Like many young Canadians, 22-year-old Jesse Galganov wanted to travel. In September, 2017, after he finished his undergraduate degree, he left Montreal for what was supposed to be an eight-month trip to South America and Southeast Asia. He took an 11-kilogram backpack and hoped to immerse himself in how people in other parts of the world live before he started medical school.
First stop was Peru, where Mr. Galganov planned to spend four days on a popular high-altitude trek through the Cordillera Blanca Mountains. He was normally in touch with his mother, Alisa Clamen, daily, but told her he would be out of cellphone range.
When he didn’t check in, Ms. Clamen, a lawyer, first assumed her son had taken a longer route. When she still hadn’t heard from him after 12 days, she was terrified. She called the Canadian embassy in Peru and was routed to consular headquarters in Ottawa.
Consular services, which falls under the umbrella of Global Affairs Canada, is a rarely scrutinized department responsible for assisting Canadians abroad.
Every Canadian who obtains a passport pays a $25 fee. In 2018-19, that provided $53.4-million for those services.
But few travellers think about them until the moment they are needed.
Ms. Clamen thought Global Affairs would lead the charge to locate her son. She was shocked at the lack of action. The government says it can assist with missing-persons cases overseas, but it does not specify how. She says Global Affairs was not especially responsive until she hired a private security firm, GardaWorld, in mid-October, 2017.
“I thought I would be getting support, I thought I would be getting resources,” says Ms. Clamen, who’s now 55. More than two years later, she says has spent more than $2-million, partly raised from donors, on attempts to locate her son. She believes he is dead and will not give up until his body is found.
“Nobody should have to deal with this,” she says.
“Every search that I have done, every action I have taken, has been privately funded,” Ms. Clamen says. “The government does nothing, it does not protect citizens abroad.”
Global Affairs Canada says it won’t comment on specific cases because of the Privacy Act. Barbara Harvey, a spokeswoman, says the department is committed to its work around the world. Resolving consular cases, she says, often depends on the laws of other countries, as well as co-operation from people and organizations outside of the federal government.
So, what should Canadians like Ms. Clamen expect when the worst happens abroad? The Globe and Mail conducted a year-long investigation into Canadian consular services to find out. We spoke to former employees of the service and Canadians who have had difficulties overseas, filed a dozen access-to-information requests and read through thousands of pages of reports and internal documents. The investigation, made possible through the Michener-Deacon Fellowship for Investigative Reporting, reveals some fundamental problems, including unclear standards, failures to meet what few measurable standards there are and unequal treatment of consular cases.
Canadians have no legislated right to consular assistance, so the government has discretion in the services it provides. As a result, critics argue assistance favours those with easy problems or access to power. When the families of travellers who have died or suffered other hardship abroad try to obtain details about individual cases, they are stymied by privacy laws, which ultimately make it nearly impossible to judge how effectively Global Affairs is aiding Canadians.
The Globe spent 10 months requesting an on-the-record interview with a senior representative of Global Affairs. The department declined, instead providing what it called a background briefing for 30 minutes with three senior government officials who could not be quoted. The department followed up with written responses to questions.
Over the past year, several high-profile cases have made headlines, including the abduction and killing of mining geologist Kirk Woodman in Burkina Faso, and the detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in China. The federal government repeatedly tells Canadians to consult travel advisories before visiting high-risk areas and register their itineraries with Global Affairs.
But The Globe’s investigation has found even Canadians taking trips most would consider low-risk can end up in severe trouble and desperate to obtain help from Ottawa. “If you had a situation that arose in a foreign country, would you not expect your government to protect you or to do something to try to find you?” Ms. Clamen says.
Canadian consular assistance is available 24/7 at more than 260 points of service in 150 countries, and in an emergency watch centre in Ottawa. The Consular Services Charter and a “Service Standards” document, which was recently updated for the first time in 23 years, spell out these services.
Among other things, officials can provide local contacts for medical assistance, police and lawyers, replace lost passports, contact your family in the case of an emergency, help repatriate the remains of a deceased Canadian, assist with missing-persons cases and request transparent investigations into crimes abroad.
In the charter, the government warns it will not do things such as post bail or pay hospital bills. Still, many Canadian travellers see their blue passports as a get-out-of-jail-free card. They assume Ottawa will do almost anything for them in an emergency.
But the charter is short on specifics. “The real big problem is there is no standard of service that people can expect,” says Paul Champ, an Ottawa lawyer who has worked on many high-profile cases involving Canadians abroad.
When the Office of the Auditor-General of Canada began a study of the consular program in 2017, the principal auditor on the file, Carol McCalla, wanted to find a definition of what services were being provided. “The thing that struck us was that it wasn’t very well defined at all,” she said. “It’s very nebulous.”
Auditors found that Global Affairs tracked its performance for just three out of 52 services. Officials say service standards were updated in 2019 to be more measurable. But because they have not been quantifiable for more than 20 years, little is known about the effectiveness of assistance.
Experts such as Michael Welsh, a former Canadian Ambassador and Director-General of Canada’s Consular Affairs Bureau, says "the Canadian public has no idea what to expect, whatever might appear on a website or in a handout, nobody pays attention to that until there’s a problem,” he says. “And then when a problem arises, people are shocked to learn that there isn’t anything that the government is prepared to do.”
Lee Humphrey, president of boutique firm of James International Security Consulting, helps victims of kidnapping or violence overseas, and has visited Canadian consulates in dozens of countries. He says consular staff are friendly, but “they have almost no capacity to assist you during an actual crisis. In fact, in several major crises I’ve been involved with involving kidnap victims and victims of violence, the Canadian consulate has put up roadblocks instead of opening doors.”
Many Canadians are unaware they have no legislated right to assistance abroad. Because of a legal construct called the Crown prerogative, which originated in British common law, the government is able to exercise discretion in how assistance is provided. The same is true for consular systems in the United Kingdom and Australia.
Global Affairs says leeway is an asset and that a prescribed set of actions would be a disservice to Canadians abroad because the department needs flexibility to respond to local environments.
But Mark Warren, a human-rights researcher based just outside Ottawa, has found at least 45 countries, including the United States, Mexico and China, that have legislation which make the protection of all citizens abroad mandatory. He argues that laws would make a difference.
Mexico, for example, requires consulates to protest any denial of rights or mistreatment of its citizens. “Personally, if I had a choice between the consulates that I could call, I would call the Mexicans,” Mr. Warren says. But he also says little formal research exists to prove legislating consular assistance leads to better service.
Jasmine Mohamed was confronted with the limits of Canadian consular assistance in 2017. Her father, Abdulkadir Mohamed, suffered a stroke in Turkey during a flight connection after visiting relatives in Somalia. No one told his family in Edmonton.
When they hadn’t heard from him for several days, Ms. Mohamed called Global Affairs. An official checked the department’s system and said her father was in a hospital in Istanbul.
Shocked the family hadn’t been contacted, Ms. Mohamed says she was told the ministry only had an old phone number for her as an emergency contact. “Shouldn’t there be further steps?” she asks. “Or is it just, like, okay, number’s disconnected, job was done?”
Ms. Mohamed left quickly for Istanbul. When she arrived, she was devastated to find her father in critical condition and unable to communicate. “Nobody spoke English and I had never been to Turkey before. And I honestly believed my dad was going to die,” she says.
Ms. Mohamed repeatedly asked consular officials to help her communicate with hospital staff and understand medical records in Turkish. Eventually, an official told her the government does not provide translation services. “She said it wasn’t her job and she was already going above and beyond for me,” Ms. Mohamed says.
Ms. Mohamed was baffled. The government’s website says assistance can be provided in the case of “serious illness or injury” and hospitalization.
She spent three months in Turkey caring for her hospitalized father, and felt unsupported by the Canadian government. After he returned to Canada, she says a doctor told her that her father could have fared better if he had been treated sooner. (He waited several days to get into intensive care in Istanbul.) Ms. Mohamed says the Canadian government should have done more to help.
Global Affairs advises travellers to “purchase the best travel insurance you can afford before you leave Canada.” But Ms. Mohamed’s father never thought he would need it travelling between Canada and Somalia as a dual citizen. As a result, all expenses in Turkey had to be paid out of pocket, something the family could not afford.
To Ms. Mohamed’s astonishment, most of the help she received came through the Somali consulate. She said it applied to a Turkish government fund that completely covered the medical costs and flights for the family back to Canada. Ms. Mohamed says Somali officials mobilized volunteers to help the family, gave her money to cover basic expenses and checked in regularly. “A failing government was able to help us way more,” she says.
This past summer, Global Affairs released 125 pages of records from her father’s case to the family under the Privacy Act. The records show consular officials followed the case for the three months. Officials liaised with the hospital, provided the family contacts for translators and potential medevac operators, discussed options for his transfer back to Canada and fielded questions from an MP’s office and journalists.
Ms. Mohamed says reading through the records brought back stressful memories. She feels the behind-the-scenes discussions focused largely on deflecting responsibility in her father’s case. Her takeaway: “Policies currently set in place are not to the advantage of Canadian families.”
Unlike medical emergencies, Ottawa does have specific standards if Canadians are arrested or detained abroad. Consular officials must make contact within one business day, and at specific intervals afterward, to ensure prisoners are not mistreated. The Auditor General’s 2018 report on consular services said officials fell short of standards for Canadians arrested or detained for more than a week in about 15 per cent of the cases they examined.
Manitoba resident Colt Vigfusson believes officials failed to contact his father at the mandated intervals. The results were heartbreaking. In 2012, his father, Bruce Vigfusson, was working as a diamond miner in Northern Mexico and living with his girlfriend. One night his home was invaded by four men. Mr. Vigfusson, then 42, said he hit one of the attackers in the mid-section in self defence.
To his surprise, the injured home invader went to the police. Mr. Vigfusson was charged with assault and sent to a Mexican prison. “From Day 1 he thought: This is crazy, they are going to let me out,” his son says.
But that never happened, and Mr. Vigfusson’s health deteriorated in prison. In phone calls, he told his son and a friend, Donna Voth, he was beaten, extorted by guards and prevented from receiving quality medical care. His son and Ms. Voth say they relayed the stories of mistreatment to consular officials in Ottawa, but little was done. Ms. Voth believes consular visits stopped almost a year before Mr. Vigfusson’s death, after he yelled at a consular officer in frustration. As his health worsened, Ms. Voth says Mr. Vigfusson was desperate for help. “He was begging for them to come to see him and they wouldn’t,” she says.
On Dec. 21, 2015, Colt Vigfusson received a call from an inmate who told him his father had died in hospital. He alerted Global Affairs. The response disgusted him. “I got the impression that they were probably relieved when he died because they were sick of dealing with it,” he says. It was determined his father died of pulmonary edema, a condition caused by excess fluid in the lungs, and cardiomyopathy, a disease that can lead to heart failure.
In a guide for Canadians imprisoned abroad, Global Affairs states it will “make every effort to ensure you receive adequate nutrition and medical and dental care.” But Bruce Vigfusson, who had been a large man, was returned to Canada so thin he was almost unrecognizable.
Colt Vigfusson requested his father’s consular file, but he was told he could not access it because of the Privacy Act.
In its 2018 audit, the Auditor-General’s office found even prisoners who were contacted at the target intervals were usually reached by phone or e-mail. In-person visits are internationally recognized as the most effective way to gauge the condition of an inmate. Since the audit, Global Affairs has lowered its target and now aims to meet its service standards for arrest and detention cases 90 per cent of the time. “Sometimes factors beyond the control of the Government of Canada impede contact with the detainee,” the department adds.
“If you say, well, it’s okay if you just do this 90 per cent of the time, it seems to me it eviscerates the standard itself,” says Gar Pardy, former director-general of consular services, who was involved in drafting the previous set of service standards.
The department also changed the intervals for contacting arrested or detained Canadians. The updates mean more contact at key points. But in some jurisdictions, the new yearly check-ins will mean less regular contact for people who are jailed long-term.
Glimpses into the inner workings of Canada’s consular services like the one the Auditor General provided are exceedingly rare. Outsiders inquiring about individual cases – be they parliamentarians, researchers or even the families of Canadians who have died or gone missing abroad – are soon stonewalled by Canada’s Privacy Act.
Shyan Desrosiers, a 65-year-old Canadian Forces veteran who lives in Lake Country, B.C., has battled for more than a year to find out what happened to her only son, Ray Guze, on a surfing holiday in Costa Rica.
Mr. Guze was a popular local athlete – he played junior hockey and professional lacrosse.
Ms. Desrosiers was woken at 8 a.m. on Feb. 20, 2018, by someone calling on her son’s phone, who said in broken English, “Not Ray. Ray dead."
Global Affairs told Ms. Desrosiers that her 42-year-old son fell off a roof while dancing in the seaside town of Santa Theresa, hit his head on a brick and died instantly. The autopsy done in Costa Rica declared the death accidental.
Ms. Derosiers didn’t buy it. Too many things in the report and in the photos of her son’s dead body didn’t add up. For example, the autopsy said Mr. Guze died 12 to 15 hours before his body was picked up, so he would have been lying dead in a busy tourist street at about 6 p.m. The autopsy also said he had no alcohol in his system, yet she knew he had been drinking on holiday.
She speculates her son was beaten and robbed after a night at a bar called the Wave. “I want a proper investigation to be done,” Ms. Desrosiers says. “I will never see justice, but I don’t want his death ruled as an accident.”
The Globe obtained Global Affairs data on deaths of Canadians abroad through an access-to-information request. Between 2013 and 2018, 8,437 Canadians died overseas, most of them because of natural causes. Almost 13 per cent of those deaths were deemed accidental, but like the case of Ray Guze, not all families agree with this classification.
Canada’s consular services charter says the government can “request timely and transparent investigations into suspicious circumstances in the event of an alleged or apparent crime or death.”
Ms. Desrosiers says she has repeatedly asked Global Affairs for help. “I have asked the embassy I don’t know how many hundreds of times to investigate, to give me the police report, to get me the police pictures of their investigation – nothing.” She asked her contact at Global Affairs if he had read the autopsy report, but he said he did not speak Spanish.
“There should be a travel warning. No other parent should have to go and identify their kid’s body and bring it home,” Ms. Desrosiers says.
To find out exactly what had been done, in October 2018, Ms. Desrosiers requested her son’s consular file. But she was told she cannot access it for 20 years because of the Privacy Act. “I could be dead in 20 years,” Ms. Desrosiers says. “Did they [consular officials] get my text messages, my e-mails, my phone calls and just sit on them?”
In early 2019, the department said the investigation into her son’s death was closed. But in October of that year, Antonio Arreaga, Honorary Consul for Costa Rica in Vancouver, told Ms. Desrosiers an investigation had been done in Costa Rica and that the results would be shared with the Canadian consulate.
A week before Christmas, Ms. Desrosiers received an envelope from Global Affairs that included a new autopsy report from Costa Rica. The cover letter stated that the federal government would not provide translation of the documents, which are in Spanish.
“Our government did nothing and this letter that they sent me just shows their lack of concern and caring,” she says.
Mohamed Fahmy spent 438 days in Cairo’s notorious Tora maximum security prison after being arrested in December, 2013, and charged with broadcasting false news. For part of that time, the award-winning Egyptian-Canadian journalist was in solitary confinement in a cold, windowless, insect-infested cell with no bed, and in pain from a broken shoulder that has never healed properly.
During his imprisonment, Mr. Fahmy’s celebrity lawyer, Amal Clooney, told him the Canadian government had no obligation to assist him. The Crown prerogative gives the government discretion in responding to Canadians in trouble overseas.
This shocked Mr. Fahmy. “It stayed in the back of my mind while I continued my battle for freedom,” he says.
After his return to Canada, he established the Fahmy Foundation, which seeks to help imprisoned journalists and other prisoners of conscience around the world. In 2016, along with Amnesty International Canada, the foundation called for 12 specific improvements to Canada consular services. Other activists expressed support.
The collective’s first proposal was to enshrine the right to consular assistance and equal treatment in Canadian law. The collective’s so-called Protection Charter states “perceptions have grown over the years that some Canadians experiencing human rights violations abroad receive greater, more immediate and higher-level consular assistance from the government than others. It leaves a sense of discrimination and double-standards.”
In its review of arrest and detention cases, the 2018 Auditor-General’s report found many unexplainable differences. “There were cases we saw consular officials go above and beyond,” said Ms. McCalla, the principal auditor. “But, unfortunately, in other cases, we found they did not meet the service standard, and we didn’t have any understanding why.”
The Globe independently obtained data through the access-to-information legislation on foreign missions and service-standard targets for arrest and detention cases. The data, from 2013 to early 2019, showed inconsistencies in meeting service standards.
The Globe also obtained memos used to compile the 2012 Evaluation of the Delivery of Consular Services and International Emergency Management report. Those internal records provided rare insight into issues many critics say still plague the system.
Unequal assistance was a major concern. Staffers, whose names were redacted throughout the documents, describe the service as working better for those who were able to get the attention of the minister of foreign affairs.
“Right now, there appears to be a two-tiered service: one driven by Ministerial involvement and the other not,” one comment said. “Canadians who pursue letter-writing campaigns, call their MPs have preferred treatment,” another said.
Other staffers said the media made the difference. “For distress cases, the more pressure you put, the more attention you get. In other words, if you go to the media, you get more impact,” said one.
“There is no two-tiered system for consular services,” adds Ms. Harvey, a spokeswoman for Global Affairs. She says the department “strives for consistency, fairness and non-discrimination when providing consular services. Each consular case has its unique facts and circumstances that call for a tailored approach for consular intervention.”
Mr. Warren, the researcher, told the House foreign affairs committee in February, 2018, that legislation was the best way to guarantee consistent and effective services. “It would establish a benchmark,” he said in an interview.
But current and former departmental officials disagree. Patricia Fortier, a former assistant deputy minister responsible for security, consular and emergency management at Global Affairs, says the Crown prerogative helps the department handle a wide range of cases. “Discretionary does not mean that we pick and choose who we are going to serve,” she says. “It means that our means of serving Canadian citizens is flexible.”
Ms. Fortier is worried if consular assistance were legislated, resources would be diverted to paperwork. “When you have legislation and regulations, it means you will be filling in a lot of forms,” she says.
William Crosbie, a former Assistant Deputy Minister for Consular, Security and Legal at Global Affairs, says there is often more going on behind the scenes than Canadians might realize.
“Government does sometimes have to make some difficult choices,” he says. “How far are you going to press to solve a particular consular case in the context of your overall relationship with another country, bearing in mind the potential impacts on other Canadians in that country?”
Annie Burns-Pieper is the recipient of the 2018/19 Michener-Deacon Fellowship for Investigative Reporting. If you have information to share on this story, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @aburnspieper on Twitter.
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