Photo: Darryl Dyck The Canadian Press Pamela Isfeld, president of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers, suggested that Ottawa's security threat assessments are not as rigorous for the United States as they are for other countries.
Dylan Robertson – The Canadian Press in Ottawa
January 21, 2024
The union representing Canadian diplomats wants Global Affairs Canada to consider paying bonuses to those stationed in the United States as they face increased risk of gun crime and difficulty accessing health care .
Pamela Isfeld, president of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers, suggested that Ottawa's security threat assessments are not as rigorous for the United States as for others country.
“If we're talking about a post in Africa where we've been locked down a half-dozen times due to active shooters in the last year, that would enter into the security assessment from this position,” she lamented.
According to her, Global Affairs Canada has faced “major problems” in convincing diplomats to serve south of the border and which the department attributes to the fact that diplomats might want more exotic assignments.
This is a misunderstanding of the situation, argues Ms. Isfeld, emphasizing that the federal government often emphasizes the importance of Canadian-American relations and the need to have the best performance in diplomatic missions over there.
“And yet there is very little support,” she laments.
Global Affairs Canada did not respond to questions from The Canadian Press.
“Personally witnessed five shootings”
Canadian diplomats are stationed at the embassy in Washington, as well as consulates and trade offices in 15 other cities, including Boston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Houston.
Pamela Isfeld believes that the alleged understaffing at U.S. missions is due in part to compensation that does not reflect the risks and inconveniences of life in the United States.
In an appearance on the Canadian Global Affairs Institute's Global Exchange podcast earlier this month, she claimed that a diplomat stationed at a U.S. mission was trying to be transferred because the city's police department — which she did not name — was underfunded and crime was soaring.
“There were all kinds of lockdowns and evacuations in the office. The person says he has personally witnessed five shootings, and yet no one will look at difficulty levels or incentive programs, or even increasing security budgets for these missions to deal with this.” confided Pamela Isfeld, during the episode.
In a recent interview with The Canadian Press, the director said that American assignments certainly have advantages for staff, such as proximity to their loved ones on Canadian soil and an agreement that allows spouses of diplomats to work in the United States — unlike many other countries.
But she noted that security issues are a growing concern for diplomats and officials from other federal departments who accept posts in the United States.
She argues there is a trend where Ottawa is sending more staff from other Canadian government departments to the United States because there aren't enough foreign service officers willing to go there. According to her, no formal data analysis has been carried out on the issue.
Ms. Isfeld suggests that someone left her job in the United States a few years ago because there was a shooting at a nearby school and her child was afraid of go to class.
Difficulties in accessing health care
Global Affairs Canada experienced problems with its new health insurance provider, and diplomats reported delays in getting answers to claims and other questions as they worked to abroad.
She said these delays are a particular problem in the United States, where there is virtually no public health care and providers often withhold treatment until insurance payments are cleared.
Other countries, she explained, often have a state-funded plan that diplomats can rely on, or offer primary medical services before settling the bill .
She cited two recent cases in which either a person stationed in the United States or a loved one there experienced difficulty accessing medical care.
One “had a heart attack and was held up in the emergency room because she couldn’t get the information she needed from the insurer,” she said. Another had to delay her cancer treatment due to a similar problem.
“Things like this just shouldn’t happen. And people hear these stories and don’t want to go [to the United States],” laments Ms. Isfeld. “It all adds up. »
This states that it would be “very politically inflammatory” for Canada to officially designate a U.S. city as a hardship duty station. It's a label typically applied only to assignments in developing countries where crime rates are high, outdated infrastructure, or endemic disease.
Former Canadian diplomat Roy Norton tempered Pamela Isfeld's comments.
He said the department should address issues with its insurance coverage, but it does not owe extra pay to diplomats who work in a country where Canadians regularly take vacations.
“The implication or inference that we might have to treat the United States as a set of hard posts and compensate in a corresponding way seems almost ridiculous to me,” he added .
Roy Norton was posted to Washington, Detroit and Chicago before assuming the role of Chief of Protocol, a high-level position that includes overseeing the security of foreign diplomatic missions in Canada.
Now a professor at the University of Waterloo, he says U.S. assignments are unique in that much of the work involves engagement with civil society and business leaders, rather than to limit oneself to the “authorities” of the capital.
He indicates that Canadian envoys to the United States operate in a similar culture and that their children have access to schools capable of teaching a curriculum similar to that in many provinces.
He said the department could face “considerable” public resistance if it increased compensation packages for U.S. postings, as Justin Trudeau's government attempts to open new embassies in more countries while reducing the ministry's budget.
In fact, he said Global Affairs Canada should consider expanding the rules requiring certain types of diplomats to serve a difficult assignment early in their career, and complement that with an assignment to a U.S. mission as well, given the importance of the United States to Canadian interests.
“But I recognize that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea,” he qualified. Many people don't join Global Affairs Canada to be posted to a place where they could drive. »