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Canadian passport (Jupiterimages/(C) 2008 Jupiterimages)
Canadian passport (Jupiterimages/(C) 2008 Jupiterimages)

Is Canada-Britain diplomatic resource-sharing a return to colonial past? Add to ...

If you open your Canadian passport to the back page and read the four paragraphs of fine print, you’ll notice an odd legacy of the colonial past.

“In countries where there is no Canadian office,” it reads, “application may be made in an emergency to the nearest British diplomatic or consular office.”

In other words, Canada has maintained a consular tie to one of its former colonial masters (no such arrangement exists with France) since 1931, when the Statute of Westminster first allowed  Canada to have its own embassies.

So the announcement by British foreign minister William Hague on Sunday that Canada and Britain will be sharing diplomatic resources in places where one of the two countries doesn’t have an embassy or a consulate is either, depending on your perspective, a minor amplification of an already-existing relationship, or an embarrassing return to a humiliating colonial role that Canada spent decades struggling to escape.

Paul Heinbecker, Canada’s former ambassador to Germany and to the United Nations, took the latter view on Monday, suggesting that Prime Minister Stephen Harper – an ardent anglophile who has already returned the word “Royal” to the names of various government departments – is damaging Canada’s “brand” by allowing another country to represent it abroad.

“Domestically, it does raise the question of reinforcing this kind of British veneer that we are putting on Canadian foreign policy,” Mr. Heinbecker told The Globe and Mail, adding: “We have an incompatible brand with the U.K.”

Some other current and former diplomats, speaking off the record, shared Mr. Heinbecker’s view – along with a larger anger at what many see as the Harper government’s diminishment of Canada’s diplomatic role in the world. The very fact that Mr. Hague got a one-day jump on his Canadian counterparts in announcing the arrangement sounded to some like a return to the sort of post-colonial subservience that Canada has worked hard to escape.

But others said that it is unlikely to be a big deal at all. While the details of the arrangement won’t be known until Mr. Hague and his Canadian counterpart John Baird speak on Monday afternoon, many feel that it will be the sort of back-office consular arrangement that is an established part of international representation.

“I find this whole reaction strange – it’s a sign of a country that’s lost its confidence in itself,” said Mel Cappe, who was Canada’s High Commissioner to Britain from 2002 to 2006 and is now a professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. “If we’re doing this in countries where we aren’t represented anyway, then this is a net increase in representation”

As a number of ambassadors noted, the resource-sharing arrangement is unlikely to extend far beyond the issuing of visas and provision of consular help.

“I can’t see it extending to political or economic representation,” said Mr. Cappe. “You can never imagine a Canadian located in a British mission going out and promoting trade and investment with Canada – it would be competing, and they’d never let him.”

If it is simply a way to provide consular services in countries where Canada doesn’t have embassies and consulates – in other words, a formalization of those words in the back of the passport – then the outrage appears to have been a tempest in a teapot.

But you have to understand the reaction of Mr. Heinbecker and his colleagues in the larger context they have faced.

Since coming to power, Mr. Harper has reduced the independence of ambassadors dramatically. He has all but eliminated cultural-diplomacy budgets and forced embassies to report directly to the Prime Minister’s Office and set their agendas to the PMO’s political requirements. Diplomatic staff have been cut back sharply in budget-cutting moves. Diplomatic relations with Iran were shut down completely this month, for vague reasons, at a moment when many diplomats felt that they were most needed.

And there has been a widespread sense that the more subtle diplomatic arts have been sidelined for the blunt, sometimes ham-fisted overt declarative politics favoured by Mr. Baird and Mr. Harper.

Against that background, the embassy-sharing deal sounds like yet another humiliation for a diplomatic corps that has seen its morale shattered in recent years. In substance, it might not amount to much of a big deal. But you have to remember that this is a field where symbolism counts for everything, and where minor slights can easily be amplified into larger political blows.

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