COVID-19 Update from the President of PAFSO for December 18, 2020

Dear members,

Here we are at the end of 2020. We have finally made it through a year that will be remembered for turning everything upside down. From the global COVID-19 pandemic, to the demonstrations for racial justice and equality, to the recent tensions surrounding the US presidential election – 2020 may not be remembered fondly by most.

I’ve said it before, but for me 2020 will be remembered less for the chaos and upheaval it brought upon us, but more for how PAFSO members rose to challenges and overcame obstacles. From the very beginnings of this crisis, we were pushed to our limits – evacuations, repatriations, staying at post with minimal staff, transitioning to working remotely, not to mention adjusting to isolation and/or adapting to the new family dynamics brought on by virtual schooling. But we were flexible and adaptable, in the best Foreign Service tradition. And accepting a new reality is a large part of what it is to be resilient.
At PAFSO, we wasted no time to move our operations to remote work, and we will remain there until public health authorities give us the all-clear. Thanks to an extensive update to our IT systems in late 2019, the transition has been nearly seamless and has not caused any disruptions to the availability, delivery or quality of our services to members.

With the new normal of the pandemic response new challenges arose between the Employer and bargaining agents. Since March, we have joined several task forces charged with tackling these new and unprecedented issues. Our progress has been steady, though slow at times, and our work on these task forces is sure to continue for the foreseeable future. This week, we received a briefing by Health Canada on its preparations for delivery of a vaccine, which are still under discussion with GAC since CBS and their families have been recognized as a “federal population.” Next week, I expect to have more news on the question of tax credits for expenses incurred while working from home. As always, we will keep you apprised of developments as they arise.

Earlier this fall, I told you that we hoped to have a solution to the problems caused by GAC’s restriction on FSD travel for leave, family reunification, and R&R in time for the winter holiday season. Unfortunately, the resurgence of the virus in Canada and elsewhere has dashed those hopes, but we will continue to press for reasonable flexibility as soon as possible. In the meantime, those of you who are able to travel back to Canada but are finding that the 2019 rates do not cover the promised 80 percent of the costs of a flexible and refundable ticket should consult with your mission and FSD advisor. The methodology does provide that “the Head of Mission or other sources shall be consulted in order to establish fair and defensible allowances” in such a situation. If you find that your case is not being dealt with fairly, please contact Paul Raven at the PAFSO office for advice and assistance.

Despite the restrictions presented by the pandemic, we tried to provide you with the same level of service as in previous years. We moved our usual PAFSO Breakfasts to the virtual realm. I was very pleased to find that members comfortably adapted to the new medium which had two positive knock-on effects. The first was that now, for the first time, members from outside the National Capital Region could participate. The second was that using a platform like Zoom allowed for an easy recording of the session, which could be shared via our YouTube channel.

If there is anything we have learned from 2020 it’s how we need to rely more on the technologies that we have at hand. From these bi-weekly messages, to using Zoom for everything from casual check-ins to our AGM, relying on these tools has, for me, brought the FS family closer together. I hope you will join us at our next breakfast on 12 January, details to come.

The power of our esprit de corps became very evident to me last week. To mark the two years since the arrest and imprisonment of our friend and colleague, Michael Kovrig and fellow Canadian Michael Spavor, we asked our members use graphics we developed on their social media channels to make a show of solidarity and send a clear message: it’s time to bring them home. Exceeding all of our expectations, over 700 of you answered the call. Scrolling through my Twitter and Facebook feeds last Thursday, I was so pleased to see so many of you taking part in our campaign, which we know gained attention at the highest levels. It’s difficult to gauge the ultimate impact of our action, but it clearly shows that we are strong and united. And that’s a rare thing among many other professions.

2020 has been a very busy year for me and the rest of the Executive Committee. But we have not been the only ones hard at work. Two committees in particular have tackled some huge projects in the face of all this adversity: the PAFSO Awards Committee and the bout de papier Renewal Task Force.

After having to make the difficult decision last February to postpone the 2020 gala, the Awards Committee are pleased to announce the return of the PAFSO Awards. Nominations are now open, so if you know any exceptional Foreign Service Officers who deserve recognition for their work in either 2019 or 2020, please make sure to nominate them for a 2021 PAFSO Award. Nominations are welcome for all streams and can be drafted by anyone, including peers, supervisors, members of the private sector, NGOs or the general public. The deadline for nominations is April 5, 2021. All the details can be found on the PAFSO website. Like I’ve mentioned before, 2020 has seen some of the best work the Foreign Service can offer, let’s make sure it is recognized and celebrated.

Another piece of good news is the announcement that the retooling of bout de papier is now complete. Last week saw the nomination of Dan Livermore as interim Editor-in-Chief. His first task is the reconstitution and rejuvenation of the Editorial Board. Bout is the voice of Canada’s Foreign Service, and it needs to capture all five of our streams and reflect the diversity of our membership. If you want to have a hand in setting the course for this new iteration of PAFSO’s flagship magazine, or if you have ideas for articles to contribute, please make sure to contact Managing Editor, Eric Schallenberg. I am really excited to see what a refreshed, revived and reinvigorated bout de papier will bring, but it will only represent your interests and reflect your views if you are actively engaged. Expect a new issue in spring of 2021.

In addition to the reborn bout, another relevant publication has surfaced in 2020. This time it is the official newsletter of the Canadian Foreign Service Alumni Forum, a newly formed association of retired FS. You can read the inaugural issue of Forum here. And if you wish to subscribe, make sure to get in touch with them here.

On another note, PAFSO and the other federal bargaining agents have been contacted by the organizers of the Black Class Action lawsuit against the Government of Canada for systemic discrimination. They have asked for assistance in making eligible members aware of their efforts and encouraging them to visit for more information. As a labour union and professional association, PAFSO has a long history of fighting against racism and other forms of discrimination in the workplace and we support  the principles behind this action. We also urge any PAFSO members who have experienced this or any other form of discrimination or harassment to contact Executive Director Kim Coles for assistance under the terms of our collective agreement and other applicable legislation.

The holidays are right around the corner, and though these will be very different than in previous years, I hope they will still afford you the downtime that you so deserve. Most of the northern hemisphere will spend the next few weeks celebrating rest and renewal in some form, and this year, we need those things more than ever. There’s no question that 2020 was difficult, but we adapted, persisted, and overcame. And, though it might be hard to be optimistic these days, 2021 already holds promise. With multiple vaccines already available, and being administered throughout Canada and the world, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Though we adjusted to this new normal, like you, I am ready to return to the old normal: seeing friends and family, face-to-face interactions, working in an office, and simple pleasures like going to the movies. I know we are not there yet, but we can see it on the horizon.

Thank you for all your hard work and sacrifice in 2020. I wish you all a merry Christmas, happy holidays, and all the best for 2021! Since the first Friday in January is New Year’s Day, I will send you my next full message the following week. Until then, please take care of yourselves and each other.

All the best,

Pam Isfeld

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