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Women of the Arctic Council: Olivia Lassaline

4 March 2024
In honor of International Women’s Day on 8 March, we spoke with some women who work with the Arctic Council to learn more about their important work, opportunities and challenges for women in their field and their advice for young women.

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Olivia Lassaline is the support to the Canadian Head of Delegation for the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) Working Group of the Arctic Council. She works on foreign policy and diplomacy matters related to ocean conservation in the Arctic at the International Oceans Policy team at Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

We spoke with Olivia about her drive to influence change, what drove a hard pivot from pursuing hard security to soft security matters, the importance of lifting women up in their careers and her advice for young women interested in pursuing a career in government affairs.

How did you get into your field of work? What drives your professional development and your career?

I moved to Ottawa from a more rural part of Ontario in 2015 for school. I got my undergraduate degree from the University of Ottawa, and then I completed a master’s at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.

I did my undergrad degree in international studies and languages, and I put a big focus on security matters as I was interested in great power politics. Because of my interest in international affairs, I got hired during my undergrad to work at Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) on a team responsible for hiring, training, and deploying international officers. When I began my masters, I was then chosen to be part of a new team that was being created to advise the Director General on international issues that stood to impact Canadian borders.

I went into my master’s thinking that I wanted to study hard security matters. Then, the summer I was going into my master's, devastating flooding hit the Ottawa-Gatineau region, where I live. It made me realize that I wanted to work on climate change and environmental security, I suppose. So, that made me re-orient what I wanted to do my master's on, and I decided to focus on international environmental affairs. The Arctic seemed to be a really natural convergence of my interests, as it had both those great power elements I was interested in, but also was an opportunity to work on climate change and the environment. After I graduated from my master's, I spent about a year at CBSA. Then, I was really fortunate to land a job with my current team at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, where I can work on all these matters that are really important to me.

What drives my professional development is a desire to influence change, particularly on some of these environmental matters, and being able to help others. I consider myself to be Gen Z and I think that environment and climate change is very front of mind for a lot of Gen Zers, because this is the world that we're going to grow up in. Feeling like I can do something about it means a lot to me.

I think particularly as women it's important to recognize that other women are not your enemy. We don't need to be in competition, and we'll get so much farther if we all work together versus if we see other peoples’ successes as our own failures. Olivia Lassaline

Can you pinpoint a pivotal point in your career or life that has led you to where you are today?

There are a couple of things. The 180° in my career focus that I mentioned earlier – switching from studying security matters to studying climate – was for sure a big pivotal moment.

On a personal note, when I was 10 years old, my family moved to Australia for a year. We lived in the bush, which was drought-stricken at the time. During that year, I was fortunate to be able to go to the Gold Coast and the Great Barrier Reef. I remember thinking that it was so cool and so, so magical. When I was 18, I went back to Australia and went scuba diving in almost the exact same area I has been eight years previously. And just seeing the contrast - I mean, I know nostalgia can do all sorts of things and I probably remembered it as being so much more colorful at 10 years old - but seeing the difference that occurred over just seven or eight years was really crazy. I remember seeing so much more color when I was younger, in contrast there was so much less my second visit. That was impactful.

On a career note, there were some pivotal points where different people helped me get to where I am today. The first was when I was working at CBSA, and my Executive Director at the time said she wanted me to work on the new policy team and be an advisor to the Director General. She gave me that break into policy in the first place because she knew it was something I was interested in. Then, I got into Fisheries and Oceans Canada because the Director in another department within the Government of Canada sat down and had coffee with me and said to me, ‘I think you’re great and I’d like to help you work on these issues you really want to focus on.’ Those couple personal life events and people being willing to help me and give me a shot helped me get where I am today.

What are some skills, traits or values you strive to bring to the workplace?

There was a saying I heard when I was in high school, 'lift while you climb'. It’s the idea that you don’t have to step on other peoples’ heads to achieve success. In fact, you'll get farther by picking each other up and supporting people as you try to make it to wherever you go. Referring back to the couple examples that I mentioned of different women helping me get to where I wanted to be, has really solidified that for me.

I think particularly as women it's important to recognize that other women are not your enemy. We don't need to be in competition, and we'll get so much farther if we all work together versus if we see other peoples’ successes as our own failures. That's something that I really try to keep in mind.

At the tables I’ve sat at with the Arctic Council, there have always been many very strong women. I think there's a desire to get women at the table and I think there's great opportunity in that sense. Olivia Lassaline

What do you think are current challenges and opportunities for women in your career path?

I’ve been very fortunate to be at some of the tables I’m at because there have been so many women at them. In the time that I've worked in the Canadian Government, I've actually never had a male manager. I've always had women as managers, and I think that has really shaped my experience. At the tables I’ve sat at with the Arctic Council, there have always been many very strong women. I think there's a desire to get women at the table and I think there's great opportunity in that sense.

Looking at the Arctic generally, it’s going through a period of transition that is going to affect the discussions that we're having about it. As defense begins to creep into global discussions about the Arctic, that is a very male-dominated space, and I think it will be interesting to see what the impact is. Soft security matters such as the environment, human health, conservation of biodiversity, and so forth need to remain paramount in the Arctic. I think the fact that there are women at those soft security tables compared to a lot of men at the defensive tables who are coming in, and that is something that can worry me, regarding our ability to ensure there remains an equal number of women in Arctic conversations.

Broadly for any woman who's looking to get into policy or governance, my advice would be mentorship, mentorship, mentorship, and in all directions Olivia Lassaline

Do you have a piece of advice for young women who are interested in pursuing a career in your field?

Broadly for any woman who's looking to get into policy or governance, my advice would be mentorship, mentorship, mentorship, and in all directions. Having a mentor is very valuable, and you should try to be a mentor as well. Women at the beginning of their career may have a bit of imposter syndrome surrounding that. But you don't know the help and impact that you can have on people, even with the junior amount of knowledge you might have, and you never know where people are going to end up or who that person that you're having a conversation with might be one day. It's always important to try and give back and to seek support from others.

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