In 2023, Canada’s Foreign Service came under the microscope. From responding to crises in Sudan, Gaza, and Israel to managing the rapid deterioration of relations with India, to addressing a ballooning inventory of visa applications, there was no shortage of attention on the work of Canada’s diplomatic service. 

In addition, two detailed reports touching on the need for reform in Canada’s Foreign Service and at Global Affairs Canada came out last year: the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs Report, More than a Vocation: Canada’s Need for a 21st Century Foreign Service. and GAC’s own Future of Diplomacy paper. They collectively proposed dozens of recommendations while asking if Canada’s Foreign Service is prepared to deal with the current global environment. The Senate report was unequivocal, stating that “the Government of Canada needs to reinvest in Canadian diplomacy to ensure that GAC and the Canadian Foreign Service are fit for purpose and prepared to meet the complex global challenges of the decades to come.” 

These analyses are timely, though it’s clear the “complex global challenges” are already here and they are multitudinous, as our members are aware. Daily diplomatic reporting from our missions is surely streaming into Ottawa inboxes warning of democratic backsliding, disinformation and foreign influence campaigns, barriers to trade, gross human rights violations, and forced migration flows, amongst other potential threats to Canada and Canadians abroad. It’s our job, after all, as Foreign Service Officers, to provide policymakers and political masters alike with information and advice needed to address the aforementioned challenges. 

This information should inform how Canada navigates a world where the rules-based international order – upon which Canada depends for its prosperity and security – is under serious threat. Authoritarianism is on the rise, upending our relationships with countries we assumed to be not just democratic, but among our best friends. Simultaneously, the use of force as a tool for political, economic, and territorial gain is increasing. Wars in Ukraine and Gaza dominate our social media feeds, but conflict also rages in places too often forgotten by the media, but dutifully covered by Canada’s diplomatic representatives, with Sudan, Ethiopia, Myanmar, and Haiti being just a few examples.

Though these conflicts may unfold far away from the idyllic banks of the Ottawa River, many have proven to have important indirect impacts on Canada. Wars disrupt supply chains, impact inflation, and disrupt trade; hybrid warfare undermines democracies and stokes societal divisions; wars also cause unimaginable human suffering and lead directly to forced migration, an area where Canada does play a leading role on the international stage. 

Indeed, recent years have seen the emergence in Canada of migration responses to high profile global crises. Hastily crafted, bespoke public policies have been implemented to create pathways for the victims of natural disasters and wars from Afghanistan to Ukraine to Gaza to Turkey. While the humanitarian impetus is understandable, a delicate question emerges: are these special programs replacing a more fulsome foreign policy response to an increasingly dangerous world? 

I raise these points because Foreign Service Officers at both IRCC and GAC might have some advice and knowledge on these issues (along with colleagues in the wider public service). They are well-positioned to weigh in on these matters, possessing frontline experience and having a presence in hotspots around the globe. It’s experience that could be better leveraged. 

However, our counsel appears to be valued less and less. Increasingly, it is ministerial staffers and interest groups  that appear to be the ones influencing foreign and migration policy. Is that because the Foreign Service is not – to borrow the phrase used in both reports – fit for purpose? Or is it because the advice being provided is not what decision-makers – including the senior ranks of the public service – want to hear? 

Canada’s Foreign Service can likely do with re-tooling. Investments in language training and emphasizing subject matter specialization over a “generalist” approach are two obvious reforms. Detailed recommendations flow off the pages of both 2023 papers and should be taken seriously by management and working-level staff alike. The Foreign Service must demonstrate that it can adapt to remain relevant to ensure it’s providing the high-quality advice policymakers require in order to steer Canada’s foreign and immigration policies. 

However, if change is implemented to serve a culture that downplays the advice of front-line officers with on-the-ground experience – a system that instead continues to concentrate authority in the upper ranks of the public service and the unelected officials and interest groups with whom they increasingly interact, then the impact of any reforms may be minimal. Let’s hope that’s not the case.

In this issue, Pierre-David Jean has some interesting advice of his own: don’t cut back on cultural diplomacy. He provides numerous examples of cost-effective ways that Canada has been able to support its brilliant and unique cultural ambassadors internationally while raising the profile of our country in Colombia. He describes the important local relationships he’s been able to cultivate via these initiatives, helping to develop valuable embassy contacts.

Pierre-David’s article is an example of the type of content we welcome in bout de papier – it can be a space for your ideas, expressed through thoughtful, respectful pieces that have our country’s best interests at heart. 

The global challenges facing Canada are enormous and a lucid, robust response – including from our Foreign Service – is essential to protect and promote the interests of our country. But in our outsized bureaucracies or lonely international outposts, it can sometimes feel impossible for officers to be heard, despite the quality and creativity of the ideas being expressed. 

We’d like to hear what you’re doing (or would like to do) to serve our country internationally the most effective way possible. Send us a draft or a story idea  at [email protected] – we’re listening.

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