Stepping onto the world stage

Elias León assis dans son bureau devant le drapeau des Nations Unies.

“The level of critical analysis, research, communication and diplomacy skills you develop in the Model UN course are unmatched.”

— Elias León

By Stephen Dale

The whiteboard over Elias León’s desk is crammed with a dizzying array of arrows and to-do lists. The crowded board offers a daunting reminder of all that must be done in advance of next year’s Canadian International Model United Nations (CANIMUN) conference.

León, a 23-year old project officer with the United Nations Association in Canada (UNAC), oversees all aspects of CANIMUN, Canada’s largest bilingual conference, held annually since 2003.

It’s his job to recruit the 800 student delegates and assign them the countries whose positions they will argue in a Model United Nations assembly resembling the actual UN. He also arranges opportunities for delegates to meet real-world diplomats and manages the conference staff. 

Despite the challenges of the job, it seems ideal for León. A model UN assembly participant himself in high school, León was delighted when participants from his alma mater, uOttawa, won numerous awards during a model UN assembly in New York this year.

In his time at the University, León benefited not only from wide-ranging in-class instruction, but also from foreign exchange and work placement experiences. He joined UNAC just weeks after graduating with an Honours BSocSc in International Studies and Modern Languages.

“I wrote my last exam in mid-December 2014, went on two weeks’ vacation and was hired right away when I got back,” he recalls.

Climate summit

In his first year on the job, León has had ample opportunity to hone the organizational and negotiating skills he envisions as essential to his future career. With plans to return to school to study law, León’s sights are set on eventually becoming a diplomat and a lawyer in the area of international arbitration. 

In addition to being responsible for CANIMUN, León oversees UNAC’s work on climate change. He was the association’s sole representative at the recent COP 21 conference in Paris, which produced a new, legally binding global climate agreement. 

Catherine McKenna and Elias León smiling.

Elias León with federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna.

León presented UNAC’s report, the result of extensive consultations with provincial governments, businesses, Indigenous communities, academic experts and civil society organizations. He oversaw the research and edited the report, which was discussed at a meeting of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

He also presented it to the conference’s parallel NGO and civil society summit and to Canada’s new environment minister, Catherine McKenna, and several provincial environment ministers.

“This is a very interesting time to be working for an organization like this,” he says. “Not so long ago, there were only state-to-state relations. But now there is a focus on partnerships, innovation and inclusion, and it’s not just nations that are called upon to act.”

Intense experiences

Participating in COP 21 offered León a welcome excuse to return to Paris, where he had spent a year as a uOttawa exchange student at the prestigious Sciences Po university. That was just one undergraduate opportunity that he believes greatly enhanced his prospects for working on the international stage.

He also took part in what he calls a “very intense” summer internship at the Mexican Embassy in Washington, where he worked in the NAFTA division coordinating Mexico’s participation in negotiations on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

Since assuming his current role at UNAC, León has become reacquainted with the model UN assembly. The University sends a delegation to a mock UN conference in New York every spring. Delegates are students who have been accepted into the special Model UN course taught by political scientist Miguel de Larrinaga.

León was involved with model assemblies in his youth. In high school in Venezuela, he recalls being called to the principal’s office. “I thought, ‘Uh-oh, what did I do?’ But he actually asked me to represent the school in a model UN conference.” After his family moved “to cold Alberta,” as he puts it, in the winter of 2008, his association with the program lapsed as he learned English. But by Grade 11, he was back on board.

An expansive worldview

León enrolled at uOttawa, because of its proximity to government and the opportunity to learn French. Although he didn’t take the Model UN course — he was at Sciences Po the year he could have taken it — his current work organizing the CANIMUN gathering has reinforced his view of model assembles as tremendous opportunities for globally minded students.

“The level of critical analysis, research, communication and diplomacy skills you develop in the Model UN course are unmatched,” he says.

Jason Hanson (BSocSc '15) agrees. Now headed to graduate school, Hanson was first a student delegate in the Model UN course, before working as a teaching assistant for the course for the past two years. He served as head delegate during the latest session, in March 2016, when the delegation — representing the United Kingdom — won the Distinguished Delegation award and an impressive 12 awards for policy briefs they presented.

As the course TA, Hanson has gathered students’ feedback. Many students, he says, particularly those specializing in international law or international development, enjoy delving deeply into the foreign policy of another country, researching topics that get little attention in Canada.

“The students also told us they were glad to get the practical approach to complement the theoretical learning you get in other university courses,” he adds. “They were able to apply what they learned by interacting with students not just from here but from other institutions.”  

A group shot of about 30 smiling people on the grounds of the United Nations headquarters. One man holds a sign that says “United Kingdom,” and another holds an award certificate.

The University’s 2016 Model UN team, representing the United Kingdom, won an impressive 12 Outstanding Position Paper awards in New York this spring. Photo: Jason Hanson.

International citizens

Professor de Larrinaga says a prime benefit of the experience is that “students develop people skills — not only having to deal with different characters and temperaments, but working together as a large group. In some cases, you could be writing a resolution with 30 or 40 other countries.”

Along with other opportunities for social sciences students, such as field research courses and international internships and exchanges, the Model UN course allows participants to “develop as international citizens,” he says.

León, now wearing his hat as UNAC project officer, recommends the experience to anyone contemplating a career in the global arena.

“If you take it seriously, if you are passionate about it, you develop many transferable skills that will always help you,” he says.

Watch an award-winning video about uOttawa’s Model UN program.

Main photo:
Elias León, pictured in the Ottawa office of the UN Association in Canada, hopes to become a diplomat and lawyer. Photo: Robert Lacombe.

Elias León assis dans son bureau devant le drapeau des Nations Unies.

Elias León outside the Paris conference centre where the UN climate change summit took place in December 2015. Photo: Alena Kotelnikova

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