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Laura Dawson: ‘My career path is unorthodox; I stumbled from one thing to the next’

Laura Dawson, 52, is the director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington and a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

I was born in Sault Ste. Marie [Ont.], went to high school in Calgary, dropped out and ran off with the wrong guy, ending up in the Kootenays. I worked in radio as a copywriter. I made all the decisions you don't want your daughter to make. My first child at 20, second at 22, single parent at 23. I had to take algebra to get into college, part time, with giant student loans.

A professor suggested I take an international-relations course – to me, political-science people were men in the cafeteria playing Risk. We discussed women in Sandinistas, campesinos, trade agreements around that time [of] Canada/U.S. free trade – terrible things! I was on that crusade. I was good at international relations, terrible if you want to earn money quickly.

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With two little kids, you can't get summer jobs, so I had to go on social assistance – the faculty found me jobs, mentored me. I was a Calgary Olympics mascot; I saw the costume at the airport and it brought a tear to my eye. I got the first degree from [the] University of British Columbia – Okanagan. The faculty said for [my masters in] political science I had to go to Ottawa, which with two kids was like going to Mars. I took a leap of faith, to the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carlton University. The administrator found me a research assistantship – physical anthropology – stones and bones. I learned quickly and hauled skulls around.

I'm a trade geek. I started as a research assistant, staying 15 years at the Centre for Trade Policy and Law. I worked with retired diplomats who'd been trade negotiators – old grumpy guys – they whipped me into shape. I travelled the world with the centre. I got my PhD at 40, the year my son graduated high school. A job came up as an economic adviser at the U.S. embassy. Flash forward 20 years, all those guys, I've replaced them.

The biggest shift since 2005 has been democratization, the accessibility of trade. Trade is technical, not amenable to sound bites so I keep it accessible. If I have a niche, it's to explain complex matters in ways people understand and expand the benefit of trade to people who need it. I do 40 speaking engagements a year; women ask how I got to do what I do. Some comes from being an outsider – I came from a fractured family, know what it's like to not feel I belonged or privileged, was an imposter. The people who helped when I was finding my way were extraordinarily important.

My career path is unorthodox; I stumbled from one thing to the next. I trusted that good luck and hard work would get me where I wanted. I was never encumbered by a big government pension or tenure track preventing me from blundering into the next thing. When I was a professor, students used to be in states of angst, stressed they weren't on the path they thought. You can do a lot in your 40s and 50s, important and worthwhile things – we're an aging population and healthier. Give yourself a break if you're 25 and stressed.

When Americans think of Canadians at all, they think of Canadians in a very favourable way but don't realize the interconnectedness of the relationship. I ask if they know Canada is the largest buyer of U.S. exports, largest supplier of energy, one of the largest foreign investors – they don't know. The challenge is so great to educate and inform Americans about Canada and Canada-U.S. issues. Justin [Trudeau] is beloved here. My junior staff are smitten. We have a Justin selfies stage; a big frame with pictures. For Canada Day, there's all sorts of fancy parties – we do a happy hour for interns. We started primarily with our own but extended it this year to all Canadian interns in the embassy, World Bank, the Alberta and Quebec offices.

I miss fundamental civility; Canadians think twice before they say or do something. Then I miss silly things … that cabinet [Ms. Dawson points to a cabinet] is full of maple cookies, Coffee Crisp bars, all-dressed chips. We use swag for happy hour.

I love Washington. Every day you're in the midst of political drama. It's exciting but you have to maintain perspective – if you're spending your time reading 140-character tweets, you're not getting anything done.

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As told to Cynthia Martin. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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