Skip to main content

The embassy of Canada in Kyiv on Feb. 13.VALENTYN OGIRENKO/Reuters

Sabine Nolke, Phil Calvert, Roman Waschuk, John Holmes, Louise Blais are former Canadian ambassadors.

Recent reports have revealed that on the cusp of Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine earlier this year, plans were made to evacuate Canadian staff at the Canadian embassy in Kyiv. However, Ukrainian employees were not adequately informed of the dangers facing them and they haven’t been given sufficient assistance since.

As former ambassadors, reading the reports hit a chord and did not entirely surprise us. Having managed teams abroad, we understand all too well the unique challenges of leading an organization made up of a two-tiered employee system: Canadian (often the minority) and local citizens (some with dual Canadian citizenship), each group governed by completely different sets of employment conditions. Canadian staff are federal employees and also benefit from the Foreign Service Directives rules for overseas government staff, while the local staff have a completely different regime, which affects everything from salary to parental leave – and duty of care.

Therefore, at our missions abroad, we have team members working side-by-side, at times doing very similar tasks, but essentially, not treated the same. While some technical differences are understandable and based on local labour law requirements, others are not. Important to note here is that local staff are often officer-level employees who joined the team after stellar careers as journalists, government officials and private sector experts. In many instances, the mission relies on their knowledge and network to get things done and navigate the local environment. By contrast, Canadians are rotational, with postings lasting anywhere from one to five years only. As former heads of mission, we equally appreciate the value of both groups of employees. In both cases, their dedication to Canada has been steadfast. Yet the local staff even more so, as they tend to work out of the limelight and far away from the eyes of Canadians who benefit from their dedication.

Managing this delicate balance of a “two-class” employee system, while never easy, used to largely fall on embassy management, taking into account local conditions and realities, which diverge widely between countries.

However, over the past decade, decision-making has increasingly been centralized in Ottawa. Global Affairs Canada, which has the ultimate responsibility to manage our footprint abroad, assumed much of the authority on matters of personnel management. Ambassadors, consuls general and high commissioners who are said to be responsible for their employees are in fact not given the tools to fulfill that accountability. Too often, recommendations from heads of missions are overruled or ignored by Global Affairs Canada on the basis of Ottawa-centric assumptions and one-size-fits-all directives. This has created needless tensions between Ottawa and the field, reduced efficiency and led to a series of ill-informed decisions affecting mission functioning and morale, but more importantly, staff well-being and mental health.

Managers at missions were left on the sidelines to either advocate for local staff and/or defend and implement unpopular or downright wrong-headed Ottawa decisions.

Now, in relatively rapid succession, we have had two embassy evacuations: Kabul and Kyiv. Both, it would seem, fell short in terms of what the Canadian government offered to local employees or contractors. In Ukraine, we fully assume that mission management advocated for measures to assist Ukrainian employees, as countless other heads of mission have done in recent years. Yet, in the end, Ottawa appears to have advised the mission that it did not have duty of care for local staff. While some assistance and guidance was provided, colleagues around the world had to rally to a privately organized GoFundMe campaign to provide a bit of financial aid to those employees who joined the 12 million Ukrainians in fleeing the war.

We believe that Global Affairs Canada and the Treasury Board need to review their current employment policies and procedures and bring them in closer line with what the majority of Canadians would do in such extreme circumstances. More generally, we call on Global Affairs Canada to revisit its centralized culture, to give more weight to mission recommendations and unique location circumstances.

Finally, we believe that the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade co-chaired by Peter Boehm and Peter Harder could assist in this evaluation. In the end, surely, special mechanisms could be put in place to support local employees in force majeure situations, such as civil wars or invasions – especially when their loyalty and association to Canada presents a clear and present danger to themselves and their immediate family. We owe them that.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.