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Union highlights ‘major problems’ in staffing U.S. diplomatic posts, cites violence and health-care concerns

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January 22, 2024
By The Canadian Press

Health & Safety USA workplace violence

The Canada-U.S. border has been closed to non-essential traffic through much of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Graham/Adobe Stock)

The union that represents Canadian diplomats abroad says Global Affairs Canada should consider boosting compensation for those posted to the United States because they face increased risk of gun crime and difficulty accessing health care.

Pamela Isfeld, head of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers, suggested that Ottawa’s appraisals of security threats aren’t as robust for the U.S. as they are for other countries.

“If you were talking about a post in Africa where you had had half a dozen lockdowns because of active shooters in the last year, that would go into the security assessment of that post,” she said

‘Major problems’

Isfeld said Global Affairs Canada has faced “major problems” getting people to serve south of the border, and she says the department is chalking this up to the idea that diplomats might want more exotic postings.

That’s a misunderstanding of the situation, Isfeld said, noting the federal government often emphasizes the importance of the Canada-U.S. relationship and the necessity of having top performers on diplomatic missions there.


“And yet there’s very little support,” she said.

Global Affairs Canada did not provide a response when asked early last week whether it has difficulty filling these postings or wished to address Isfeld’s comments.

Canadian diplomats are posted to the embassy in Washington, D.C., along with consulates and trade offices spread across 15 other cities, from Boston to Los Angeles and Minneapolis to Houston.

Isfeld said the alleged shortfall in staffing U.S. missions comes partly as a result of compensation that doesn’t reflect the risks and inconveniences of living in America.

Diplomat wants out as crime spirals

During an appearance on the Canadian Global Affairs Institute’s Global Exchange podcast earlier this month, she said one diplomat currently posted at a U.S. mission is trying to get transferred out because the unnamed city’s police department is underfunded and crime is spiraling.

“There has been all kinds of lockdowns and evacuations in the office. The person says they’ve personally witnessed five shootings, and yet nobody will look at hardship levels or incentive packages, or even enhanced security budgets for those missions to deal with that,” Isfeld said in the episode.

In a recent interview with The Canadian Press, Isfeld said American postings certainly have advantages for staff, such as proximity to their Canadian relatives and an agreement that allows spouses of diplomats to work in the U.S. — unlike in many other countries.

But she said safety issues are an increasing concern for diplomats and public servants from other federal departments taking up U.S. postings.

Isfeld said there is a trend in which Ottawa is sending more staff from other Canadian government departments to the U.S. because not enough foreign-service officers are willing to go. She said there hasn’t been any formal data analysis on the matter.

One person left an American posting early a few years ago, Isfeld said, because there had been a school shooting nearby and their child was scared to attend class.

Health insurance concerns

In addition, Global Affairs Canada has had a rocky transition to a new health-insurance provider, and diplomats have reported delays in getting responses to claims and questions while abroad.

Isfeld said that poses a particular problem in the U.S., where there is virtually no public health care and providers often withhold treatment until an insurance payment is sorted out.

Other countries, she said, often have a publicly funded plan that diplomats can fall back on, or will offer primary medical services before sorting out the billing.

She cited two recent cases in which either a Canadian posted in the U.S. or one of their relatives in that country experienced problems accessing medical care.

One “had a heart attack and was delayed in the emergency room because they could not get the information that they needed from the insurance provider,” she said. Another had to delay cancer treatment because of a similar issue.

“That kind of thing just should not be happening. And people hear those stories and they don’t want to go (to the U.S.),” Isfeld said.

“It all kind of adds up.”

Political hot potato

Isfeld noted that it would be “very politically incendiary” for Canada to formally name an American city as a hardship posting.

That’s a label usually only applied to postings in developing countries where there are high rates of crime, woeful infrastructure or rampant disease.

Former Canadian diplomat Roy Norton pushed back on Isfeld’s comments.

He said the department should rectify issues in its insurance coverage, but it doesn’t owe diplomats extra pay for working in a country where Canadians regularly take vacations.

“The implication or inference that we might have to treat the United States as effectively a hardship set of postings, and compensate in a corresponding fashion, strikes me as almost ridiculous,” he said.

Norton was posted in Washington, Detroit and Chicago before taking on the role of protocol chief, a senior job that includes overseeing the security of foreign diplomatic missions within Canada.

Now a University of Waterloo professor, Norton said postings in the U.S. are unique in that the job overwhelmingly involves engaging with civil society and business leaders, instead of just “officialdom” in the national capital.

Canadian envoys to the U.S. are positioned in a similar culture and have access to schools that can teach the children of diplomats a curriculum similar to that of many provinces.

Norton said the department could face “considerable” public pushback if it did boost compensation packages for American postings, given that the Trudeau government is trying to open new embassies in more countries while cutting back the department’s budget.

In fact, he said that Global Affairs ought to consider expanding rules that require certain types of diplomats to do a hardship posting early in their career, and complement that with a posting at an American mission as well, given the importance of the U.S. to Canadian interests.

“But I acknowledge that it’s not everybody’s cup of tea,” he said.

“A lot of people don’t join Global Affairs Canada to be posted somewhere that you could drive to.”


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