly bridge the knowledge, the awareness, the personality of the regions and help each region – Ottawa and the North – be better informed and understand each other well, and to build personal relationships as well. We are exploiting every technology we can to bring ourselves closer together – to bring our ideas, our knowledge closer to Ottawa as well.

Having said that, I am sure you have still logged many miles in airplanes in your career.

Well, I do indeed log many, many miles in an airplane; it’s simply part of doing that job, and I am fortunate that I love the North, so I love being there. It also means that I am completely comfortable with approving travel for my staff. For example, we send administrative assistants from Ottawa to Yellowknife for two weeks to fill in gaps. They acquire experience, they understand the North better, we exchange training: we are a very mobile workforce in terms of learning and development. Again, to cross-inform, cross-train, to build that shared understanding. We also use any trick we can to cover distances; for example, we’re working hard to engage our stakeholders. We’re anchored in the three northern capitals – that’s where our offices are – but we’re serving communities that are again hundreds or thousands of kilometers away. Flying is one option, of course. But the most unique work-related travel that worked very well was when our business officers rode Ski-Doos from Iqaluit to Kimmirut. They met some stakeholders en-route, had good conversations, met with Kimmirut leaders – very much in the spirit of the land and the season that we work in. It was just a tremendously positive experience. We are creative and mobile.

I want to reflect back on the points you made on your background and how all of your diverse experiences have shaped you as an executive. Tell us about your own personal leadership values?

JK: So a couple of thoughts there. My career, I think, has brought me into contact with so many different ways of thinking, different issues, and priorities that I like to think it has broadened my perspective to be able to accommodate science problems, management challenges, policy challenges, and work with stakeholders from all walks of Canada. My career has been everything from tents blowing away in the North and worrying about safety, to deep policy challenges based in Ottawa. I think it has provided me a real rounding. As a leader, I’ve always been an enabler, whether it was leading science projects, mapping in the North, large policy discussions, or complex implementation projects. Whether I was leading team of students doing their masters or PhDs in the North, my style is always to provide a reliable, clear framework, lay out a strategic direction, and then get out of the way so that these remarkable people who work for us can professionally and creatively do their best.

I encourage excellence, expect nothing less than excellence, and signal and model that to colleagues and staff. I found through all of these different kinds of work, when you have the right people doing the right thing, and you give them the space to do it, magic happens. That used to be my technique in running student crews in the North doing research and surviving safely on the land, as well, and I continue to exercise that approach in day-to-day work. As I mentioned in large complex partner projects, and you mentioned earlier the NWT devolution project, which was one of my career highlights. It was a remarkably complex project in remarkably short timelines, and I led this together with the head of NWT public service, Penny Ballantyne. Remarkable complexity across two public services with thousands of kilometers between us and different cultures – we had to bridge the different cultures of the two organizations. And again, we based it on clear principals, good frameworks, good project management and the best communication we could manage. At times, I’m sure we had hundreds of teams working together, finely tuned and productive, to get the job done on time. Again,  when you enable with a clear framework, good strategic direction, and keep everyone well connected, you can get remarkable results going. That’s the style I bring to the many diverse responsibilities I’ve had.

And more broadly, I’d say, the boundaries around the work we do as public servants has really changed; its almost like you manage or influence a series of policy outcomes that go well beyond the organizational boundaries you have, especially in a granting organization like CANNOR.

And in a granting organization like ours, the diversity of the people and organizations we engage with, say, in territorial governments, Indigenous organizations, individual entrepreneurs, is remarkable and we need to be able to engage all of them to their potential to achieve our desired outcomes. We work very hard to make sure every engagement is positive.

I’m not going to let you go without asking you to “peer into your northern crystal ball.” Give CGE readers a glimpse into the future of the far north in Canada. How do you see things in the next 10 or 20 years changing in the North? And, if I may ask you, what are your concerns about the effects of big environmental and social issues like climate change in the North, and how do you see public service adapting to these challenges?

That’s a big question. I’ll give you my crystal ball at 100, 000 feet. Change is the word you emphasized a few times in your question. The Arctic, Arctic peoples and Arctic issues are changing so quickly. Climate change is underpinning a great deal of that, as are societal changes going forward. At the same time, the economy continues to shape and grow a lot, and you know finding building sustainable economies at the scale of the North and at community level will continue to be a challenge.

I think looking forward, the building strength and resilience of Indigenous organizations, the land claim organizations, and the clarification and the interactions of the Indigenous governments with the territorial governments will shape the future. There’s been some terrific work in the territories in shaping that. So I think those relationships will continue to strengthen and deepen, and I think that will be extremely positive for the North. Economically, mining will continue to be the backbone for the near or foreseeable future, but I think increasingly we’re seeing entrepreneurial innovation and participation in an emerging economy – the digital economy – and it is so mobile, opening up opportunities in the North as well, and we hope to continue to support that and bring those kinds of opportunities to the territories.

I look forward to seeing how the North includes its traditional practices, cultures, and economy, and respect for the land and environment in the development they will shape themselves going forward into the future. I think I see every day deep and thoughtful thinking that is people-based, community-based and driving forward their priorities. Increasingly we see that a circumpolar perspective – understanding, learning from and working with other northerners around the circumpolar region – is starting to be ever more accessible, partly due to communication and facilitated travel, but I see people reaching as well to common interests around the circumpolar globe. And that circumpolar perspective will be a key piece of public service in the North, certainly in our context. Every day we work to continue to make our public service representative of the people we serve. We’re also focused on strengthening our workforce: to train, develop, support, coach, and mentor northerners – Indigenous northerners – to become part of a Northern public service.