Unmaking our professional service

For many years, Canadian governments could rely on a sage and experienced cadre of diplomats. Canada has traditionally had a fine foreign service. Its officers represent a standard of excellence envied by the world. To gain entry to the foreign service was a competitive process. Only the best and the brightest were accepted. Those with language skills and cultural sensitivity, those with experiences overseas, had a leg up. It is so much a part of the fabric of government that it is hard to imagine any government, regardless of its political bend, being less than supportive of our diplomats.

Quietly, with virtually no media attention, Stephen Harper is changing the rules on the foreign service. To be fair, the undermining of staffing and resources is not new. The Canadian Foreign Service is suffering from the neglect of successive governments. Retired friends who served in various diplomatic postings have shared their own stories with me. But it must be said that the Harper administration, in particular, has underestimated the importance of a robust diplomatic corps with highly-trained officers.

As part of its fiscal programme to dig Canada out of the deficit, diplomatic properties around the world are being sold. This garage sale approach to diplomacy carries with it a heavy cost. Canada’s influence around the world depends on the relationship forged in those elegant residences of Canada’s ambassadors. Other nations will take note of the diminished level of interest Canada takes in the world when events hosted by Canada take place in hotels. It is a prime example of being penny-wise and pound-foolish.

The relationship between the Harper administration and the foreign service snapped in the summer of 2013 when 1,350 foreign service officers went on strike. This created real difficulties for foreign students planning to come to Canada, as student visas were delayed and work permits were stalled.

There was a significant cost to the strike. But the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers felt they had no choice. They were being paid less than workers in other similar Ottawa postings. They made the case they were paid $10-14,000 less than workers in Canada for similar work. The foreign service officers pointed out that foreign postings involved additional costs that were not taken into consideration. The Harper spin machine responded that the diplomats wanted an unreasonable amount of compensation, claiming that they had a vast range of perks, private schools and other ‘elite’ benefits. Eventually the strike was settled, but I believe the seeds were sown then for a dismantling of the concept of a career foreign service.

I think the lustre of being elite is part of the reason for the clear animosity of Stephen Harper for the foreign service officers. Given his lack of any experience in knowing the world prior to becoming Prime Minister, he is both resentful of and threatened by the diplomats. One prominent Canadian diplomat told me of a meeting with Stephen Harper, when he had not been Prime Minister for long. The diplomat had been summoned to provide a briefing on Canada’s role in Africa. Harper stopped him within a few minutes and said words to the effect of ‘you must be mistaken in thinking I have any interest in Africa’.

The current management fetish in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) is to eliminate the notion of a career cadre of foreign service officers. Staff at DFAIT have been told that the departmental staff should all be transferable to and from other departments. I have heard from numerous officers in foreign affairs that the human resources officers have told diplomats that they should not expect that they will stay within the foreign service.

The existence of the foreign service is being labeled as ‘elitist’. It is now suggested that any civil servant in the federal government should be able to have a foreign posting—but only once in their career. I have had this confirmed to me by a Cabinet member in a private conversation; he challenged me as to why I thought we should keep the ‘elitist’ system of the current foreign service.

The notion that any civil servant–whether from public works or fisheries and oceans–should have a crack at an overseas posting without any additional training is simply bizarre. It will ensure that we no longer have any capacity to engage in the sensitive relationship building, the indispensible local knowledge of foreign cultures and governments that builds peace and stability in the world.

Our embassies will become mere processing stops for visas and passports; our ambassadors mere cheerleaders for Canadian trade, with no knowledge about anything deeper than the superficial. Canada’s overseas diplomats will become a company of tourists.

I have seen nothing about this in our media. Canadians need to know this. I am (as you may suspect) keeping a list of all those things that must be fixed as soon as the Harper era comes to an end later this year. Repairing our foreign service is on a very long list.

Orginally published in the Island Tides