Priority one: saving the Canadian foreign service

Priority one: saving the Canadian foreign service

The Canadian foreign service is in desperate condition. If the Trudeau government hopes to achieve its foreign policy objectives, its first priority should be a wholesale reform of Global Affairs Canada that focuses on the rejuvenation of the foreign service. 


The Prime Minister is pushing the re-set button on Cabinet priorities, with new instructions to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the other ministers of Global Affairs Canada (GAC) to outline what the government hopes to achieve in its second mandate.

For obvious reasons, the public’s attention is mostly on prominent priorities, like relations with the United States or the negotiation of key trade agreements.  Below the radar screens, however, are other issues that weigh heavily in how a government discharges its mandate.   In the case of foreign policy, one of the critical questions facing the Trudeau government is the delicate condition of Global Affairs Canada, which should be one of the foundations for the government’s future success.   The media in the United States have suddenly (and somewhat belatedly) discovered the virtues of a professional foreign service.  Possibly there will be a spill-over effect here, as commentators ask themselves about the current capabilities of the Canadian equivalent.

GAC served the government well on trade files and consular issues during its first mandate, with strong records of achievement. Still, the consensus within the Department (among knowledgeable workers) and among many outside observers is that GAC as a whole is in desperate shape, requiring precisely the reform overhaul that Trudeau’s ministers seemed reluctant to undertake in their first mandate.

In the case of foreign policy, one of the critical questions facing the Trudeau government is the delicate condition of Global Affairs Canada, which should be one of the foundations for the government’s future success

What’s wrong with GAC?  Let’s start with its personnel, headed by a bloated senior management structure, with more than 100 senior executives, with sparse knowledge of foreign policy and limited experience abroad. Twenty years of disastrous human resource management has left GAC with an emaciated cadre of foreign service officers and gaping vacancies in precisely the areas in which GAC should have expertise.  For years its training bureau has been starved of funds, unable to prepare the linguistic experts needed for GAC’s geographic divisions and embassies abroad, rendering GAC’s depth on almost any geographic issue too thin to measure.  Don’t even ask about promotions or career management, or GAC’s new plans for workplace accommodation.

GAC fought off some egregious assaults of the Harper-Baird years, including a fire-sale of historic diplomatic properties and attempts to downgrade heads of mission and shut down traditional lines of policy advice on key issues.  After this decade of darkness, a repair effort should have been undertaken immediately after 2015.  Instead, work on the integration of Foreign Affairs, and the former CIDA produced an even more opaque, ponderous and paper-heavy Department, in which timeliness, depth of knowledge and effectiveness were low on the list of GAC strengths.


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Without foreign service recruitment for much of the past decade, its numbers have gone down dramatically, while the number of contractors, students, interns and term employees has shot up.  An announced recruitment this year will do little to remedy the longer-term problem, and nothing is seemingly underway to do justice to the hundreds of short-term gap-fillers who have been carrying the load over the past ten years.  Little wonder that the attrition rate is rising in a Department that was once considered a fine place to work. 

While GAC was entrenching itself in bureaucratic stasis, other Departments with foreign policy responsibilities began to build up impressive international units.  These units across government hold much of the expertise on international affairs once nurtured and managed by GAC. 

Observers can speculate about the debilities of GAC, but it’s no secret to those inside the Department.  More to the point, however, the idea of a Canadian foreign service is itself under attack, particularly at the top levels of government, where many don’t believe that a “foreign service” is useful nor that GAC should be managed differently than other ministries with domestic responsibilities.   

The current leadership of GAC is weak in precisely those areas that were once its strength – knowledge of the world, international relations and foreign policy.  It’s no wonder that Canada is punching below its weight these days on international issues or that Canada’s bid for a UN Security Council seat in 2020 is in serious jeopardy.  Possibly only a defeat in that campaign will alert ministers to what they were warned about in 2015 and what they should be moving to correct now.

The idea of a Canadian foreign service is itself under attack, particularly at the top levels of government,

What would a rejuvenated Department with a fully staffed foreign service do differently?  Serious foreign ministries are a combination of policy and communication think-tanks and program implementation offices. GAC’s weakness on the policy side began in the Harper years when policy formulation was essentially delegated to political appointees and party hacks.  Policy formulation has yet to re-bound under Trudeau despite the challenges we face from China to Russia to the Middle East because we have yet to regain our once extensive expertise on countries and regions, anchored in time served on the ground.

The top priority in GAC should be getting the policy structure right because Canada can’t react wisely to situations like the Huawei challenge or the imprisonment of two Canadian hostages unless it has well-considered, realistic and viable policies in place that speak directly to Canadian interests and values. 

On the program implementation side, no rejuvenation of GAC can escape the need to take another swipe at trying to get development assistance delivery right, with an emphasis on timeliness and effectiveness.  No one believes that the fusion of DFAIT and CIDA has worked.  It’s time to look at this issue again.  At the same time, GAC has to re-build key instruments of foreign policy that have atrophied over the past decade.  At the top of the list should be re-constructing cultural relations and public diplomacy.


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Re-building the foundations of Canadian foreign policy is a formidable, long-term challenge.  The repair job is tricky because it cannot be left to GAC’s current senior leadership, most of whom don’t understand the requirements of a Canadian foreign service. No matter how it is done, reform has to be mandated at the political level, and its progress has to be monitored from above. 

There’s no mystery as to the need for a reform effort.  The mysteries are why the decline of the Canadian foreign service was allowed to happen and why it hasn’t been addressed more quickly.    

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