Canadian diplomats do not speak the local language

The vast majority of Canadian diplomats abroad do not speak the language required for their job description and are not sufficiently specialized, which a report says could harm the defense of Canada’s interests abroad.

“Conducting diplomacy in the local language is key to functioning in the next-generation environment, which is not limited to exchanging diplomatic notes or interacting with English- or French-speaking local elites,” said former Canadian Ambassador to Iraq Ulric shannon

The veteran diplomat signed a study published in August by the Center for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa. The 97-page document paints a bleak picture of how Global Affairs Canada chooses its diplomats, often without the language skills needed for their jobs.

The diplomatic network filled fewer than one in five senior positions abroad (18%) with someone who spoke the local language. In general, fewer than one in four diplomats (23%) have this skill, a number that has been falling in recent years. Proof, according to the author, “of the supposed uselessness of language skills for promotion in the organization”. Canada is also the only G7 country that does not offer financial incentives to learn a foreign language.

The country does not fare well compared to its allies. For example, Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, the United States and the United Kingdom have a diplomatic corps that can, for the most part, communicate in the language of the country in which it is based.

“It goes way beyond learning languages,” comments Isabelle Roy, former Canadian Ambassador to African countries.

She welcomes the study, which “puts a finger on a long-standing sore,” according to the diplomat, nostalgic for a more glorious time for the country’s foreign policy. “We have minimized the importance of knowing the country of destination in favor of interchangeable capabilities. […] The consequence, as we can now see, is that we are becoming a player that matters much less in today’s big international issues. »

lack of employees

This situation can be explained by the general lack of middle management in the diplomatic network, which leads to employees being assigned to urgent tasks instead of allowing them to attend, for example, the language courses to which they are entitled. Mr. Shannon also drew attention to the particular situation in Canada where foreign service diplomats are required to have a working knowledge of French and English at the time of recruitment.

The resumption of a language program for monolingual candidates in 2021 now offers monolingual candidates the right to learn the other official language after their selection. According to the author, this could, for example, allow the hiring of candidates who speak Mandarin but have not had access to training in French.

The consequence, as we can now see, is that we are becoming a player that matters much less in today’s big international issues.

The duty found that the recent executive hiring process at Global Affairs Canada screened out proportionately more Francophones, visible minorities, people with disabilities and Aboriginal people. The candidates from the Anglophone majority were the less likely to be eliminated. When she held the portfolio of Minister for Official Languages, Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly promised to change the “culture” of the civil service to force bilingualism into the bureaucracy. Global Affairs Canada is also considering staffing.

“As Mr. Shannon’s report states, a review of Global Affairs Canada’s policies and practices is underway. In May, Secretary Joly and Deputy Secretary Morgan announced an initiative aimed at consulting global affairs staff to identify global best practices and build modern diplomacy adapted to today’s challenges,” wrote Adrien Blanchard, press attaché of Minister Joly.

Also, the study by the University of Ottawa, which compares Canada’s diplomatic service to that of six countries (United States, United Kingdom, France, Australia, China, Russia), bears witness to a global context in which the State Department is losing its traditional role as Government ambassador, with more and more ministries getting involved in international relations.

The author also advises Global Affairs Canada to attract more specialized diplomats so as not to marginalize the institution and “challenge its comparative advantage”.

In short, to prevent the ministry from becoming just a one-stop shop for passports and visas, or just owning the buildings that house the embassies.

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Darren Pena

Avid beer trailblazer. Friendly student. Tv geek. Coffee junkie. Total writer. Hipster-friendly internet practitioner. Pop culture fanatic.

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