Too close for comfort

Our contributors debate the merits of joint Canadian-British embassies

Image by: Alex Choi

There has been widespread criticism of the plan to share embassies announced by Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

Criticism of this criticism is even more widespread.

Since the joint press conference, Ministers Baird and Secretary Hague have continually downplayed the significance of this partnership by suggesting that they are merely formalizing ad hoc agreements already in place.

Suggestions that Canada will lose its sovereignty and will be linked to the former imperial power are mocked throughout the national media — perhaps understandably so. Yet, I strongly believe that this is a step in the wrong direction for Canadian foreign policy.

I’m not an expert in civil engineering, domestic security or international travel, but having lived in Ghana, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Kenya and having had significant interactions with the Canadian high commissions in these countries, I often reflect on how globalization and modernization are transforming the world at such an alarming rate.

Both British and Canadian commenters are maintaining that financial pressures are guiding their actions, but how severe do these tensions have to be in order to justify an inability to maintain independent embassies and consulates? It’s been pointed out that in Haiti and Myanmar, an informal practice of housing one diplomatic mission within the embassy of another country has existed and this new agreement only formalizes that.

Considering the low labour costs in both Haiti and Myanmar, is the financial reasoning behind this new agreement valid? Moreover, everyday costs for living, air travel and local security are also decreasing. Ironically, the Haitian government operates an embassy in London and the government of Myanmar operates one in Ottawa.

While the reasoning of cutting costs is perhaps flawed, the motivation behind this agreement could be financial in another nature. Beyond the formalized joint embassies, a larger disengagement on Canada’s part seems to be taking hold in countries not essential to short-term Canadian profit.

This reduction in Canada’s diplomatic missions, especially to countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, will hinder long term benefits that can only be realized by maintaining a strong presence abroad.

Three years ago, I was at the Canada Club in the Canadian High Commission in Accra, Ghana, for the monthly ‘International Night’. If it wasn’t for my casual conversation with the Canadian High Commissioner to Ghana (and Togo) who convinced me to apply to Queen’s, I wouldn’t be in Kingston today.

The imagery of Canada is very carefully constructed — a deliberatecreation by our government to promote and enhance Canada’s position on the global stage. By formalizing an agreement to further reduce the direct means with which Canadian diplomats interact with governments, businesses, organizations and the citizens of the world, we are physically reducing the little international influence we possess.

Minister Baird and Secretary Hague may be correct in downplaying the micro-level administrative changes that may occur as a result of this agreement. However, these changes will be perceived on a much larger level. Steps such as these are practical applications of a policy of disengagement that increasingly characterizes how Canada interacts (or doesn’t) with the rest of the world.

Policy analysts and experts in foreign policy may debate the relevance of this agreement as it affects our relations with the U.K. and other commonwealth countries. Yet, as a Canadian planning on working, travelling and living in countries affected by this growing trend of Canadian disengagement, this policy is very disconcerting.

When you return from your backpacking trip through Europe, you may reflect on the warm welcomes and friendly recognition you received as a result of that maple leaf on your backpack.

What is disconcerting about Canada’s new approach is that those of us who choose to visit countries that have had their diplomatic relationships with Canada loosened, may not receive this warm welcome. In fact, that maple leaf may not be recognized at all.

Digvijay Mehra, ArtSci ’14

While Canadians are facing flu season, it seems Parliament Hill is grappling with a case of British Derangement Syndrome. This sickness seems to manifest itself in people who are insecure about what the Canadian identity is.

I have news for them: foreign partnerships don’t mean selling out Canadian sovereignty. The Canadian government’s agreement with the British to share embassy space is just that. Period.

Canada will gain access to countries where it currently has no representation. The Australian Embassy currently handles basic Canadian diplomatic services in Laos, this agreement will potentially allow our two countries to open a diplomatic mission in Laos and other countries where it isn’t feasible to have a separate diplomatic mission.

It’s important to understand that British consular officials won’t represent Canadian interests. British diplomats won’t speak for Canada and neither will Canadian diplomats speak for the United Kingdom.

My roommate doesn’t do my assignments and I don’t do his. My academic integrity isn’t threatened because I share a room with a rather smart individual. Similarly, Canadian sovereignty won’t be undermined just because we have a roommate-like agreement with the U.K..

As I’ve learned from my own experiences, sharing space doesn’t have to mean sharing views.

There should be no confusion of the British-Canadian relationship here.

We share many things in common; our values, half of our language, and most importantly a storied history of peace, order and good government. Even though this is true, we are still representing our own interests, for example, the U.K. supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq — we didn’t. This agreement will allow us to share costs with the British, specifically building and security expenditures.

Lower costs will allow us to open diplomatic outposts where it was once unfeasible to do so and will therefore broaden the reach of Canadian foreign policy. It’s more important to have greater representation than to have a bombastic one with all the frills.

Canada has been closing trade missions, consular offices and embassies all around the world due to costs and that means removing Canadian diplomats as well. Instead of having a few “Canada Houses” around the world, this joint-initiative would make Canada more easily accessible because it will share space with the British in common embassies.

The point here is that the most important aspect of any diplomatic mission abroad is having the actual diplomats themselves present in the country. Whether or not that requires all the furnishings, such as a building, is what the agreement seeks to address. Sharing an office with the British will ensure Canadian diplomats are present, while foregoing the embassy and other associated costs.

There’s no harm in the Canadian Diplomatic Corps Services sharing the same building with Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service, as sovereign governments will understand that we operate on different principles.

No country is ignorant enough to punish another one that is sharing a diplomatic outpost. North Korea doesn’t treat the Swedish diplomat who represents American interests in Pyongyang with the same contempt that it treats American diplomats.

The notion that we will now be associated with British policy if we share a British embassy is simply absurd. Are we currently associated with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s carbon tax, just because Australians handle our diplomatic interests in Laos?

Beyond partisan antics this agreement will only help Canada and the U.K.. It will allow us to have a presence in countries where it isn’t feasible for us to have an embassy. This means Canadians abroad can have better access to Canadian consular services. The bricks and mortar of an embassy are just bricks and mortar. Nothing more, nothing less. The embassy won’t give us an audience with the leaders of a nation, our presence alone allows us to attend that audience.

Corey Schruder, ArtSci ’16



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