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Taking a chance

Stephen de Boer's journey to represent Canada on the world stage started with the courage to go 'down the road'

by Adela Talbot, BA'08, MA'11

Stephen de Boer felt it brewing as early as he can remember.

Growing up in a small town, the third of four children to immigrant Dutch parents, he sensed the restlessness early. It grew in tandem with a quiet self-doubt.

“I had a hankering from an early age to leave home. When I was in high school, I was interested in doing a Rotary exchange and leaving the country for a year. Part of that was birth order, but to a certain extent, I had what you would call impostor syndrome,” said de Boer, BA’86 (Political Science), LLB’89, Canada’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva.

Stephen de Boer, BA'86, LLB'89 (photo by Geoff Robins)
Stephen de Boer, BA'86, LLB'89 (photo by Geoff Robins)

When he arrived at Western in the 1980s, de Boer wasn’t certain he belonged. Originally from Goderich, Ont., with grades that could take him anywhere, he felt almost obligated to follow his peers to co-op programs at other institutions.

He didn’t really consider “the school down the road.” But when he arrived on campus for a tour, de Boer knew Western was the right fit.

What he didn’t know was that he would find his legs – and a footing that would take him around the world – so close to home.

After completing his undergraduate degree in Political Science and getting involved with the Young Liberals on campus, de Boer was accepted into the Faculty of Law. He was granted an exchange with Case Western Reserve University’s School of Law and was offered a spot at Duke University before moving to Georgetown to pursue an LLM. He landed an articling job on Bay Street upon graduation, and thereafter, saw all doors as open.

He’s not sure what pulled him towards international trade law. De Boer just knew he had a definite interest in international things. Trade seemed practical.

While he was in law school, the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement was in negotiations; the 1988 election was looming and he saw Canadians starting to engage in discussions of free trade, though “not in any sophisticated way.”

While de Boer was interested in contributing to the conversation, his path to the WTO took a winding, global route with stops in Poland, Morocco, Argentina and India – among others – as he pursued a career in law, climate change and trade.

After a stint in the Ontario provincial government, de Boer joined Global Affairs Canada in 2005, working in Investment Trade Policy and North America Trade Policy Divisions. The following year, he was named Director of the Softwood Lumber Division, later shifting gears and serving as Director of the Oceans and Environmental Law Division and Lead Counsel for Canada’s international climate change negotiations.

In 2010, he joined Environment Canada as the Deputy Chief Negotiator for climate change and the Director General responsible for Canada’s international climate change negotiations and partnerships. He took the reins of the Trade Controls Bureau in 2013, serving for two years before becoming the Ambassador to Poland, then Ambassador to Belarus. He has served as Canada’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the WTO for the past year.

“I haven’t made a lot of deliberate choices in my career,” de Boer said. “Most of the things that happened to me have been at the request of someone in senior management.

“People say there’s all these secrets to success – but doing a good job is quite underrated. You can spend a lot of time making sure you get face time with your boss, you could be very political about it, or you could put your head down and do a good job and people will notice.”

Part of his success can be attributed to taking risks, often embracing opportunities that seemed too difficult – even unappealing – at first. De Boer was habitually hesitant to turn these down; he didn’t want to pre-emptively close doors such challenges could have afforded.|

“When I was asked to do something hard, I thought it could be really good because the last time I did something hard, it worked out really well. It was personally satisfying and professionally, it moved me forward.

“Students are looking for the magic bullet – but there isn’t necessarily a magic bullet. Doing a good job and showing up isn’t rocket science, but it’s worth remembering,” he said.

De Boer sees his career as united by the theme of multilateralism – which is increasingly presenting a challenge for Canada in both trade and climate change. For Canada to advance in either, let alone become a leader, collaborative approaches are essential. When it comes to climate change, if one party doesn’t pull its weight, everyone suffers, he explained.

And when it comes to trade, the current political climate is not setting the stage for a promising future.

“We are facing some pretty serious challenges because the United States’ commitment to multilateralism is not as clear as it was; there seems to be a sense that ‘might makes right.’ If we are going to liberalize trade and pull all countries up, and aid in their development, we need to be working together,” de Boer noted.

Canada’s economic dependence on the United States won’t change overnight, he added, though the government is working towards diversifying trade with the Canada-European Union (EU) Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. There is promise, and there is momentum; de Boer is responsible for building on that and creating markets for Canadian goods and services in diverse contexts.

He knows multilateralism is made possible by forging and fostering international connections and hopes more students would take advantage of international opportunities.

“Canada will do good in the world to the extent that we engage with the world. We have to leave at some point and come back – I hope. I would encourage students to spend a year abroad, do a graduate degree abroad, and if you are at Western, you have the opportunity to do that. I get the cold feet, the thinking that
maybe this isn’t the right thing to do, but you should do it.”

This article appeared in the Fall 2018 edition of Alumni Gazette
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