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01 Dec 2018

Blazing a trail of leadership from the North to the South Featured

Nadia Theodore has been awake since dawn today, out of the house before 7am for a speaking engagement with the Atlanta Council on International Relations. And she still has a lot more on her calendar before trying to get home in time for dinner.

But when we speak on the phone right before the lunch hour, nothing in her voice indicates a hint of tiredness. Her passion and quick wit immediately set the tone for a rapid fire conversation.

Theodore needs all the energy she can get as she steamrolls into her second year as Canada’s Consul General to the southern United States. Theodore is believed to be the first black woman to head a Canadian diplomatic office abroad – and also one of the youngest.  

The mission of the Consulate General of Canada in Atlanta is to advance the interests of Canada across 6 states of the Southeast: Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, and to serve and protect Canadian citizens in those states.

The office also aids Canadians who need emergency travel documents, or other consular assistance; and helps Canadian companies who are looking to do business in the Southeast market. Theodore is also tasked with promoting Canadian culture in the region.

“When I think of Canadian culture, I love the fact that I have no one definition,” she says. “To me that's the point! As Canadians, we are diverse and multicultural and multi faceted. And that's the idea we promote. There is not one monolithic definition of Canadian culture. So down here in Atlanta we are promoting everything Canadian, from Indigenous voices to Black Canadian spoken word, to Quebec music and food, and that just scratches the surface of what Canadian culture has to offer.”

Theodore says her childhood experience growing up in Canada reflects the reality of that diverse culture.

Her parents were immigrants from St. Lucia, and worked in the same office at Statistics Canada where her father was an economist and her mother a clerk. They settled in Tanglewood, then later moved to Barrhaven, a southwestern suburb of Ottawa where Theodore says her group of high school friends had a United Nations feel.

“My best friend was from Uganda, and my other close friends came from Spain, Mexico, Lebanon, Italy and Germany. It was interesting because while we were all so different we all lived under the same type of parenting - where sleepovers and store bought lunches were forbidden. And if you brought home an 80% grade, your dad would ask what happened to the other 20%.”

Theodore says her parents also did a good job of keeping her connected to her Caribbean roots. “My dad was also a musician, in fact he was St. Lucia’s first Calypso king, so there were lots of weekend parties at our house with dominoes and rum, and West Indian food and music. Kids were always in the basement with the express understanding that we were not to bother the grown ups.”

Theodore even lived in St. Lucia for 12 months during her grade 12 year, attending Sir Arthur Lewis Community College and learning all about her heritage. During that time she realized how empowering it was to be surrounded by Black people who held positions of power. Back in Canada, Theodore’s parents instilled in her that you can do anything you’d like to, but not everyone is going to think you can do it. “Don’t give anyone cause to doubt you, and work twice as hard,” was the kind of advice Theodore heard multiple times at home.

She says a lot of her mother’s advice is ringing even truer for her since taking the job as Consul General. “I’m very optimistic and outgoing but my mom would always say to me, not everyone wants you to succeed, be careful who you give your energy to.”

Theodore says she’s certainly aware that there are people who think she does not deserves this role, and some people who feel she ‘came out of nowhere’.

“Shortly after I was appointed, I was at a welcome meeting with some of my colleagues from the Department and another woman said to me, ‘I’m surprised to see you here, I don’t know who you are.’ As if, because she didn’t know me, then I didn’t belong there.”

In fact, Theodore has been diligently but unknowingly preparing for this role for the last decade. Her track record in public policy is the perfect lay up to scoring this job as the leading diplomat in the region. In the last ten years, Theodore has helped to negotiate complex trade deals at Global Affairs Canada, has been a trade envoy to the World Trade Organization, and also represented Canada at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Her last role before becoming Consul General was Chief Of Staff to the Deputy Minister of International Trade.

The difference with this job, is being in the public eye. So there’s no surprise it has come with detractors. But Theodore says she’s disappointed most of them have been women.

“And these are women who, if you had asked me, I would have said oh yes she's a great person. I’m disappointed that people I expected to be allies have turned out not to be. I’m disappointed that, when you try to have a discussion around it, people get very defensive. And I get it, it's human nature. But we talk about supporting women in the workplace and the idea of women supporting each other, but then we can’t have a conversation about this. Or when the conversation is had, it’s often focused on ‘are we being too sensitive’?”

Nevertheless, despite having never even visited Atlanta before, Theodore says people in the city have given her the warmest welcome she has ever received, and she’s loving every moment of her work.

“I love representing my country. I love that I am a Black woman in this position because I love what that says about Canada. When I show up at meetings people assume I am representing the Bahamas for some reason, and they do a double take when I say ‘no, I’m here for Canada’. And I actually love that reaction, it makes me even prouder to be a Canadian.”

Although she has a seat at some of the most powerful tables in North America, Theodore says she battles impostor syndrome, just like many other women. “The first time I was going to meet the Governor of Mississippi, it was just shortly after I took the job, so I was still just figuring out where the bathroom was. And I thought, oh my gosh I cannot do this, who am I fooling? But I draw on my mom’s advice in those moments. She would always say to me, “‘If you’re not a leader, you will be led, so make your choice!’ And I choose to be a leader.”

It’s an intense job though, one that Theodore admits is a lot more taxing on her emotional energy than any of her previous roles. She jokes about wanting a two year nap after this appointment is over in 2020. Her husband, who also worked at Global Affairs in Ottawa, has now taken on a “Supporter in Chief” role at home in Atlanta. They have a 6 year old daughter, who Theodore says keeps her focused on what really matters.

“Mornings are a mad rush at our house, and my daughter always says to me - mommy if you rush too much you will forget something. And I really started thinking about that and realized it applies to so much more than just forgetting your wallet or your hat. You might be rushing so much that you forget how fabulous you are. You might be rushing to get your point across in an argument and forget that the other person is a human, with emotions and might be going through something. You might be rushing your career thinking it’s not going fast enough. And you might end up in that place you wanted real fast, but you might end up forgetting who you are, or your value.”

Theodore’s role as Consul General is strictly non partisan but I can’t help asking about her thoughts on Black women in politics. She reluctantly reveals that she really only has one hope. “What I would like for Black women is not to be boxed into being one thing. You can be Black and Liberal, Black and Conservative or Black and not care about politics at all. But what we must do, is support each other, as women.”

Photo Credit: Nick F. Nelson

Read 179 times Last modified on Sunday, 02 December 2018 13:37
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