Canadian envoy to UN says past mental health fight has her ready for COVID-19


OTTAWA — As she watched the novel coronavirus swallow a helpless New York City, transforming it into the twin epicentre of the pandemic, Louise Blais found lessons in her own past for how to slay a demon.

Blais, one of Canada’s two deputy ambassadors the United Nations, survived the post 9/11 anthrax scare as a young diplomat and mother in Washington, D.C. But less than a decade later, it all came crashing down while she was serving in Paris.

Blais suffered a massive nervous breakdown that stopped her life and career. She lost weight and the will to eat, suffered facial paralysis, heart palpitations and numerous other symptoms. She realizes now that she was also felled because she was a bad boss, whose hard-driving style sparked a staff mutiny.

“I had a massive burnout in Paris 10 years ago. I basically had to rebuild myself from scratch,” Blais, 53, said over the telephone this week from her New York home office.

“I’m so glad it happened to me back then and I built the kind of resilience now that not only helps me through the crisis but also can help my team and my co-workers and my colleagues from other missions.”

Blais said she decided to speak publicly about her own past mental breakdown because she has already “come out” within Global Affairs Canada and because others might find it useful as they cope with mental health challenges during the pandemic.

Today, in addition to co-managing a major diplomatic mission under threat, Blais is a member of the task force at Global Affairs Canada that is administering the department’s “duty of care” response to protect its diplomats abroad. She worked on the early March recall to Canada of staff who have health vulnerabilities, including for age or diseases that can render people more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

The diplomatic staff that remain at their posts throughout the world are trying to help the more than 370,000 Canadians abroad who have registered with the government. On Monday alone, the department’s Emergency Watch and Response Centre answered more than 1,300 phone calls and 2,847 emails from Canadians.

This includes the ongoing effort to bring home as many as possible, while offering in-country consular assistance to those who remain behind.

“This is something that is being felt personally” for the career diplomats and locally hired employees still at their posts in New York, a place Blais calls “the epicentre of both the pandemic and the global response.”

More than 7,000 people have died from the coronavirus in New York state, almost half the overall American death toll of 15,000.

The UN mission is feeling the effects too. One mission employee has tested positive for COVID-19 and there are six more presumptive cases, she said, which is a significant number in an embassy with about 40 diplomats.

Blais said Canada’s UN mission remains “closely connected” to the representatives of the 192 other countries based in New York. Essentially everyone is working from home and Canada’s efforts are focused on measuring the economic impact (to decide who best to help later), and the impact on food security, UN peacebuilding missions, human rights and the ability of the UN itself to keep doing business.

Canada is working with non-members of the Security Council to prod that crucial body to do more.

Canada is technically still vying against Norway and Ireland for one of two temporary seats on the council in a vote currently scheduled for June.

“We’re focusing on what Canada can do. How can we be helpful, and the chips will fall where they may,” said Blais, adding that any attempt at direct, active campaigning would be “tone deaf.”

The UN General Assembly will decide in May whether votes scheduled to take place in June — including the June 17 Security Council ballot — will be able to take place.

“There’s a been a lot of work being done at the UN in the last week or two on how we can still function without showing up physically,” she said. “We’ll have to wait and see what technology can do.”

This week, the Global Affairs department received some bad news when its top public servant, Deputy Minister Marta Morgan, tested positive with COVID-19.

“We know she will pull through and teach us a few lessons in the process,” Blais said on Twitter.

In the interview, Blais said the number one lesson she learned from her breakdown is that leaders of all stripes need to make the welfare of their staff their top priority.

“It was more what was going on inside of me that was the problem,” she said. “I was a very hard-driven person. I had no patience for anyone that wasn’t performing at the highest of levels, so I had to completely change my leadership style.”

It took her three months from “not being functional at all to emerging” and then another year to apply a hard lesson when she went back to work: put employees’ welfare first.

“I don’t focus on the output because that will come if I’m focusing on the most important thing, which is them,” she said.

“I’ve been absolutely shocked in my career how that shift has actually made work around me more productive than driving people based on results.”

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press