Creating order from chaos and out trending Bieber

These stories feature Public Services and Procurement Canada employees who came forward to join the initial emergency effort to procure personal protective equipment for Canada’s healthcare workers as COVID-19 pandemic cases began to climb across Canada in early March last year. Each is a story of different personal circumstance, but all are connected by three common themes: Dedication. Professionalism. Caring.

For more stories like this one, read the story of Amanda Assi and Jonathan Hamel.

Alain Dorion has been at Public Services and Procurement Canada for the past 26 years. He is Director General of the Pandemic Response Sector. Over the last few months, his daily work life has changed drastically. He has led a team that had to work together in unprecedented ways and with utmost speed to deliver on their task of bringing personal protective equipment to Canada. Here is his story.

By any measure, the challenge handed to Alain Dorion on March 11, 2020, was daunting.

With the number of Canadian COVID-19 cases climbing, and large amounts of personal protective equipment needed to help front-line healthcare workers fight the pandemic, Alain’s boss, Assistant Deputy Minister Arianne Reza, asked him to come to her office for a chat.

As Alain recalls the conversation: “She said, ‘I’m going to be implementing a new procurement strategy, and I’d like you to lead it.’ I asked when we would be starting, and she said, ‘Now.’

“And that was it. It was going to be fast and furious.”

What followed was the rapid creation of a new procurement team of some 30 people, all working from home across the country; intense, ongoing discussions with the Public Health Agency of Canada, in this case, the client, to assess the Agency’s immediate needs; and the creation of a strategy with partners from other government departments.

Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) policy officials had to rapidly arrange purchasing approaches to ensure that the personal protective equipment (PPE) could be imported with the least delay feasible.

The department’s Office of Small and Medium Enterprises published on the Buyandsell.gc.ca website a notice seeking help from suppliers for the significant amount of masks, face shields, medical gloves, gowns, hand sanitizer, throat and nasal swabs and everything else that Canada needed, and fast.

A star is born

A man speaking on a phone and smiling is sitting in a chair.
Director General Alain Dorion leads the Pandemic Response Sector

That notice, including Alain’s name, title and direct phone line, caught fire on foreign social media and gave his procurement team a rare light moment during the tense, high-pressure weeks of spring and early summer. Suddenly, a Canadian public servant was out trending one of the biggest pop stars. “It’s true,” laughs Alain. “I was more popular than Justin Bieber. It was hilarious.” More hilarious now perhaps than it was at the time.

Alain, along with Director Martin Montreuil, whose name was also on the notice, discovered that fame has its price.“We were getting phone calls every minute of the night,” said Alain. “It was 24-7. The long shifts started from day one.”

Aside from working with partners in other branches and departments—Alain calls it “Team Canada”—building and organizing his own team of able participants was especially crucial.

“We had to rapidly build a focused team where everybody was going in the same direction,” he said. “It was my job to communicate the objective to the entire team and make sure that they understood the urgency of it. And everybody was working from home, which is a shift in paradigm,” he added. “So we had to establish different methods to handle workflow.”

“Basically, our challenge was to put some order into the chaos of the market for PPE,” mentioned Alain. “Even though it was the Wild West, with every country competing for the same products, we needed to establish processes to make sure that we were transparent and getting fair value for Canadians.”

When he wasn’t on the phone, Alain was in meetings: daily meetings with his team, who were required to give detailed reports on the progress of contracts, daily meetings with the department’s senior management and regular meetings with the Minister and her senior staff.

Most memorable, he says, has been experiencing the way all the departments have worked together towards the common goal—or, as he puts it, “All reporting on their own piece of the pie so we could pull it all together.”

The team

Members of Alain’s team praise him for his direct communication—regular calls to check on the welfare of colleagues, to offer words of encouragement and to get updates on their procurement progress.

And Alain has nothing but praises for his team. “They have done an awesome job,” he said. “They have been dedicated to making a difference for Canadians. We worked hard, but at the same time, we had fun. Humour was an important component of our daily team meetings.”

When members of the team based in Ottawa-Gatineau met for the first time for a physically distanced patio lunch during the summer, it was a revelation. “Some of the people I’d never met in person,” he said. “But because of what we’d been through together, we were talking like we had known each other for years.”

“It’s been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us all,” he added. “As public servants, we’re here to serve Canadians, and we are fulfilling that mandate. We feel that we’ve been saving lives, and that has been the real motivation for all of us.”

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