Canada’s diplomatic community is mourning the loss of Prince Albert’s Deborah Chatsis, a Fulbright Scholar at Harvard, Canadian Ambassador, and proud member of Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation.
Chatsis passed away on Thursday, June 9 at the age of 60. Since then, diplomatic outposts where she served have remembered her for her kind and adventurous spirit.
“It is with heavy hearts that we have learned the sad news of the passing of our former ambassador Deborah Chatsis,” reads a statement from the Office of the Canadian Ambassador to Guatemala, one of many statements posted from former diplomatic outposts where Chatsis served. “She leaves a void in our hearts, but we will remember her as an energetic and dynamic leader you inspired many young Guatemalans.”
In addition to Guatemala, Chatsis also served as Ambassador to Vietnam and High Commisioner to Belize, while also serving at postings in Beijing, Bogota, Miami, Geneva and New York City. However, family and friends remembered her as a humble down-to-earth person who rarely talked about her accomplishments, preferring instead to ski, play cards, and host family members at the cabin she rented with friends in Christopher Lake.
“After university, her work with the foreign service took her all over the place, and when she came back home, every one of us was saying ‘I don’t really understand the things she is doing’ because she never talked about them here,” remembered Beth Gobeil, a family friend who grew up on the same street as Chatsis in Prince Albert. “When she came back home I would see her on summer holidays and I would see her at Christmas time and things like that—family events—and she never spoke about her work. When she got her honorary doctorate (from the University of Saskatchewan in 2015), we all started looking into this thinking, ‘wow, what is this girl doing?’”
Chatsis had a distinguished career in the diplomatic world, but that’s not where she started. After high school, she graduated with degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Law from the University of Saskatchewan, then earned her Masters in Law from the University of Harvard.
After earning another Masters in Public Administration from Harvard, Chatsis articled at the Federal Court of Appeal in Ottawa before joining the Canadian foreign service. It was a career she would devote the next 30 years of her life to.
Gobeil said Chatsis was an inspiration to everyone, not just women or Indigenous people.
“Deborah was willing to take a chance on new things and she believed in herself,” Gobeil remembered. “She was so intelligent and so compassionate and generous, and I think doors opened for her because she worked really hard.”
Chatsis was born in Chilliwack, B.C., but moved with her family to Prince Albert at the age of 11. Her father Donald, a member of Poundmaker First Nation, was a former residential school student who came from humble origins, but stressed the value of education, along with Chatsis’ mother, Noreen Ahenakew. She graduated from St. Mary High School, before enrolling at the University of Saskatchewan.
Although cancer forced her to retire from her diplomatic post, her contributions were not forgotten. In 2021, her colleagues in the diplomatic service nominated her for the Order of Canada, an award she never expected to receive.
“It was quite a surprise,” Chatsis told the Daily Herald in December 2021 shortly after receiving the award. “I hadn’t expected it for sure.
“I was deeply honoured that my colleagues thought enough of me and my work to nominate me for the award.”
Chatsis’ funeral is scheduled for Tuesday at Prince Albert Alliance Church. A Wake Service was held on Monday from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m.