Canada’s consular cadre: who’s the voice on the other end of the line?

by Patricia Fortier

The Hill Times
December 20, 2017

It is the shoulder season—after hurricanes and before mass Canadian migration to the sun. The House Foreign Affairs Committee has begun a review of Canada’s consular services. A 2012 review made substantive recommendations. This committee will make excellent recommendations, but Canadians still won’t know the people who take the call when they’re in trouble abroad.

Quick—what are consular officers? The average Canadian is right. Consular officers are diplomats who help you when you get into trouble in a foreign country. Although not always pin-striped, consular is the oldest form of diplomacy. (Diplomats can also, among other things, negotiate NAFTA, facilitate peace missions, and promote Canadian interests and trade, but that is another story.)

Consular officers are diplomacy’s front-line troops. They are committed, professional, and creative. Many have heard or seen everything. They are like police after the crash, or emergency medical staff. They are often women. In Canadian embassies, the most experienced may not be Canadian citizens.

When they meet you for the first time, they have spent the day, weeks, months, years helping Canadians who are in trouble. You will share with them at least one negative emotion—from irritated to enraged, upset to grief-stricken, uneasy to terrified, mildly disturbed to hallucinatory.

Like any emergency worker, they deal with too many demands, and too little time and resources. The first thing they do is triage: sort out the serious cases from the annoying. Luckily, 97 per cent are relatively minor (a lost passport, for instance). The other three per cent takes longer, sometimes much longer; each person’s trouble is different.

Whether it is the 97 per cent or the three per cent, most Canadians come to consular officers with very high expectations.

Yes, there is 24/7 advice on travel.gc.ca (website, Twitter, Facebook), the TravelSmart app, and an emergency number. Consular officers, however, are not everywhere, nor can they do everything. Canadian laws do not apply in foreign countries and a blue passport is not a free ticket home.

But make no mistake: consular officers are your advocates. They are the one point in government that is only concerned about your well-being—not re-election, nor relations with a particular country, nor even promotion (consular jobs can be career poison). You can make headlines or you can keep it close and quiet so that the work can go on. By law, Canadian consular officers will keep your secrets (unless you plan to rob a bank). They are charged to be even-handed, always. Consular officers have represented both the victim of terror and the terrorist, when both were Canadian citizens.

They are also there for the time it takes. They will visit you during long years in a rat-infested foreign jail, help you avoid a forced marriage, or push hard for your child growing up in another country. When the worst happens, a consular officer will do the utmost to ensure that you are told the facts, with consideration.

When required, a consular officer is a daredevil in danger zones, notary, negotiator, confessor, divorce counsellor, or family stand-in. Their role changes with every Canadian in trouble. They work in Canadian missions abroad and at Global Affairs in Ottawa.

Perhaps you would like to make their work a little easier.

Here’s how: prepare for that amazing trip. Read up, register quickly to share your whereabouts (rest assured, travel.gc.ca is not linked to the Canada Revenue Agency), resist the urge to visit an insurgency, buy health and travel insurance, and remember to check your pockets for that cannabis prescription.

If, despite all your efforts, something goes wrong and you are sitting across a table from a tired consular officer, perhaps you could recognize that person for who she is and what she does.

Patricia Fortier is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, a retired Canadian diplomat and former assistant deputy minister for consular, security, and emergency management with Global Affairs Canada.

Image credit: Kristen Shane

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