Tuesday, June 23, 2015

On a career in the foreign service


Twenty-five years ago I joined the Canadian foreign service. I was just 23 at the time and, whatever the antonym is of the word “worldly” (unworldly? Sounds wrong), that was me. I left foreign service fifteen years later, although my final three years were on education leave as I pursued my PhD at Guelph. I spent most of the intervening twelve years living and working abroad, with temporary postings in Belgrade and New Delhi, and longer ones in Hong Kong, Seattle, and Vienna. Students regularly ask me how I came to have such an opportunity, and why I eventually gave it up. With the exact date of my 25th anniversary having recently passed, I thought I might reflect on those questions, and mention a few memorable moments. Hope my reminisces don’t bore you too much; if they do, please come back for my next post.
One of my old diplomatic passports, circa 2000

I came to be a foreign service officer somewhat by accident. It wasn’t a career I’d thought about growing up. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of such a job until my third year of undergrad geography at Western, when by chance I saw on campus a poster advertising an upcoming recruiting visit by someone from the Department of External Affairs (now officially called Foreign Affairs, but still simply referred to as “External” by many). I went to the talk, liked what I heard, and wrote the Foreign Service entrance exam that fall. I also wrote the law school admission test (LSAT) around the same time, passed, and entered Western Law the following academic year. The two tests were fairly similar – logic questions in multiple choice format – with the FS exam having an extra component that tested your knowledge of world affairs. Thank goodness I watched the evening news regularly.

During my first semester in law school (I had plans to pursue environmental law) I was invited by External to an interview on campus. I didn’t realize that it would take the better part of a day. There were seven or eight other candidates, all of them older than me. In the morning I was interviewed by a panel of four or five people from Ottawa. I still remember one of the questions. They asked me to imagine I worked at the Canadian Embassy in Mexico and that a Canadian businessman came in to say that his daughter had been thrown in jail for smoking weed, and asked if I would help him bribe the Mexican police to get her out. I replied immediately, “Of course, a Mexican prison is the last place anyone would want their daughter to be”. This prompted the interviewers to do a lot of scribbling in their notebooks. Evidently it was a good answer.

In the afternoon, the other candidates and I were led to a boardroom and given a scenario to read, the fictitious budget of an embassy in a small Caribbean nation. We were then each given a different project that we were supposed to advocate for, with the group to decide which ones should be funded (good preparation for serving on SSHRC awards committees later in life). I read the project I’d been given, immediately recognized it was a loser, and decided my best strategy was to play the role of facilitator among the others. Again, this was evidently the right choice. The following February I got a phone call from External, asking me to join them, and offering a princely starting salary of $23,000 (even in 1990, that wasn’t especially generous). Although I was doing well at law school, I figured could become a lawyer anytime, but I’d only ever get this one chance at the FS. So, I finished my first year exams, took a year’s leave of absence from Western, and caught a Greyhound to Ottawa. My first couple nights I slept in a youth hostel that had once been a prison.

It was an interesting summer to become a trainee diplomat. The Berlin Wall was being demolished, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and the Cold War was over. A new war began when Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime invaded neighbouring Kuwait. Only a few weeks into my new career I was in External’s consular operations centre, answering phone calls from Canadians seeking help to contact friends and family members caught up in the invasion (remember, those were the days before cell phones or internet). That November I was sent to the Canadian Embassy in Belgrade for six weeks of training on how to process immigration and refugee applications. Belgrade was at that time still capital of a united Yugoslavia, a country that would begin to unravel and descend into civil war a year later. In the meantime, thousands of Albanians had fled the chaos of their collapsed police-state-of-a-country to seek asylum in Yugoslavia. When I returned to Yugoslavia a decade later, NATO forces were protecting Albanians in the southern Yugoslav province of Kosovo from ethnic cleansing.

I spent much of 1991 at a private school in Ottawa, where I was sent to improve my French, which had been pretty good, but far from fluent. After some headquarters assignments I have long since forgotten, I was sent to the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi to help the immigration staff process a backlog of family reunification applications. I returned to Canada with a persistent case of amoebic dysentery, a love of curry, and a solid knowledge of India’s Hindu Maintenance and Adoption Act.

The following year I was posted to Hong Kong, then still a British colony. The Canadian Commission was still trying to dig itself out from under a sea of visa applications received after the Chinese government killed pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The British government refused to provide citizens of Hong Kong with either British citizenship or residency rights, so tens of thousands of rightly worried families applied for migration to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries with open immigration programs. I was still in Hong Kong in 1996, still processing immigration applications, although the backlog had mostly cleared. For a couple years I had been simultaneously accredited to the Canadian Embassy in Beijing, and travelled to Guangzhou and surrounding areas in southern China from Hong Kong every few weeks on official business (mostly immigration-related work), always accompanied by a Chinese government official.

My next posting was to the Canadian Consulate General in Seattle, in the mid-1990s, the peak of the grunge music era and the start of the dot-com bubble. Most of the day-to-day work was done by locally hired staff, so my job was to manage the visa section operations and deal with problem situations. An example of the latter would be when a US citizen was denied entry to Canada at the border for having admitted to a past DUI charge (a misdemeanor in most US states but equivalent of a felony in Canada) and came storming into our offices looking for a permit to overcome his inadmissibility (it was always a ‘him’). I absolutely loved living in Seattle (who wouldn’t?) but in my third year I had the misfortune of being promoted to the same FS rank as the Consul. So, I was reassigned to the Canadian Embassy in Tehran and started taking Farsi lessons in preparation.

I never got there. There was some sort of diplomatic spat between the Canadian and Iranian governments that summer, and so my diplomatic visa request was denied by the Iranian government. Complicating things was the fact that I was in the US, where there was no Iranian embassy, and my visa application was being handled by the Pakistan Embassy in Washington on behalf of the Iranian government. My replacement had already arrived in Seattle, so I was sent back to Canada until things could be straightened out. The day before my Iranian visa was finally approved I crashed my mountain bike while trail riding, and shattered my collarbone in several places. Someone else was sent to Tehran in my stead while I mended, and I was then reassigned to Vienna. A colleague’s wife later told me she would break her husband’s leg if it meant he would be sent to Vienna.

My three years in Vienna were fantastic. The city is beautiful, the hiking is spectacular, and I learned to enjoy a good schnitzel. The one drawback was that cellphones had become ubiquitous, and my assignment required me to be on call 24/7. I was the regional immigration control officer, the contact person for airlines, border agencies, and interior ministries in central Europe and the Balkans whenever they had questions about suspicious travellers or travel documents with a Canadian connection. I travelled widely in the region, working with officials from Moldova to Macedonia (and with counterparts from the US and UK) to reduce migrant smuggling and trafficking through the region. Some of the travel was memorable. I will never forget the first time I entered Kosovo from Macedonia in an armoured SUV, a bootleg Clash CD playing ‘London Calling’ on the stereo, and the troops at the checkpoint wearing respirators and goggles to protect them from lime dust still airborne weeks after a NATO cruise missile blew up a nearby cement factory. Some of the travel was less memorable; there was absolutely nothing to do on a Tuesday night in Chisinau at that time. I believe it has since become a destination for sex tourism.

It was a night in Skopje that I realized that my time in the foreign service was drawing to a close. I had spent the day in meetings with government officials. It was a beautiful evening, and I had no plans for dinner. In the past, I had always taken such opportunities to ditch my suit and tie, put on my running shoes and go exploring. But that evening, I was tired and couldn’t be bothered. I ate a forgettable meal in the hotel’s fake Irish pub (fake Irish pubs were all the rage fifteen years ago, even in Macedonia) and went to bed early. When the thrill of being in a foreign country has worn off, it’s time to pack it in. I knew I wouldn’t enjoy another foreign posting, the thought of returning to a headquarters desk job in Ottawa gave me shivers, and I had for some years been contemplating pursuing a PhD. So, to bring a long tale to a quick end, I left Vienna for the University of Guelph and, eventually, a career change.


I don’t miss being in the foreign service, but I certainly wouldn’t trade one minute of the time I spent in it. It was a privilege and an honour to serve and represent Canada abroad, and I had a heck of a good time doing it. I still find it hard to believe any right-minded hiring committee would have given such an opportunity to the 23-year-old version of me, but I’m sure glad they did. And I’m also glad I happened across that recruiting poster in the UWO student centre back in 1989. I really can’t see myself today being a lawyer.