A World of Curiosity: Jeannette Menzies, Canada’s Ambassador to Iceland
Alumna’s inquisitiveness leads to opportunities around the globe
For Jeannette Menzies ’95 (M.A., Canadian Heritage and Development Studies), Canada’s current ambassador to Iceland, comparisons between her alma mater and the small northern nation come easily.
“Iceland is a very dynamic and engaging country,” she notes. “It’s not massively huge. In a country the size of Iceland, I’ve made fast friends within the community, within government, and with other embassies. It allows for things to happen.”
Jeannette found the same type of dynamic, engaging community at Trent, where she obtained her M.A. in Canadian Heritage and Development Studies.
During her brief stay in Peterborough, she worked with students and faculty to launch a Canadian Studies conference, Avancer: The Student Journal of Canadian Studies, about “things beyond the postcard: things that we don’t know about Canada.” She also became editor of the publication of the same name.
She’s unsure this would have happened at a larger, less close-knit university.
“At Trent, I had more independence to think and to do things. More confidence,” she says,
Trent also helped fuel her desire to tell the story of Canada.
As an undergraduate at the University of Manitoba, Jeannette was inspired by the work of Trent founding president THB Symons – in particular, his book To Know Ourselves: The Report of the Commission on Canadian Studies. In fact, writing to Dr. Symons for advice on her next steps in Canadian Studies led her to eventually doing her graduate work at Trent, with her thesis under his supervision (along with professors John Wadland and Julia Harrison).
“To know where you’re from, to know the nation you identify with, helps you understand the world,” she says of her respect for Canadian Studies. “It gives you a lens on the world. Of course it comes with its biases…”
Showing others a fuller view of Canada and confronting these biases, however, is part of her job.
“My thesis was about an unknown part of Canada, that I didn’t know, about a national park (Yoho National Park in BC) and the internment of Ukrainians during World War I. I feel what I’ve tried to do in my personal life and my professional life is to try and share the things about Canada that we know and that we also not know, and things about our history that we’re not proud of. I think it’s important to discuss these and share these. And for Canada to learn from them. But other countries can also learn from how we are addressing those wrongs.”
Jeannette joined the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in 2001. But it was far from a straight path from her academic studies to an ambassadorial role.
“Trent taught me to be curious,” she explains. “I had no plan. I stayed open minded and curious. I simply followed my interests. And I maintained connections with people along the way. That has helped to open doors and to form a fascinating career.”
Her interests in the historical side of parks led Jeannette to wanting to become a park ranger. Because there were no jobs open in that field, she ended up volunteering at national parks in Alaska and Utah.
Her curiosity led her to apply for an internship with the Canadian High Commission, the success of which sent her to Australia for a year and made her realize how much she enjoyed embassy work.
“I could actually have a job travelling while talking about Canada!”
Even then, though, the path strayed.
“Not all doors opened,” she says. “So, I just looked for other doors. At times my interests didn’t work, because I needed to make money; so, I made sure I found something interesting that paid.”
This led her to a stint as a cycling guide in France.
Eventually returning to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Jeannette served in various roles, including senior adviser to the assistant deputy minister of Consular Affairs and Emergency Management, deputy director of Circumpolar Affairs and deputy director of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Response. In her time abroad with the department, she has served as political officer in Ankara, where she was responsible for bilateral relations with Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan; and as head of the Canadian International Centre for the Arctic Region in Oslo during Canada’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council. From 2015 to 2019, she was a director at Polar Knowledge Canada, where she established domestic and international partnerships at the Canadian High Arctic Research Station Campus in Nunavut. Prior to taking up her position in Iceland, she was senior adviser in the Nordic and Polar Relations Division.
In all these roles, her curiosity has helped inform and guide her.
“I would say that is probably the most important and valuable aspect of my education on my embassy and ambassador roles,” she explains. “That curiosity. That desire to ask questions and to listen as well as share.”
As for that Iceland/Trent comparison? Jeannette is not the first alum to have a professional opinion on these relatively small communities. Stewart Wheeler ’88 (International Studies) also served as Canadian Ambassador to Iceland.
“Canada has had an embassy in Iceland for 20 years now,” she notes. “I think there’s been a total of five or six Canadian ambassadors, two of which have been Trent alumni. Maybe there’s something in the water here, but I hope Trent continues this tradition.”
The Frost Centre welcomed Jeannette Menzies '95 back to Trent as part of the Canadian Studies 50th Anniversary Conversations and Celebrations. Her talk, From Trent to Reykjavik – the Path of Canada’s Current Ambassador to Iceland, was hosted in Bagnani Hall at Catharine Parr Traill College on January 25, 2023, and allowed her the opportunity to reflect on her experiences at Trent and at Global Affairs Canada in front of students, staff, and fellow alumni.