Rules of engagement
By Mike Foster
Flags displayed in the right place?
Names spelled correctly and proper honorifics and titles recognized?
Dinner seating arrangements negotiated to respect the parliamentary pecking order of international guests? Speaking order correct?
Hmm … Check.
Such is the life of Elizabeth Rody (BA ʼ83, Communications Studies), an expert in parliamentary diplomacy and protocol. After a 30-year career in which she has met and worked with world leaders such as Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Pope Francis and Barack Obama, Rody says protocol is about much more than state-level etiquette and procedural politeness.
“Protocol is like communications. We are sending a message. If we don’t do something properly, we might be sending a wrong message,” says Rody, who has been Chief of Protocol for the Parliament of Canada since January 2003. “It is also the art of negotiating and diplomacy. When we receive delegations from different countries, everybody has their list of what they want and how they do things. We have to find common ground to make sure that an event is flawless. It is very important that world leaders have a proper setting to make sure that they can effectively do their work with no interference.”
In her role at the International and Inter-parliamentary Affairs Directorate, Rody developed many of the protocol procedures on Parliament Hill and works for the Speakers of the Senate and of the House of Commons. She is in charge of making sure that everything goes according to script during official visits from heads of state, heads of government and dignitaries, as well as during conferences and special events.
Things don’t always go according to plan, however. Sudden events can change everything, such as when former federal Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty died of a heart attack last April. A state lunch with visiting President of Peru Ollanta Humala had to be interrupted and the room on Parliament Hill rearranged so that Prime Minister Stephen Harper could address his Conservative caucus, says Rody. Polite explanations and apologies had to be offered to the delegation from Peru.
Throughout her career, Rody has been involved in helping to organize the G8 Summit in Kananaskis, Alberta in 2002, the G20 Summit in Toronto and the G8 Summit in Huntsville in 2010.
She has witnessed the evolution of the entire field of protocol since she was first hired as a junior clerk in what was then known as the Parliamentary Relations Secretariat. Back then, it was just her and an administrative assistant, organizing hospitality events for the NATO Parliamentary Association and the Canada-Europe Parliamentary Association. Today, Rody heads up a department of 14 people and has taught a course on protocol at Algonquin College.
“When I started here, we were two people and we spent our days just writing invitations. Protocol was not a profession then. The job has evolved because the world has evolved. We live in a global community,” says Rody, adding that Canada’s reputation in terms of organizing state visits and ceremonial events with pomp and circumstance is second-to-none. “I think we are experts, we are trailblazers. We have thought up new ways of doing things.”
She describes her role as that of a “backroom facilitator”. She makes sure that the Canadian order of precedence – a hierarchy that ranks the importance of officials – is followed during speaking engagements and for seating arrangements. Parliamentary protocol covers what happens on the Hill during parliamentary events. Protocol for state events is handled jointly with Canadian Heritage and, when events involve other countries, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, says Rody. Each Canadian province and territory has its own protocol office and Rody says they all work well together when events overlap jurisdictions.
She concedes that it is an amazing feeling to be exchanging letters with the White House and meeting some of the most influential people of our time.
“I greet them, introduce them, walk with them on the Hill. It is a great honour. I am not engaging them in world affairs but we have good discussions,” says Rody. “It gives you an insight on the world.”
A personal highlight was meeting Nelson Mandela twice: the first time after he had just been released from prison and was visiting Canada to address Parliament, and the second time when he received his honorary Canadian citizenship.
“There are people that really do have that charisma when they are in the room. He was very humble and so honoured to be here. To have lived what he lived through, and still have a smile on his face, it was amazing,” says Rody.
At times, there must have been some big egos to manage and many opportunities for missteps and disputes. What has been the worst faux-pas she has encountered? What has been the pettiest feud over miniscule points of protocol? Rody is too professional to dish the dirt.
“It is not my place to say. It is like a code of ethics, like lawyer-client privilege,” says Rody, laughing. “It can be as simple as a mistake in the spelling of a name, or getting a title wrong. If you get it wrong at the beginning, it goes into the newspapers wrong and that can be extremely insulting. Protocol is all about respect, and not creating offense.”
Although she is used to working behind the scenes, Rody has taken on a more visible role as President of the University of Ottawa Alumni Association. She was elected to the two-year term in November 2014 and wants the association to be more present on campus. Today’s students need to see that the 190,000-strong alumni community is there to support them now, she says. To this end, Rody led the 2015 drive to raise more than 350,000 Aeroplan Miles to help send students abroad to learn as they volunteer in community engagement projects. As an ambassador for the Aeroplan Beyond Miles Charitable Pooling Program, Rody sent a letter to alumni when the campaign launched last month, urging them to donate unused Aeroplan Miles. Rody, who last month went to Quito, Ecuador, to observe the Asia-Pacific Parliamentary Conference, which is being hosted by Canada next year, donated more than 8,000 of her own Aeroplan Miles. After all, her own daughter, Catherine Maathuis, is a third-year computer engineering student at uOttawa.
“We just want to be there to support youth and make sure they get everything they need to become good citizens of the world, to contribute to a caring world,” says Rody. “And students should realize that they are the alumni of the future.”
Looking ahead, Rody says that 2015 will be an exciting year. It will see the official opening during Alumni Week in May of an Alumni Hall to host stimulating lectures and serve as a gathering place for alumni, professors and students. And the University’s new Defy the Conventional rallying cry is in full swing.
“I think the Defy the Conventional campaign is brilliant because it does break that stereotype of Ottawa being a bit humdrum,” says Rody. “The city is starting to become more cosmopolitan; we are getting more foreign students interested in the University. We have great assets, like bilingualism, community engagement and experiential learning. It is a different world and the kids want to make a difference. The University has caught up with that and I am very impressed. The first time I heard the [Defy the Conventional] ad on French radio I thought ‘wow, well done.’ It made me feel proud to be a graduate. I hope that alumni, when they hear these ads and see our website, feel the same way and get involved.”
Protocol is about communication, negotiation and diplomacy, says Elizabeth Rody, Chief of Protocol at the Parliament of Canada for over a decade. Photo: Denis Drever Photography.