“Put yourself in a position where you’ll learn something new.”
That’s advice Alex Paterson first heard at Western, and has applied throughout his career, from roles at the CBC and Greenpeace, to his current role as Director of Communications and Operations for Canada 2020.
Paterson, BA’08 (Media and Public Interest), embraced that philosophy early on, serving as President of the Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS) Student Council and coordinator of Theatre Western, and taking an internship at CBC Sports, “which,” he laughed, “if you knew me better, you’d know that’s hilarious.”
Lack of athleticism notwithstanding, he drove to Toronto two days a week in his final year, assuming a variety of duties in sports, including prep work in advance of the Beijing Summer Games, before heading off to Malaysia for a six-month practicum in Kuala Lumpur working at the Centre for Independent Journalism.
“That was never a part of the world where I expected to spend an extended period of time,” he said.
“It was a very ‘state-controlled’ media environment. We often forget that having a blog back in 2008 was seen as ‘infantile’ in the West, and more like a personal diary, but in Malaysia, having a blog was a vital tool for activists or community groups to get around the mainstream media, and get their stories out.”
The experience “gave me a real insight into how important it is for interest groups, or just communities, to tell their own stories,” Paterson said, “and how technology and digital media can enable people to do that.”
Echoes of that experience would ring out in the roles to come, but first, it was back to the CBC.
“When I was back from Malaysia, I gave them a call, and I ended up being a 21-year-old kid working in the CBC Newsworld newsroom as a producer for the weekend news broadcast.
“I was having severe imposter syndrome throughout that whole experience,” he said, “but it was really great. I was working in the public media, which was something I strongly believed in, having studied a lot about it during my time in FIMS. It was like a ‘crash course’ in the basic tenets of broadcast journalism.
“Then they turned me into a field producer, and I was covering a lot of protests out in the field, and through that, got more involved and in touch with activist communities and advocacy groups. It was from there that Greenpeace Canada found me.”
As hard as it was to leave the CBC, Paterson felt “it was one of those things that just made sense. My degree was in covering and studying the intersection between digital technologies, communication strategies and advocacy and social change. To be a communications and digital strategist for Greenpeace; if ever there was a job tailor-made for a MPI graduate, that was it.”
From touring the Alberta oilsands to working on the Greenpeace Oceans and Boreal Forest campaigns and issues for the G8 and G20 summits, Paterson found himself “again, in a ‘crash course, at a time when environmental issues were at the top of the fold.”
As he learned more about strategies to mobilize an activist public, he came to realize he “didn’t know a lot of the ‘nitty gritty’ about the issues” he was campaigning on.
“I became increasingly interested in not just what the environmental community wanted, but about the systems they were looking to change. I wanted to know things like, how does Canada price its carbon and how our system of government works. I realized I wasn’t ‘smart enough,’ so back to school I went.”
Pursuing his graduate degree in public policy and administration took him to Ottawa, where he volunteered for Justin Trudeau’s digital campaign team in 2015, and where for the past seven years he’s worked for Canada 2020, a leading, progressive think tank.
“It’s a really interesting perch from which to see political Ottawa,” Paterson said. “We’re not in government; we’re not public-sector. There’s no mandate for our organization other than we think it’s important Canada has an engaging, public debate about policy.”
Last fall, Paterson served as event director when Canada 2020 brought President Barack Obama to Toronto.
“That was the highlight of my professional career, full stop. We had 3,000 people out to see him at the Toronto Convention Centre. It was not only getting to meet him, but working with his team, putting on a complex event, thinking through the logistics of it, and having it go off successfully.”
For that visit, Canada 2020 partnered with Pathways Education, an organization aimed at helping youth in low-income communities finish high school and successfully transition into postsecondary education.
“We set up a surprise opportunity for the Pathways students to meet and hear from President Obama and get some pictures,” Paterson said. “Watching him walk into the room where the kids had no idea – it was a goose bump moment.”
His next big project is rebranding Canada 2020, “because, let’s face it, in a year and half, we’re kind of screwed,” he laughed. When the think tank was founded in 2006, the premise of its name was based on asking, ‘What kind of Canada do we want to have by the year 2020?’ ‘Where do we want to be on the environment, health or trade?’
He finds the rebranding “a fun challenge and a good opportunity to review what we do, what we want to do more of, and how can that be reflected in how we talk about ourselves publicly. You get into a whole conversation about your online prescience, your online brand, and online assets.
“It’s a nice use of the skills I have picked up over the years – from the digital work I did at Western, the public conversation and media work I did at CBC, and, having to recognize our organization is an NGO, an understanding I gained from my time at Greenpeace. It’s knowing, too, that we work politically, and thinking about it in the context of how we position ourselves in the array of political brands in Canada.”