In The Media

A foreign service worth fighting for

by Catherine Tsalikis (feat. Colin Robertson & Daryl Copeland)

OpenCanada
July 26, 2017

ike the Great Sphinx of Giza, from which its headquarters at 125 Sussex Drive took inspiration, Canada’s foreign service holds many secrets — the building’s nickname, ‘Fort Pearson,’ speaks to the opacity that surrounds many of its inner workings.

The exterior is clad in uninviting horizontal, concrete slabs. Through a canopied front entrance, and past security, is the wood-panelled Robertson Room, where Canada’s government hammered out its response to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, and where leaders from Germany, the United States and the Soviet Union met to discuss German reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In an homage to one of Canadian diplomacy’s signature moments, prominently displayed by the lobby’s windows is a perfect replica of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s 1957 Nobel Peace Prize — the original now relocated to the new Canadian History Hall, which opened as part of the Museum of History’s Canada 150 exhibit.

While Confederation brought the colonies of Canada together 150 years ago, the foreign service isn’t quite that old. When Canada’s first Department of External Affairs was created in 1909, it was housed in a ramshackle office above a barber shop at Queen and Bank streets, and its main responsibility was to manage the flow of correspondence between Ottawa, London and foreign capitals. Though then-Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier had wanted to give the work of foreign affairs “the dignity and importance of a department by itself, as [was] done in other countries,” its beginnings were less than auspicious. Five blocks away from the East Block on Parliament Hill, where the prime minister and several ministries had their offices, the department was made up of only a handful of employees and had hardly any capacity to shape Canada’s relations with other countries. 

The department did make it to the East Block a few years later, and over the first half of the 20th century its size and scope — and its diplomatic corps, the foreign service — grew modestly as Canada itself gained more autonomy from Britain over its international dealings. During the period following World War II through to the mid-1960s the department expanded rapidly, with Canada playing a leading role in the development of multilateral institutions like the United Nations and NATO, in what came to be seen by many as the ‘golden age’ of Canadian diplomacy — its zenith being Pearson’s Nobel Prize for the creation of a UN peacekeeping force during the Suez Crisis in the Middle East.

When Pierre Elliott Trudeau came into office, however, he brought with him a distrust of professional diplomats. “In the early days of the telegraph,” he told a reporter, “you needed a dispatch to know what was happening in country A, whereas now, most of the time, you can read it in a good newspaper.” Despite protest, in 1973 the department was moved to its present location, about a 10-minute drive from Parliament Hill, on the banks of the Ottawa and Rideau rivers.

Over the next few decades, the department’s makeup underwent much shape-shifting, with trade, immigration and development at various times consolidated under the foreign affairs banner or not. Most recently, under Justin Trudeau, the department’s designation became ‘Global Affairs Canada,’ which includes foreign affairs, trade and development.

Canada now has 1,174 foreign service officers and 179 diplomatic missions in 109 countries, up from 101 foreign service members and 22 missions at the end of WWII.

Behind these outwardly visible changes, however, there is a battle for the soul of the diplomatic corps unfolding, with fundamental questions about the role of a diplomat and the future of the service giving rise to, at times, fractious disagreement, according to interviews with almost two dozen current and former foreign service officers. 


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