Former Canadian diplomat Gordon Houlden, now with the University of Alberta’s China Institute, detailed recently in Policy Options how Ottawa has difficulty finding skilled Mandarin speakers to fill Canadian foreign service postings in China. As a first generation immigrant from China with the requisite language and cultural skills, and as someone who has always wanted to work for the foreign service, I felt compelled to respond to Houlden’s article. I do not believe that the issue is the lack of qualified candidates; the issue is the foreign service recruitment system.

Ever since I immigrated at age five, I wanted to be a diplomat. While other kids talked about movie stars, I was that geeky girl who wanted to discuss the latest political developments in Israel. Throughout school, I worked tirelessly to ensure that I had the right qualifications to enter the foreign service. I studied French and Mandarin, majored in political science and even lived abroad for a year in Asia. I knew that in order to enter the Foreign Service, I would first have to write the foreign service exam. While I have never been a strong test-taker, I was confident that my language skills, my straight A transcript and my various international experiences would qualify me for an interview, even if my exam score was not as strong. But I was wrong.

When I wrote the foreign service exam in 2005, it was multiple choice and extremely confusing. One particular question from that exam comes to mind: “You catch your co-worker consistently using the copier for personal use against government policy, what do you do? (a) Tell your boss about this violation. (b) Personally confront your co-worker and tell them to stop. (c) Do nothing because it is not your business.”

I remember wondering how there could be a correct response to this question when all of the choices could be accurate depending on the cultural context. I must have answered incorrectly because I was never chosen for an interview – all of my other qualifications be damned. I was never given any feedback on the exam, since I never even received a response.

Throughout school, I worked tirelessly to ensure that I had the right qualifications to enter the foreign service.

Distraught at my failure and desperate for another way in, I approached a government representative and asked what else I could do. He said “go to law school.”

And so I did.

While there is no longer a foreign service exam, Global Affairs Canada still uses the same outdated testing methods to recruit external candidates. As of 2011, candidates wanting to enter the foreign service must apply through the post-secondary recruitment campaign to take the online multiple choice public service entrance exam (PSEE). Candidates who pass the PSEE are invited for another test, this time in-person and supervised. Once the candidate passes this second test, they are then put into a qualified pool from which they may be selected for an interview. From there, even more testing may follow.

In my time at McGill Law, I met many Canadians who were qualified in every way to take on the roles that Houlden speaks about. Not only do they have Mandarin ability, they are fluent in French, are passionate about Canada and don’t require any cultural training. Houlden himself acknowledges that there are 1.5 million Canadians of Chinese origin who could be valuable assets. If the Government of Canada truly cared to fill the gap, they would have a glut of qualified candidates only by keeping their eyes open at any university career day.

The problem is not the lack of qualified candidates. The problem is a recruitment system that triages candidates based on a multiple choice exam. For starters, a multiple choice exam does not give any insight into a person’s ability to navigate living, working and representing Canada in a foreign country far from home. Why are we still using such an outdated method to pick those who are the brand representative of our country abroad?

The problem is not the lack of qualified candidates. The problem is a recruitment system that triages candidates based on a multiple choice exam.

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The problem can be easily fixed simply by changing the format of the exam. Instead of having multiple choice, require short answers so that candidates can justify their responses. Further, it is unclear to me why the government insists on the exam being a mystery, when there is no obvious problem with giving at least some guidance to candidates on how to prepare for the exam. Forcing candidates to walk into the exam without any sense of what the exam is testing for adds to the confusion over what the government is trying to test for through this process.

Toward the end of my third year at law school in 2010, I once again eagerly went over to the foreign service recruitment table set up at McGill Law career day. I once again asked about how to apply to the foreign service. Exams, the lady said: “More exams.” I tried to speak about my language skills, about my legal experience and about my interest in other cultures. All I got back was a blank stare. Go online and register for the exam, she said. And that was that.

The system was impenetrable, and I was on the outside.

At that point I thought, if graduating from McGill Law with decent grades was not good enough, if speaking multiple languages, having legal experience and loving my country was still not good enough, then I just didn’t know what was. I walked away from that recruitment table feeling utterly dejected because it no longer made any sense to continue with more exams and uncertainty when high paying law firms were happy to give me a job.

No, there isn’t a lack of qualified candidates. Go to any university and you’ll find young people with Mandarin skills eager to serve Canada. Go attend a Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyer event and you’ll find plenty of lawyers who started out wanting to be in the Foreign Service and are still looking for a way in. No, the problem isn’t the lack of qualified candidates. The problem is the foreign service recruitment system.

Photo: Tom Wang /

This article is part of the Canada-China Relations Special Feature.


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Wela Quan
Wela Quan is a legal cartoonist and the author of the New York Bar Picture Book, a visual study guide for the New York state bar exam. A graduate of the University of Alberta and McGill University law, Wela worked as a corporate lawyer in New York City.

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