Opinion: Ottawa’s centralized decision-making puts local embassy staff at risk

The Canadian Embassy in Kyiv on February 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 eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, plans were made to evacuate Canadian staff from the Canadian Embassy in Kyiv. However, the Ukrainian employees were not sufficiently informed of the dangers they face and they have not received sufficient assistance since.

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

Therefore, in our overseas missions, we have team members working side by side, sometimes doing very similar tasks, but essentially not being treated the same. While some technical differences are understandable and based on local labor law requirements, others are not. It is important to note here that the local staff is often made up of officer-level employees who joined the team after distinguished careers as journalists, civil servants and private sector experts. In many cases, the mission relies on their knowledge and network to get things done and navigate the local environment. Canadians, on the other hand, are rotational, with assignments lasting from one to five years only. As former Chefs de Mission, we also appreciate the value of both groups of employees. In both cases, their dedication to Canada has been unwavering. Yet local staff are even more so, as they tend to work out of the spotlight and away from the eyes of the Canadians who benefit from their dedication.

Managing this delicate balance of a “two-class” employee system, while never easy, was largely left to the management of embassies, taking into account local conditions and realities, which diverge widely from a country to another.

However, over the past decade, decision-making has been increasingly centralized in Ottawa. Global Affairs Canada, which has ultimate responsibility for managing our footprint abroad, has assumed much of the authority on personnel management issues. Ambassadors, consuls general and high commissioners who are supposed to be responsible for their employees actually do not have the tools to fulfill this responsibility. Too often, Heads of Mission recommendations are dismissed or ignored by Global Affairs Canada based on Ottawa-centric assumptions and one-size-fits-all guidance. This has created unnecessary tension between Ottawa and the field, reduced efficiency and led to a series of ill-informed decisions affecting the operation and morale of the mission, but more importantly, the well-being and mental health of staff. .

Mission managers have been left on the sidelines defending local staff and/or defending and implementing unpopular or downright wrong decisions by Ottawa.

Now, in relatively quick succession, we have had two evacuations of embassies: Kabul and Kyiv. Both, it seems, were not up to par with what the Canadian government was offering to local employees or contractors. In Ukraine, we fully assume that mission leadership has advocated for measures to help Ukrainian employees, as countless other Heads of Mission have done in recent years. Yet, in the end, Ottawa appears to have informed the Mission that it had no duty of care to local staff. Although assistance and advice was provided, colleagues around the world had to join a privately organized GoFundMe campaign to provide financial assistance to employees who joined the 12 million Ukrainians fleeing war.

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

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

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