Find out how this alumn became one of Canada's most influential ambassadors and policy makers 

Susan cartwright posing with Prime Minister Stephen Harper

In a 2008 article in Maclean's Magazine, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s inner circle was described as a place with, “no room for sentiment or tolerance for failure.” This characterization may have been sensational, but it highlights that service at the most-senior levels of the Canadian government is likely a high pressure-environment. That’s exactly where University of Waterloo, Faculty of Environment alumna Susan Cartwright found herself for much of the past 31 years.

Just prior to her retirement last year, Prime Minister Harper called the one-time UW Geography Master’s student, “a professional’s professional.” He also went on to say that they, “didn’t always agree, but I always got very good counsel, advice and effort, maybe because we didn’t always agree, actually.”

Cartwright’s  career began shortly after completing her Master’s degree under the supervision of Waterloo’s renowned Geography professor Bruce Mitchell with whom she remains friends. “I was looking at conflict resolution and the management of natural resources,” she explains, joking that “the first part has come in handy.”

Itching to get out into the workforce following her studies, Cartwright passed the Foreign Service exam and headed overseas with stops in Nairobi, Melbourne, Lagos, and Mumbai. Having risen through the ranks, she eventually served as Canada’s ambassador to Hungary, Slovenia and Albania during those countries’ difficult transition to a democracy and market economy.

Once back on Canadian soil, Cartwright worked in Fisheries and Oceans Canada before arriving at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat. It was with the Treasury Board Secretariat that she drafted the Federal Accountability Act – a landmark piece of legislation in maintaining Canada’s accountable and ethical government.  

Senior level public servants never stay in one place for too long, and Cartwright’s career path is typically diverse. From the Treasury Board Secretariat she accepted a position with Health Canada as Associate Deputy Minister and her penultimate stop was as Foreign and Defence Policy Advisor to the Prime Minister, and Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet.

Though she didn’t spend much time in Waterloo, she remembers the city and campus fondly. Her academic experience also helped her later on in her career. “As a geographer, you learn right off the bat that there are all kinds of ways of looking at issues,” she says. “You could lay the same issue out and have physical, human, social and political geographers and climatologists, you name it, and they’ll all look at the same issue and bring something slightly different to it.”

In Cartwright’s time with Fisheries and Oceans, she came face to face with ecological issues, and had to help make tough decisions. “I was responsible for the aquaculture program and so we supported research on both coasts about the impact of farmed salmon,” Cartwright explains. “All the work of trying to get the prices of fish licences right, was related to stock management.”  Cartwright also had to help make difficult decisions about fishery closures “but it was about ensuring the survival of the stock and future generations of fishermen and communities,” as she notes.

Following her retirement, Cartwright hasn’t strayed too far from the natural environment. She currently runs Pike Cottage, based in a 19th century cottage on the banks of the Tay Canal near Perth, Ontario. There she produces a variety of artworks, home decor items, and other crafts inspired by the colours of the region and the plants, animals and birds that inhabit the area. 

“I try to use natural and recycled materials, so I do a lot of work with wood sculptures, plant prints, recycled and felted wool, and we make lamps out of found items. It’s wonderful.”

The Waterloo alumna isn’t completely done with public service either. She is a part-time Commissioner of the Public Service Commission, which safeguards merit and non-partisanship in the public service, and is a member of the Board of the Ottawa Hospital Foundation.

“I spend time volunteering to support both the hospital and the research institute where we are performing world class research, including the areas of cancer treatment and stem cell use, which is fascinating,” she says. A breast cancer survivor, she adds “I really didn’t want to be defined by my illness, and so I decided I would put my volunteer efforts towards the hospital itself which is such an important national and international centre of research and teaching.”