The only way is forward
Brought to you by a collaboration with Public Service Renewal: Beyond2020
If you had told Deputy Minister (DM) Daniel Quan-Watson back in the fall of 2020 that a letter he wrote detailing his experiences with racism throughout his life—at first intended only for personal therapy—would gain as much attention as it has now, he’d never have believed you. Since the letter was shared across the Government of Canada (GC) and beyond, it has initiated countless conversations for the DM.
On the one hand, he’s received thousands of responses from people who have said that what he detailed in his letter is a version of their own story. On the other hand, he’s had conversations with people who said, “I didn’t realize that these things existed in Canada.” But perhaps the most interesting fact of all, is that having been in the federal public service for over 32 years, DM Quan-Watson says that 85-90% of conversations he’s had on the topic of racism have happened in the past year. “We have crossed a line that we can’t come back from; there’s a saying that some things, once seen, can’t be unseen and I think we’ve done that,” he reflects. With the wide-spreading recognition among many Canadians—that the issue of racism is not inventive and is very much real in the country we call home—there’s no going back; the only way is forward.
“We have crossed a line that we can’t come back from; there’s a saying that some things, once seen, can’t be unseen and I think we’ve done that.”
Before we get into the discussion, I want to note that DM Quan-Watson is, beyond being the Deputy Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, an individual of charismatic nature and unpretentious energy—characteristics, I hope, will translate through this piece. I will add, in that spirit, that the moment DM-Quan-Watson joined the call, all nerves associated with the thought of interviewing a DM, left the chat.
DM Quan-Watson tells us that the writing of his letter was very different from the hitting of the send button. “It was one of those things where I was so frustrated that the most constructive thing I could do was to write down my thoughts,” he says. At first, he only shared the letter with a few close friends and family members. But seeing their reactions and the impact it had made him realize that as the first ever federal DM of Chinese-Canadian ancestry, his job put him in a unique position, “I saw that I had a personal responsibility and platform that came with the privilege of my appointment.” This prompted him to share his words with those who knew him professionally, people he thought should understand that this is a part of his reality, and furthermore, the reality of millions of Canadians. From there, the letter took on a life of its own as it travelled through departments and agencies, eventually making its way to the media.
The sharing of his letter isn’t the first time his position led him to pursue responsibilities beyond his job description. When one of his colleagues was questioned on their loyalty to Canada, with many wondering if those questions were related to their ethnicity, the man known across the public service as DM Daniel Watson definitively became DM Daniel Quan-Watson. A few years earlier he had the honour of adding the name of his birth family (he is adopted) “Quan” to his Order in Council appointment but hadn't started using it publicly. Because of that incident and the disturbing rise in racist incidents across the country as the COVID-19 pandemic set in, he made the deliberate decision to begin using his Chinese family name in all his official capacities as a show of support. “I thought it was important for a senior federal public official, especially the most senior public servant of colour in the federal public service, to put himself out there and stand not only with all public servants, but with any Canadian who felt they were being attacked on the basis of race,” he explains.
A life of detours
An important reality DM Quan-Watson emphasizes is that these issues are not merely a thing of the past. He shares with us a recent conversation he had with a few public servants whose biggest collective concern about returning to the workplace was not from the perspective of COVID-19, but rather, from the perspective of the racism they might experience on their commute or in the office. “We are not immune in the workplace from people saying things to us that we might also hear on the bus, at the grocery store, or wherever else.” DM Quan-Watson says.
“We often think of things like racism, sexism, discrimination as being overt—where there’s no argument about whether or not the act was discriminatory. But in fact, many of the instances are far more subtle.”
“We often think of things like racism, sexism, discrimination as being overt—where there’s no argument about whether or not the act was discriminatory. But in fact, many of the instances are far more subtle,” he reminds us. DM Quan-Watson recognizes it can be a difficult conversation to even admit to yourself that things are what you believe that they are, let alone having to ‘prove’ it to someone else. “I think that one of the most important things a person must do, is to come to grips with what actually happened, as painful as it is, because it changes the range of possibilities that you have when it comes to choosing how to respond” he says.
In his letter, DM Quan-Watson wrote that he has experienced at least 10,000 instances of racial discrimination throughout his lifetime: “there’s this sense that simply because people choose to visit bad decisions on me as a result of their own behaviours, it’s somehow my responsibility to fix them, when in fact what I’m trying to do is to be a good Canadian, a good public servant, a good father, friend, and colleague. I can’t achieve those things if I have to make 10,000 detours to stop and educate someone on racism every time I experience it.” While the conversation is important, his advice is to identify the lines we’re no longer willing to cross and set our limits accordingly.
Strength is in diversity
While the consequences of racism fall differently and are felt disproportionately, the DM indicates the responsibility to speak on, and address the issue lies within all of us, not just those who are victims of racist decisions and behaviours.
“We all benefit. This is not a charitable act in which a system would otherwise be fine except for the fact that there are some people standing on the sidelines who feel that they have been left by the wayside, and who would like the charity of being allowed to participate.”
He gives the example of the GC’s response to COVID-19, where extraordinary work has been done across the entire institution, as departments and agencies have come together to tackle it. DM Quan-Watson suggests issues like racism, diversity and inclusion are the same, “we need the entire system to engage.” To put it bluntly, he says, “we all benefit. This is not a charitable act in which a system would otherwise be fine except for the fact that there are some people standing on the sidelines who feel that they have been left by the wayside, and who would like the charity of being allowed to participate.” The values of the GC acknowledge that we are stronger when we’re more diverse and inclusive, and DM Quan-Watson notes, “that means we also have to admit we’re weaker when we’re not.”
Our public service duty
The way DM Quan-Watson has used his voice is courageous, so I ask him what advice he could give to people who want to speak out but are afraid to do so. As a woman of East Asian descent, I know that the concept of not taking up space is a common sentiment across my culture and is something I struggle to overcome myself. To this, he replies, “taking up space may be one of the most uncomfortable things you ever do, but we hired you because you have valuable and great things to do with that space.” He offers a fresh perspective to those of us who find it challenging to maneuver through our space and to confidently take our places in it: “if you want to tell your story, think of it as ‘how am I going to be able to better contribute to what our mandate is, to the values that we say are Canadian values?’” He says, “I don’t think sharing your story should be perceived as asking for something for yourself. It’s about making sure that we serve Canadians as best we can.” It’s a way of identifying the gaps and using our own experiences to fill them—for ourselves, and for the Canadians we represent.
“This is true for every public servant out there, no matter your background or what you do, if we don’t have all of you in terms of who you are and what you bring to this country as we go forward to identify issues that we need to deal with, to make the decisions we need to make, and to deliver the things we need to deliver, well then we’re going to serve Canadians less well than we can and should.”
DM Quan-Watson adds: “this is true for every public servant out there, no matter your background or what you do, if we don’t have all of you in terms of who you are and what you bring to this country as we go forward to identify issues that we need to deal with, to make the decisions we need to make, and to deliver the things we need to deliver, well then we’re going to serve Canadians less well than we can and should.”
“So, what are we going to do now?”
“So, what are we going to do now?” The closing line of DM Quan-Watson’s now famous letter. He believes we are on the right track to where we need to be. To him, the mere fact that we are having this conversation with him is reason to be hopeful, “this conversation would’ve been utterly impossible to have the day that I started in the public service.” Drawing an important parallel in our history, he reflects on how women in the workplace were perceived at the beginning of his career. “I was warned by a veteran coming up to his retirement to think about taking a particular job because I’d have a woman manager,” he recalls, “in the space of one generation people have a hard time believing me when I tell that story, but it’s very real, and anybody who was around at that point in time will tell you that it’s real.” DM Quan-Watson points out that while it’s an undeniably long journey, we’ve done it before. “Once it gets to that critical mass where you’re not left on your own to call out behaviours, circumstances, and realities when they present themselves and you have other people doing the same—to me, that’s where you start to get the change happening at a greater pace,” he says.
At the end of our chat, as we thank him for having taken the time to chat with us, he in turn, thanks us: “for stepping forward and bringing these conversations to others and letting it germinate—this is how we change,” he says.
I’d be remiss to not acknowledge that this is only one conversation among many that have already taken place on the subject, and the many more that are yet to come. We encourage our readers to carry it on, whether through big conversations or little ones, whether on a stage, or around the dinner table. Here’s to keeping the conversation going, and continuing to grow and change positively, together. The road ahead may be long and arduous, but we’ve seen change happen before, and we will see it again.
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