Provision of Assistance to Canadians in Difficulty Abroad (Consular Affairs)

feat. Patricia Fortier

Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development
March 22, 2018

Thank you very much for inviting me here today. I understand that you have been listening to difficult testimony during the last hour. 

This Committee’s work is important. This is a subject on which I am passionate.

I have had 10 postings abroad and in all of them consular issues were challenging, including post-9/11 in Washington D.C. grappling with the cases of Mr.Arar and Mr.Khadr, then as Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Peru and Bolivia. I was also Director General Consular Operations in 2009-11 dealing with the Haiti and Japan earthquakes, and the Arab spring. Finally, I was acting as Assistant Deputy Minister for Consular, Security and Legal in 2015-16 which saw the proliferation of terrorist attacks, civil war in South Sudan and the attempted coup in Turkey. I have been involved in many high profile complex cases, some of which have been resolved, while others unfortunately linger.

I have deep admiration for the extraordinary people who do this work. I wrote a short article for The Hill Times which described consular officers as negotiators, confessors, daredevils, and family stand-ins. I think you would identify with the profile I drew in that article - because as legislators, you are also drafted into consular work.  At least one of you, I know, has even done consular work in Foreign Affairs. We are all passionate about this but we wonder, how can we make it better?

 I have read what other witnesses have said and I will give my take – quickly – and then make some suggestions.

Legislation – Consular situations are as different as the people in them. Canadian consular workers compare their service with others. Canada is consistently among the best, even compared to those who have legislation – for example the USA and Germany. In Canada, legislation and regulation go hand in hand. There is the potential to turn creative consular officers into form-filling bureaucrats. For example, under legislation some of the time now devoted to case management and support could be diverted to preparing, appearing and evaluating sessions with a new administrative law tribunal which would be created.

And as we have seen, the Charter works. Canadians - including consular officers and politicians- have learned the lessons of post 9/11.

Also, legislation suggests service standards. While being interviewed across Canada on CBC radio in the midst of the Caribbean and Florida hurricanes, I was surprised by the idea that Canadian citizens had the right to be evacuated on a government plane, immediately. 

The Canadian government should and does work with a network of international and private sector partners to do whatever is most efficient, effective and safe. In that particular case, most Canadians flew back on the airlines that had flown them down. This made sense. The airlines knew where they were, knew what the security conditions were, and had a responsibility to do so – all the while working closely with Global Affairs, particularly the Emergency Watch and Response Centre and the Standing Rapid Deployment Team - who facilitated movement when citizens’ documents had ‘gone with the wind’.

Ombudsman – This is a curious proposition. There does not seem to be actual citizen demand for this, nor does it take into account privacy, real-time exigencies, or how the Canadian government actually does its business.

Privacy – This is very serious. The Canadian who is receiving consular services decides what will be shared.  When helping a Canadian citizen, this can put the government -  or parliamentarian -  at a disadvantage, particularly with the media. There may be awkward conversations with a client’s closest family, friends and sometimes lawyers.  That is the price. It is the choice of the citizen.

So, what can we do to improve?

-Education of citizens who travel is the single easiest way of preventing terrible or even irritating situations. Risk is part the allure of travel, but the risk and the limitations need to be understood.

- Consular and emergency management tools should be continuously modernized to educate and provide information and service in real time. Agility is key.

-Deeper international discussion. The globalizing world needs global responses. The Global Consular Forum exists but should be strengthened; the 5-eyes Colloque has developed a good rhythm; and bilateral consular dialogues should be flexible. 

A colleague, Bill Crosbie, who was ADM for Consular for long periods, and actually created these international bodies, has put forward the interesting idea of an international consular code to create international norms which could have an impact domestically across the world.

High profile issues for international discussion include multiple nationality, children, crisis management and the intersection of human rights and consular.

Canadians with multiple nationalities are particularly at risk.  There are competing pressures; ethno-nationalism is rising along with globalization.

-Children. This requires a long-term commitment. Any case will be slow and difficult because it involves parenting, culture, national law and family dysfunction.  The Hague Convention is a step forward but needs consistent application. There is also the Malta process - which brings together Muslim and Western family law experts.

-Permanent residents. Given how difficult it is to advocate for dual nationals in the country of their other nationality, the level of difficulty soars when we try to advocate for non-citizens. This is very much a question of human rights and resources.

-Finally two points – work and resources.

Consular work should be rightly valued. It is getting better, but those who do this difficult work should be recognized and rewarded. The good news is that there is a consular cadre, a group of highly trained professionals called Management and Consular Officers (MCOs) who are now rotational Foreign Service. Also there are dedicated non-rotational experts in Ottawa and many amazing locally engaged consular officers. There is, however, a constant shortage of MCOs abroad and in Ottawa.

-Which brings us to resources. Adequate dependable funding is required to hire good people, maintain training, initiate and enlarge partnerships and deal with emerging issues such as mental health or provincial liaison while continuing to station officers abroad where Canadians are actually travelling. 

Thank you very much for listening.


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