In The Media

Keep your noses out of our election, Foreign Affairs warns diplomats

by Amanda Connolly (feat. Colin Robertson)

September 8, 2015


The Canadian government has issued a warning to the heads of foreign diplomatic missions in Canada to keep their noses out of the country’s federal election and multiple ex-diplomats say they view the move as unprecedented and concerning.

The note, dated July 16 and stamped with the seal of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development’s Office of Protocol, asks that the heads of missions distribute it to all members of their teams and stresses that under the terms of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations they have a duty “not to interfere in the internal affairs of the receiving state” — namely, in the then-yet-to-be-called federal election.

“During an election period, the Department has the honour to remind the Heads of Mission that these duties include ensuring that diplomatic and consular personnel do not conduct activities which may either be perceived as inducing electors to vote for a particular candidate or prohibiting them from voting for a particular candidate in any way,” the letter reads.

It continues on, warning that diplomatic and consular personnel are also forbidden from making any financial contributions to candidates or political events, and directs them to the Public Service Commission of Canada’s Guidance Document for Participating in Non-Candidacy Political Activities for guidelines on how the heads of mission can “support employees on making an informed decision about the type of activities that may be regarded as inappropriate during an election period.”

That document only applies to members of the federal public service, not to foreign diplomats working in Canada, and lists examples of “non-candidacy political activities,” other than voting, as:

  • Volunteering or fundraising for a candidate or a political party;
  • Supporting or opposing a candidate or a political party by displaying political material such as a picture, sticker, badge or button, or placing a sign on the lawn;
  • Attending events, meetings, conventions, rallies, or other political gatherings in support of, or in opposition to, a candidate or a political party;
  • Developing promotional material such as writing campaign speeches, slogans and pamphlets for a candidate or a political party;
  • Using blogs, social networking sites, a personal Web site or video sharing to express personal views in support of, or in opposition to, a candidate or a political party.

The letter has many in Ottawa’s diplomatic community concerned, with one saying it goes beyond the definition of acceptable behaviour towards foreign missions.

“I don’t think it’s something you would expect from a liberal democracy to send such a warning,” one senior foreign diplomat in Ottawa said of their reaction to receiving the letter.

The vice president of the Canada Global Affairs Institute says letters containing information about the election have normally been sent to the heads of foreign missions as well as the heads of Canada’s diplomatic missions abroad during elections — they just weren’t as strongly-worded as the current letter.

“In past elections it was customary to inform but it may have been done verbally or in a shorter note,” said Colin Robertson, also a former Canadian diplomat. “What the government has done, it may be more specific and spelled out in greater detail but it is what governments have done in the past.”

The Department of Foreign Affairs’ media team declined to say whether it has issued similarly-worded notices before, saying only that the federal government regularly engages with the diplomatic community in Canada on a variety of matters, including upcoming elections.

“All host countries operate in this fashion,” said Nicolas Doire, spokesperson for the department.

However, several former diplomats contacted by iPolitics expressed surprise at seeing the text of the letter, saying they can’t recall ever coming across a similarly-worded letter during their years of service.

“I’ve never seen it nor have I heard of it,” said Michael Bell, former Canadian ambassador to Israel, Egypt and Jordan and now a member of Justin Trudeau’s international advisory council.

Gar Pardy, former head of Canadian consular services, echoed that sentiment and called the move “most unusual.”

“I cannot recall ever seeing such a communications before either when abroad or when here in Ottawa,” Pardy said. “The only reasons for such a note would be if there were enquires from the local embassies on the matter or if something had happened to occasion such a warning.”

Lawrence Lederman, former Canadian chief of protocol, said he was disappointed — but not surprised — that the government would instruct the Office of Protocol to issue such a letter.

“I have not seen any similar instruction during my tenure at Foreign Affairs,” he said. “I find it in bad taste and can’t understand why they decided to take this action.”

Rick Kohler, also a former Canadian chief of protocol, said the same thing.

“I had never seen such a message,” he told iPolitics. “On the other hand, this is the type of message quite typical of the attitude of the current folks.”

None of the former diplomats contacted could point to a specific incident that may have inspired the wording in the letter, such as a foreign diplomat or consular official in Canada advocating for a candidate or supporting a particular party.

Bell said diplomats are generally well aware of their responsibilities while working in a host country, although many will have their own personal views of the parties and candidates.

“They’re obviously going to have particular views on which government would best suit their national interests,” Bell said. “But that would be very different from open advocacy.”



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