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The flag of Quebec. (iStockphoto)
The flag of Quebec. (iStockphoto)

FERRY DE KERCKHOVE

Quebec rethinks its approach to foreign relations Add to ...

Ferry de Kerckhove is executive vice-president of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.

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The Quebec government of Premier Philippe Couillard has announced some of the deepest cuts ever to one of the crown jewels of the national branding of the province abroad – its Ministry of International Relations. Nearly a quarter of its staff abroad in its General Delegations (equivalent to embassies) and other, lower-level offices will be cut, maintaining a trend that saw the ministry lose 144 positions in the past eight years, bringing the number of employees to 432. Furthermore, cuts in perks and even in basic entitlements are added to the grist.

People in Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada will be familiar with these. What was seen as a vengeance on the part of the Harper government at the federal level against a department deemed to be filled with Liberals and fellow travellers, incapable of loyalty to a new regime, in Quebec is explained simply as part and parcel of the need for the government to reduce costs.

There is little romanticism in Mr. Couillard’s approach to Quebec’s foreign relations, unlike that of former premier Jean Charest who relished his role as the prime representative of Quebec abroad.

Mr. Charest was superbly informed and his demeanour endeared him to all foreign leaders he met. He had ideas and ambitions for his province. While deeply attached to Canada and its federal structure, he never hesitated to push the limits of autonomy and barge forcibly into foreign-policy issues pertaining more to the authority and responsibility of the federal government.

Mr. Couillard, for his part, knows the world well. He worked abroad for a number of years. And he has his own, distinctive approach to foreign matters. Yet his perspective is more pragmatic, less idealistic. He inherited a strong Quebec presence abroad but has tangled less openly or privately with the federal government than his predecessors. His priorities are the economy and investing at home.

All this may be true, but the reality is that leaders are increasingly realizing or believing that the heavy apparatus underpinning the conduct of foreign relations may no longer be the right model. In the case of the federal government, notably under John Baird, it was more a case of not trusting his civil servants, ignoring their advice and having faith only in his political staffers. But the cuts also reflected a trend not entirely new: Remember Pierre Elliott Trudeau and his famous “I learn more from reading The New York Times than from my embassies’ reports”?

There is no question that competition from various sources of information tends to make the traditional (to the extent they still exist) situation reports from embassies abroad seldom more relevant, more thorough and more informative. Furthermore, the higher one goes into the bureaucracy and even more so at the minister’s office level and the minister himself, the less these reports are read. At best they are synthesized in one-liners or two. And there is no need to rehash the instant communications between leaders themselves, already plagued with more meetings than they care to attend.

For example, were it not for the deep and understandable desire of African leaders to meet their European, Asian and North/South American counterparts, there would be no justification to hold meetings every two years of both Commonwealth and Francophonie heads of government meetings. One might say this even for other pre-cooked multilateral meetings unless they revolve around specific, thorny trade negotiations such a TPP or TTIP, which are usually conducted at the level of officials before a big heads-of-state celebration.

One still wonders why we have missions – some pretty large – in nearly every European capital when so much of the business is conducted with the European Union in Brussels. Of course, there are exceptions such as Paris, London, Berlin. But rationalizing should not mean necessarily cutting across the board. In difficult countries, with different political mentalities, regimes and culture, where personal communication and interaction is key to any progress on any matter, our missions abroad remain key to achieving our foreign policy, trade and development objectives, as well as our immigration targets and our security interests.

But it is time for our government to look into what we want to achieve before we blindly cut our establishment abroad and at headquarters … and yes, there should be and will be a new model which will emerge, not from the bean-counters but from a clear-eyed view of who we are.

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