Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on
Foreign Affairs and International Trade
Issue No. 61 - Evidence - Meeting of April 11, 2019
OTTAWA, Thursday, April 11, 2019
The Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade met this day at 10:31 a.m. to study foreign relations and international trade generally (topic: security at Canada’s missions abroad).
Senator A. Raynell Andreychuk (Chair) in the chair.
The Chair: The Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade is meeting today. Before we begin, I’m going to ask senators to introduce themselves, starting on my left.
Senator Boehm: Peter Boehm, Ontario.
Senator Bovey: Patricia Bovey, Manitoba.
Senator Coyle: Mary Coyle, Nova Scotia.
Senator Greene: Steve Greene, Nova Scotia.
Senator Dean: Tony Dean, Ontario.
The Chair: I’m Raynell Andreychuk from Saskatchewan. We have some competing issues going on in the Senate. I think other senators will be arriving soon. Nonetheless, we wanted your evidence on the record so that we’re assured we complete our task.
The committee is authorized to examine such issues as may arise from time to time relating to foreign relations and international trade. Under this mandate, the committee heard from the Office of the Auditor General and from Global Affairs Canada in February on security measures in Canada’s missions abroad. That meeting raised several questions. The committee wanted to continue the dialogue, this time from the perspective of consular services, and in particular, the security training offered to employees, both on a regular basis and in a time of crisis.
We also want to be sure that when we talk about security and safety of missions, that we include the security and safety of our staff, both locally engaged and otherwise, and that we not just look at physical security but mental and emotional security.
For the record, some of us were on the delegation that went to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, when the plane crashed and were at the embassy just at the start of the embassy’s responsibility for their consular and other duties. It occurred to us that it would be important to look at safety and security from that perspective. I’m very pleased that we’ve seized that issue, and this hearing today will be part of our report.
I’m going introduce Heather Jeffrey, Assistant Deputy Minister, Consular, Security and Emergency Management; and Reid Sirrs, Director General, Security and Emergency Management, both from Global Affairs Canada.
You’ve testified before so you know our procedure. We would like to hear from you and leave some time for questions. Welcome again to the committee.
Heather Jeffrey, Assistant Deputy Minister, Consular, Security and Emergency Management, Global Affairs Canada: Thank you and good morning, Madam Chair and senators. Thank you very much for the invitation to return before this committee to further discuss physical security at missions abroad and, more specifically, to expand our dialogue on our ongoing efforts to continuously improve the security and emergency preparedness training received by our staff being posted overseas.
In addition, I particularly appreciate the opportunity to touch on the critical elements of our organization’s post-crisis follow-up and support to our own responders, the dedicated employees at our missions and their families, both abroad and at headquarters, who are on the front lines of assisting Canadians and their families in very difficult and sometimes traumatic situations.
As you know from our recent conversations, Canada has thousands of staff working abroad, locally engaged and Canadian-based, to serve Canadians and promote and protect our interests. This requires their engagement in regions that bring additional risks. Our number one priority is the security and safety of our staff, in all its dimensions. Being aware of the risks to one’s personal security as well as the risk to the security of others around you, being prepared with the tools, techniques and tactics to avoid these threats wherever possible and to react quickly and effectively to incidents when they occur are vital to our ability to carry out our mandate abroad.
There are a wide range of potential threats. In addition to threats that could be directed at the mission itself, by virtue of living in local environments, staff are also exposed to threats that might be more generally directed at public gatherings, commercial areas or transportation hubs. They must be able to detect potential threats as well as respond to high and critical threat situations that could arise during their time abroad.
Global Affairs Canada seeks to provide employees and their accompanying spouses and dependents with the appropriate training required to raise their level of awareness, competence and preparedness so they can safely carry out their duties. This training also includes explicit recognition of the psychological impacts of stressful situations, how to recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma and awareness of the resources and support that are put in place to assist them.
Our objective is to take a rigorous and comprehensive approach to ensuring our network of missions is secure and the people working abroad can do so in safety and security.
To this end, our training courses include a wide range of topics, including introduction to security, first aid, personal security seminars encompassing security awareness, the threat environment, self-defence as well as hostile environment training, which is provided by the Department of National Defence primarily for regions where armed conflict and terrorism can be present. This is accompanied by a range of very specialized training offerings for our security professionals themselves, as well as a series of emergency management courses, including courses specifically designed for missions and mission response in crisis.
The 2018 audit of physical security conducted by the Auditor General of Canada highlights both the positive work we have done in making upgrades to strengthen our security at missions over the past 10 years and also identifies areas that can be improved upon.
One of the recommendations the audit spoke to is the need for our organization to better ensure that Canadian staff working in dangerous locations successfully complete the mandatory security awareness training. The audit also recommends the establishment of mandatory security training for locally engaged staff.
I want to assure you Global Affairs Canada fully recognizes the importance of this mandatory training for staff posted abroad, especially to high and critical threat missions, and indeed, departmental staff have been offered and have been receiving security training sessions for many years.
However, the resources required to ensure that all staff received this training in a timely way were limited, and at the same time, the number of missions designated as requiring such training has continued to increase due to changes in the global threat environment.
We were therefore very pleased to learn that the duty of care funding envelope approved in 2017 specifically addresses training needs for a 10-year period. We are confident that we are now in a position to be able to ensure going forward that all staff and their families receive this training as required.
Specifically, this new funding has allowed the department to significantly increase its training capacity. For example, over the past fiscal year, offerings of our mandatory personal security seminar and the hostile environment training have been increased by 30 and 40 per cent respectively to address the increase in security training requirements. We expect to be in full compliance with mandatory training by this fall.
During the past year we have offered an additional 14 weeks of training for overseas security specialist practitioners — these are our security program managers abroad — ensuring a common high standard of professional expertise that responds to the latest developments. These practitioners are responsible for the mission security briefings on arrival and for maintaining mission security standards and protocols, including movement protocols at mission.
In addition, a comprehensive internal training tracking tool has been developed, which now contains mandatory security training records for both Global Affairs Canada and employees from other government departments who are assigned abroad and work within our mission platform.
As we move forward in 2019, we are making important strides in innovating to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our training by piloting the delivery of key courses not only at headquarters before people deploy but also in regions in the field where they can be tailored to the local environment and where we can minimize the impact of absences on mission operations and consular services. This is particularly important given that the cross-posting of staff from one country directly to another without returning to Canada was one of the reasons we previously had challenges in meeting the training requirements.
Our locally engaged staff are an integral part of our missions, and they are also exposed to the risks of local context but in different ways. Being familiar with their home environments, locally engaged staff have a greater understanding, in many cases, of how to appropriately react to a variety of situations that may arise. However, we recognize that due to their employment and work-related duties, they may also be exposed to specific additional risks.
In response to the audit, the department has reassessed the current mandatory security training offered to this group and is developing a new training course that will expand the training to the threat environment and position requirements.
With respect to our organization’s post-crisis follow-up, every crisis presents opportunities from which we can learn and improve for future responses. With this in mind, the department has implemented a standardized after action review process to help us adopt, as best practices, those things that go well during emergency responses but also to refine and improve upon what we believe we need to do better.
At Global Affairs Canada, building an effective and resilient emergency response framework is a continuous process, drawing on lessons learned from past emergencies to inform contingency planning and regular exercises, and to ensure early detection and rapid response to new emergencies.
For example, our regional emergency management officers visited over 70 missions in the last fiscal year and delivered 73 exercises, resulting in over 2,000 of our staff individually and personally trained in emergency management procedures and how to work together in responses.
It’s critical to recognize that as part of this process, emergencies also have a very important impact on the mental health and well-being of our staff, who serve Canadians selflessly, while at the same time, they and their families are also exposed, in many cases, to the same ongoing crisis situations.
In post-crisis situations, the department’s Employee Assistance Program is available to provide crisis intervention and critical incident debriefings for individuals and also for groups at missions. I should add that they’re also often deployed during a crisis as, for example, was the case recently in Ethiopia, where counsellors went to missions immediately after news of that tragic accident.
The Employee Assistance Program also provides specific training on issues such as stress management and resilience, psychological preparation for cultural adaptation and managing difficult conversations with traumatized families and Canadians.
Even as we ensure robust training for our people deployed abroad, renewed efforts are under way to strengthen our training for our headquarters-based responders, a need that was recently identified through our after-action reviews. For example, on the consular side, it is our case workers at headquarters who deal primarily with the families of Canadians who might be affected abroad but whose family members are here in Canada, often in a high level of anxiety over the well-being of their loved ones.
Through mentoring sessions at headquarters for emergency response team members, for example, the department is ensuring that they are well equipped to support their colleagues on the front lines. Training sessions provide a concrete opportunity to revisit the exact roles and responsibilities and to exercise them directly with our counterparts also across government through tabletop exercises and other case-specific training.
On the consular side, we have a regular offering of courses and sessions focused on mental health, well-being and mental health first aid of our consular case managers, courses that are offered both at headquarters but also regionally at posts abroad, allowing us to bring together consular teams from across a particular region.
To close, I wish to thank the honourable members of this committee for their attention to this critical issue, in particular for your concern with the safety and well-being of our staff. We would be pleased to answer your questions in regard to the progress that has been made on training and to address the impacts that these challenges we face can have on their health and well-being, not just of our staff but also of their families. Thank you.
The Chair: Thank you, Ms. Jeffrey. There are senators who wish to pose questions, starting with Senator Bovey.
Senator Bovey: Thank you for coming back. I have found these sessions very interesting. While we tend to focus on specific issues, it’s really rewarding to be able to simultaneously see the broader picture. I thank you for that.
I think making sure staff are prepared for the situations they’re going into is really important. I’m pleased to see the seriousness with which you’re undertaking the development of further training in situations.
I’ve got a couple of questions, if I may, and they may be very simplistic questions, so forgive me.
I appreciate that you’re expanding the training. Am I right that the goal is to have staff take the training before they arrive at a mission, or is much of this training done once they’re at their mission?
Ms. Jeffrey: In an ideal situation, the staff would take the training before they depart Canada. That’s our goal. There are a number of circumstances in which that might not be possible. One is where staff have been moving, for example, from one mission abroad to another mission abroad directly and may not be able to immediately return to Canada. In those cases, we try to either ensure that they transit through Canada or that the courses are offered at post early in the fall so that all of those who have moved between missions will be able to do it at the same time. That’s a new development that the duty of care program has enabled us to provide.
The other circumstance where we can find ourselves in a different situation is where a mission changes categories. Certain higher levels — the hostile environment training, for example, or personal security seminars — are only required in high-crime or other high-threat environments. There are a large number of missions that are subject to these, but it’s not all missions.
It’s possible that a mission changes category midway through the year as a result of the changing political situation within that country. In that case, then the training must be offered to all of the staff on the ground. We’re going to endeavour to do that now at post through local providers or through trainers travelling from headquarters to that post. The added advantage is it allows our trainers to provide training that’s explicitly tailored to the threat environment of that particular mission as opposed to the more general training that addresses the full range of threats across all missions.
Senator Bovey: If I may ask about families. I appreciate that diplomatic staff move from post to post. I appreciate that the training is for families as well.
What about children? What about kids who are changing missions and going to school? I don’t know whether they go to international or local schools. I’m sure it varies from family to family and from post to post. What kind of training is given to children to and from school or after school? I’d be really interested to know what we do about our young people.
Ms. Jeffrey: I think I’ll ask my colleague Reid to address the specifics of it, but our families are explicitly included in these mandatory trainings. They have to live in these same environments. It’s very important that they also have the same abilities to detect threats and to respond appropriately.
They are included. I believe it’s over the age of 12 that children participate. Younger children do not currently have this kind of training, but their safety and security is one of the things that is evaluated by our security program managers at mission, the safety and security of the schools that our children attend. All of these things are explicitly part of our mission security evaluations. That’s been a relatively recent development. I would say 30 years ago that wouldn’t have been something that was seen in the realm of mission security, but it’s a very important dimension for our families.
Many of the incidents involved not direct threats against our mission but people being caught up in situations while out and about in town shopping, travelling, doing the things that families normally do. Therefore, it’s really important that our courses address this explicitly, that it not just be focused on terrorist attacks against the mission platform but that we look at the full range. Reid, if you want to expand on that.
Reid Sirrs, Director General, Security and Emergency Management, Departmental Security Officer, Global Affairs Canada: You hit it all. Thank you very much. It really does come down to the specifics of each mission that people go to. Obviously, we wouldn’t want to expose someone less than 12 years old to the full hostile environment training, but we have other forms of training we provide that is catered more to the context of where they are.
With the older children, they are exposed because they are typically the ones who are more mobile and free to move about in the countries where they reside. Obviously, we have to make sure they’re taken care of.
Ms. Jeffrey: One of the things we’re looking at and evaluating constantly are the profiles of missions where dependents are permitted and where they are not. This is constantly monitored and it sometimes a difficult issue to determine when missions are no longer safe for spouses and dependents. Those decisions can have big impacts on our mission operations, but it is very important. We’ve developed criteria and are continually reassessing, as mission contexts change, whether it remains a place where dependents should remain.
For example, in December of this past year, we removed child dependents from Port-au-Prince, in Haiti, as a result of the deteriorating security situation. Those are decisions we take into account.
Senator Bovey: Have we had instances where there have been threats against children of embassy staff? In my own career in my own hometown, I got a call from police one day saying they were putting extra police on the playground because of threats against my children because of the work I was doing. If that happens at home, in Canada, in a job that isn’t high-risk at all, are there threats against children of our embassy staff? Are we aware of threats against children of our embassy staff?
Ms. Jeffrey: I’m not aware of any specific instances. That, of course, is something that I guess would always be possible. I’m not aware of any specific instances of that in the last few years.
Most of the threats we evaluate are not specific against schools or children but, rather, they would be incidental targets of other activity.
Senator Bovey: Thank you.
Senator Boehm: Thank you, Ms. Jeffrey and Mr. Sirrs, for coming here today. I appreciate the candour and openness of your responses and presentation. I’d also like to echo the views of the chair at the outset regarding the fine job that everyone concerned did with respect to the Ethiopian airlines crash tragedy.
I have a few questions. Some will probably work better on a second round. I’d like to commend Global Affairs Canada for the extra effort that has been put on mental health generally and in this area in particular. I know we’re focusing very much on missions abroad. I know from my own experience — in fact, Ms. Jeffrey, when I was in your job some 12 years ago — that a case worker can really get involved in a case. In my experience, it was a hostage-taking, where you work closely with the families and sometimes the result is not a good one. Your employees and colleagues have to be supported in that respect.
Do you feel now that enough resources are being devoted? I know you mentioned this, but do you think enough support is being given to the people who can never speak out because of the Privacy Act and who are handling these very delicate cases?
My other question is related. We also have people going to missions where you don’t think there will be a hazardous environment. We have our colleagues in Paris. Paris went into a state of emergency for a long time after a terrorist attack. In my own experience, I was posted in Washington at the time of 9/11. We never thought — the world never thought — anything like that would happen, but you have to react.
Although these are not hazardous environments in terms of the criteria that you would have, is everyone who goes on a posting being given an opportunity to have some sort of security training, or does that have to wait until they arrive at the mission?
Ms. Jeffrey: These are very important issues. I think that we’ve reached a turning point in the last few years where the health and well-being of our employees is an integral part of how we view the security response. There’s obviously a specific area of our department, through the Employee Assistance Program, that is dedicated to all forms of counselling and crisis support to our employees. We work closely with them on security and consular issues. They exist to provide services to staff.
It is a standard part of all our pre-posting training that our staff are exposed to what to look for, how to identify, in yourself, your colleagues or family, the signs of stress and the resources available. Those resources are available in a crisis situation through our 24-7 emergency watch and response centre. Counsellors can be reached by our staff, but there is always more to be done. We’re working closely right now to ensure we have a fully integrated approach as we advance our training.
I’ve participated in the training to make sure I understand what’s being taught and how it’s being done. Our colleagues at the Department of National Defence does an excellent job on hostile environment training, having experienced many of these situations themselves in providing training. We work closely with them now to provide a much fuller range of mental health and well-being supports within that training that are tailored to the civilian environment. The military environment and the civilian environment are very different. It started out as a military course in places like Kabul. However, it’s now evolved. Hostile environment training is required for 37 missions abroad. Not all of them are like Kabul. They all have risks but are not necessarily as militarized. That training has expanded and become more tailored to what is more relevant to Global Affairs’ civilian staff and their families.
You’re quite right that the staff that work on high-profile and traumatic cases such as kidnappings — often for many years at a time because they’re resistant sometimes to resolution in the short term — have a particular level of involvement and exposure to those events that is very difficult. Specific and targeted training and follow-ups are provided to them including throughout. I think we have much greater awareness now of the aftereffects of trauma generally in the public service. In those cases, I think people are explicitly aware of the need for that kind of support, including the employees themselves who deal with it. It’s now a regular part of what they do. It’s offered regularly, not only when they request but also as a periodic check-in that happens. That’s the world we need to be in. We can’t rely on people only coming to us and self-identifying. We also need to be reaching out and offering respectfully so that people are aware they don’t have to do all the work in coming the whole way to meet us on the side of employee support.
One of the areas we need to make sure we cover is the everyday stresses of the cases that don’t make the headlines and that are not as evidently high-profile or perhaps as traumatic. However, through repeated interactions, the everyday traumas and tragedies of families, they really take a toll on our staff who are on the phones every day. We have put in place a program of almost monthly trainings, check-ins and support with them just to make sure that doesn’t go undetected. Sometimes it’s the daily routine that never quite makes the high peaks, leaving everyone to conclude we need to send a crisis team to help the mission and make sure they can cope with their own stress. Sometimes that doesn’t occur in the everyday case load. It’s important that people get that attention.
Senator Boehm: Thank you very much.
The Chair: I want to follow up with a supplementary to that. Is there training on how to handle families in these disasters, whether it is something like the Ethiopian air crash or otherwise? I ask that because, as a senator, I often receive emails complaining about not getting the services for a traumatized family. You hear your son just died in a car accident on some island or country and they say they didn’t get the concern or the kind of comfort they needed. What they got was, “You’re entitled to this. This is how we’ll handle the removal,” et cetera. So they’ve complained.
Equally I’ve received messages saying, “We couldn’t have done it but for the way the staff handled us. They were caring, understanding and facilitating. We knew they were going way beyond what we expected.” Isn’t there training on how to handle these kinds of emergencies and the unexpected?
It’s almost like a psychology course of: Families will be coming, and they will be traumatized. How do you handle that and understand your legal limitations? You have to deal with the country you’re in. Is that part of the training?
Ms. Jeffrey: Yes, it’s explicitly part of the training that our consular officers receive both the initial and periodic refresher training. The most important part of what they do, responding with empathy and concern — even in cases where the news you’re delivering or the message you have to impart won’t be welcomed by those to whom you’re speaking — is one of the most difficult things. People are individuals. They respond in a variety of different ways.
We also need to take care that our staff get respite and rotation off of dealing with those kinds of situations so that their own resilience and ability to respond with empathy doesn’t get depleted. We work within our branch to move people to different positions as stresses peak or decline, to make sure they’re able to draw on those reservoirs of empathy and concern. Those are very difficult conversations.
In fact, we have a specific course on difficult conversations. There are ways to impart news that is bad. There’s no way around it; these are some of the most traumatic experiences these individuals and their families will ever go through. It’s especially difficult when you can’t be present, when they happen in foreign countries, where the local laws might not be particularly favourable to the timelines or processes that you would like your loved ones to receive. They’re very difficult. They have specific training on this, but it’s important to make sure people have the time to recover and to be prepared to engage in the conversations.
The Chair: Following up on that: The difference now, of course, is that we have instant communications around the world. Is that built in? You may be talking to a consular officer and you don’t like what they say, and out goes a tweet.
Ms. Jeffrey: Yes, this is a reality of our communications environment now. It sometimes has benefits in that we can communicate with Canadians in many different ways. It’s sometimes difficult for them to get to phones. We’ve had to expand our repertoire. We communicate via WhatsApp, via text message, Messenger. Whatever form Canadians can reach us, we communicate with them.
The public communication side of consular communications is, in fact, one of the areas we are focusing on for improvement, both to make sure that Canadians have all the information they need before they travel, to make safe decisions, and also to make sure that in the case of crisis they’re getting the latest possible information through a means they are accessing or can understand where to find it.
We’re doing work on the interface, very technical work on: Is this the kind of web page that is easily navigable? Is it navigable on a mobile device? Is it navigable when you have limited bandwidth?
We’re working closely with Treasury Board and the innovation team to look at how the information we’re conveying is being accessed by people. We believe we have very good information. It’s updated on a 24-7 basis by a dedicated team. But if it’s not reaching people, then it’s not able to do its job. The mechanisms of communication is an area we are working on, in response to a report by the Office of the Auditor General and consular services from last year. This is one of our areas of focus.
Senator Coyle: Welcome back, Ms. Jeffrey; and welcome, Mr. Sirrs. As my colleagues have said, we really appreciate what you do. We know the Foreign Service is a rewarding career but also at times a very tough career.
I have a couple of connected questions: training, which you’ve focused a lot of your preparation on, and emergency preparedness situations. I’m curious how much we do in our training on the ground for our Canadian government employees with inputs from local knowledge in that particular environment. I understand, of course, you have standardized training programs, but how is local knowledge from local people built in? And do we ever cooperate with our peers — the United States, Britain, other countries — in those posts on the formulation and delivery of this type of training?
Ms. Jeffrey: Thank you. I’ll tackle the first part, and then maybe Reid can speak to the specifics at the post.
Local knowledge and tailoring the advice to specific situations is essential. In terms of the course offerings we have, sometimes the headquarters one can be offered in a targeted way where we have a large group of people going to a particular place. However, I would say the bulk of that kind of tailored training needs to occur at mission because that’s where we have greater resources, the greatest possible knowledge, and where people can immediately see their environment and understand how they need to interact with it.
People who arrive at missions, whether it’s for a short visit or for a posting, get on-arrival security briefings that are tailored to their environment. They also can get tailored threat briefings prior to their departure, provided by our security intelligence colleagues, about the kinds of threats that are available in the environment. The security response side I think mainly comes at missions.
Reid, do you want to comment?
Mr. Sirrs: Sure. Every mission benefits from a tabletop exercise dealing with an event catered specifically to that mission. We have regional emergency management officers who travel the world. We cover approximately 70 missions a year with exercises. In those exercises, everyone at the mission has an opportunity to participate in whatever the event is. If you’re dealing with Barbados, we’re talking about hurricanes. If you’re dealing with Afghanistan, you’re talking about a terrorist attack of some type.
These exercises prove to be very valuable for informing our emergency management plan; and these are evergreen, so we constantly adjust according to the evolving circumstances at the mission, as well as preparing people themselves. It’s a safe environment to learn. You can make mistakes and learn how you’re going to respond or react under certain circumstances.
In terms of joint exercises, we participate in a number of joint exercises. We constantly share lessons learned with those who are like-minded. We have an exchange program right now where we have someone from the United Kingdom, from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, in our emergency management office, and we have someone in their office overseas — sharing lessons, sharing best practices, as well as coordinating on various types of overseas exercises.
Ms. Jeffrey: I would add that this is one of the areas we’re looking at in terms of training innovation. We talked about how we’re looking at regional offerings to allow more people to take it more quickly. We also have instances where we’re working with the U.K., in particular, training for armoured vehicle drivers and also the hostile environment training. We’ve had our staff participate in their courses. We’ve had their staff participate in our courses. We will be looking at how some of these training offerings could be joined, because that will give us the numbers in the field that will allow us to tailor more specifically to a larger group. It’s the same kind of training. These are close, like-minded partners with whom we share a lot of information. We coordinate with them already on a whole range of threat assessment, travel advisories, mission security postures and protocols. Our security program managers abroad have their like-minded circle of security managers that are continually consulting on a daily basis on what the situation is on the ground, what collectively we think we should do about our posture. This is another dimension that we will be expanding further.
Senator Coyle: One supplemental, if I may. Thank you very much. That’s very helpful background. To expand this collaboration concept, I’m wondering how far it can or does go.
I used to fly in and out of Kabul because I was representing a number of donor agencies, including Canada, on a board in Afghanistan. I remember, the first time I flew in on the UN flight out of Dubai, being terrified; and then I arrived, and there was no training whatsoever on what to do. I knew enough how to dress, but not fully how to comport oneself and what one should watch for, transportation and that sort of thing. I sought it out myself. I went to the Canadian embassy, of course, and said, “Okay, tell me what to do.”
I’m not so much talking about those people who are in and out, but those Canadians who are in countries where there are risks, higher risks of various types, who are not associated with our mission directly but may be receiving funding through Global Affairs, for example, who are Canadian citizens in those countries. Is there collaboration with some of the organizations, be they private companies or NGOs, through which those people are brought to those countries on security briefings, on training?
Is there any collaboration that goes beyond our own mission or other governments’ missions?
Ms. Jeffrey: This is a very important because often it is humanitarian agencies and international non-governmental organizations that are the most broadly distributed in a given country. They’re in all the corners and the most difficult places. They are close partners on the development and humanitarian assistance front.
That is an explicit part of how our security program managers consult within countries in all of the missions, for example, that have those kinds of hostile environments. It’s routine for the security program managers to consult.
These organizations, like the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN World Food Programme, have highly professionalized security services of their own, and they are very exposed to the local threats. There are networks that exist, radio checks daily, consultations and comparing notes on incidents, checkpoints and these kinds of things. That explicitly informs our posture.
Reid, maybe you can speak to how Canadians are informed in the field.
We have our travel advice that is our go-to source for Canadians. We update it on a 24-7 basis in response to threats, letting people know about protests, demonstrations, new incidents on particular roads.
There’s also local advice that goes out to Registration of Canadians Abroad, which is a voluntary registry where Canadians who travel can input their contact information and whereabouts to our system. We can push out messages to them so they’re aware of the latest news that wouldn’t maybe make the broad country advice for that place but is important to know if you’re in Kabul on that particular day. That is part of it.
Mr. Sirrs: You stole my thunder.
Ms. Jeffrey: It isn’t just humanitarian or development organizations but also commercial companies. Our mining and extractive industry companies go where their business takes them. Those can be places of risk.
That kind of cooperation and consultation is really important on the consular side. We have a volunteer warden network of Canadians who are long-term residents in countries, who cover particular regions to help us extend our reach. They get to know the Canadians in the particular areas of the countries, and they are our focal points in case of crisis. They were extremely helpful, for example, during the hurricane response in 2017, as well as the Haiti crisis response this winter in helping us directly access places that you couldn’t travel to in that moment.
Senator Coyle: Thank you very much.
Senator Busson: First of all, my apologies for missing part of your presentation. I’ve yet to master the art of being two places at once. I’m working on it.
I think Senator Boehm and our chair pre-empted my question. I wanted to ask: From my experience, people in high-risk situations and people who are exposed to threats, sometimes it’s a low threat over an extended period of time that causes as much damage to folks’ mental health as it is high-risk situations that happen and are dealt with.
I’m wondering if with regard to everything from families to the children of people at mission, is there any kind of formal debriefing or any follow-up just generally when people come away from a mission or a project in even a low-threat area, that they sit and get debriefed and are offered an opportunity to seek some further conversations with people, et cetera?
Ms. Jeffrey: Yes. The offer of debriefing and counselling is part of both our pre-posting process and our return-to-Canada process. Returning to Canada brings with it its own set of stresses, frankly, because people aren’t anticipating that that is as stressful as moving to a new country. You’re still relocating your family to an environment that became familiar to you to one that is maybe no longer as familiar as it was when you left four or five years ago. You have to rebuild support networks, in some cases, if your family is not from Ottawa. Those can be stressful times as well.
We found during the course of our extensive deployments in Afghanistan over the last decade that it’s very important for not just employees but also for their managers to be made aware of what to look for, the ways that kind of post-traumatic stress can be reflected in people’s behaviour and work environment. We found that kind of low-level stress can result in things like irritability or other issues that weren’t being immediately recognized as things that were the result of the environment to which they had been exposed. They themselves would not have identified initially that was the result of the environment they had been in.
There was a real work of education that needed to be done and still needs to be done. It’s an ongoing, continual process. We have a mandatory course on mental health and well-being for managers. That will pick up both sides of the equation. It’s not just offering it to the employee but also making sure those around them will be sensitive to people’s needs and afforded space.
For particularly high-threat missions, we make sure there is very focused debriefing. It’s mandatory. You have to sit. You don’t have to talk, but you have to have a conversation. They will ask you some questions, and you can decide to participate or not.
Everything is voluntary, but it is a little more structured than for non-threat missions. It is about creating that holistic environment across our department. It’s not specific to any one task. Given that we’re rotational, at any given point in your career, you will be exposed to those environments or someone who has been in those environments, and you may not be aware. Having the general awareness of mental health and well-being is a big project for us and one where we’re excited about some of the new directions.
I think bringing them all together and recognizing it isn’t just in those extreme things like plane crashes and earthquakes that you have to pay attention, but in our everyday life, in the most mundane tasks.
Senator Busson: That’s wonderful to hear. Thank you very much for your answer.
Mr. Sirrs: As Heather said, in some of the high-risk missions, for example, Afghanistan and Iraq, when people come back from mission, they have to engage in a mandatory decompression leave. At the end of that leave, they have to participate in a session where we engage in terms of how people are doing.
Prior to that, those missions do receive Employee Assistance Program visits. In Afghanistan, it’s twice a year where we go in and check on people. It’s people from HQ who are checking in on us to see how we are doing. That advice, any sort of indicators that are of concern, is fed back to the head of the mission to make sure people are being assisted or supported as much as we can while they’re in the field. To support them on that, they, of course, get out on R and R leave, which basically gets them out of that particular stressful environment and into a decompressed environment. We try to build resilience over the course of their posting.
Senator Ngo: Before I ask my question, I would like to follow up on the questions from Senator Bovey regarding the children at the embassy.
In the high-risk countries, does the embassy take care of transporting the children to school? If yes, what kind of vehicle is used? Do we have bulletproof cars at our disposal?
Ms. Jeffrey: In most of our highest-risk missions, dependents are not permitted to go on posting or to visit. In a place like Kabul, you will not find children.
In other missions where the security situation might be more episodic — I can use the example of Nairobi, where, for example, after the Westgate mall incident, we did not have children or dependents in Nairobi for quite a long period. The situation improved. There now are dependents and children there.
In each, we do have armoured vehicles and transport at missions where this is a risk. We have, in extreme situations, used it to transport children safely, but obviously in an environment where that was an ongoing threat, we would be seriously assessing whether that’s an environment where you would want to continue to have dependents.
We’ve had to use it where unexpected things happened and children needed to be retrieved or moved in armoured vehicles. In a situation where that would be a repeated concern, we would be seriously assessing whether our mission posture would need to be re-evaluated and people brought home on a more permanent basis.
Senator Ngo: Thank you. I would like to take the real case of Venezuela. Canada asked the Maduro regime to step down, to leave the country. Still, we continue to have the embassy in Caracas.
Could you provide an update on the security status of our staff at the embassy?
Do we have Canadian security or military personnel at higher-risk missions, or do we use local security services?
Ms. Jeffrey: The answer is in two parts. We won’t discuss specific, detailed security measures for specific embassies for obvious good reasons. In all of our countries, there’s a mix of different guards. In a place like Kabul, we have Canadian Armed Forces present, military police are seconded to us from DND and we also have local guards. There is a similar mixture in many different locations.
It’s not usual to have Canadian Armed Forces protection at our missions; it’s a very rare circumstance. Frequently, in many missions, we have military police services. These are DND-trained professionals who manage the local guard or private security contractors who provide the envelope for those missions, in many cases.
The situation in Caracas is an interesting one and a useful example when you look at how we evaluate security in that it is a very fluid context. We are meeting and have met for many months daily, evaluating the security situation in Caracas, adjusting our mission posture continually in light of the situation on the ground. We always have to look at whether Canadians are being specifically targeted. We look at the way our staff are exposed and their movement protocols.
There are many different ways we can adjust the security posture around our mission. When we deem it is no longer safe and that the mitigation measures we put in place are not sufficient, those staff are withdrawn.
There are many cases where we are looking at these, in consultation with our resident security program managers on the ground, whose job it is, 24-7, to be on top of the security situation, liaise with their colleagues, and cooperate with like-minded countries on security measures and information about security threats that might be evolving.
In Caracas, we have a much smaller mission footprint than we would have had five years ago. We don’t have children there. We are continually assessing it, because we do provide services to Canadians. We are always balancing our operations with the services we provide on the ground.
Senator Ngo: Do we characterize the level of our embassy there as medium risk or high risk?
Mr. Sirrs: The risk situation all depends on circumstances. I’m sorry to be a little vague; I’ll try to be more precise in my followup. If there is continual cut-off of power, and an unavailability of water and all the basic services, that risk or vulnerability increases. We maintain a daily monitoring of what’s going on in Caracas to make sure we understand the overall risk.
Right now, it’s civil unrest not aimed at Canada. We treat that appropriately. It does not mean we ignore it; we are prepared in many different ways to make sure our people know about the city, are informed about the moves about the city, that they have other places to work, that they have backup communications systems and so forth. The assessment is constantly going up and down, according to circumstances.
In the last few weeks, for example, we’ve seen a significant increase in power cuts. That has a knock-on effect on everything else, right down to getting fuel at the gas pumps and knowing whether the refrigerators at the grocery stores are working so you can get fresh produce. We depend more and more on power backup systems for our own needs.
As I said, once we reach certain critical points, we make decisions to respond.
Ms. Jeffrey: We have a much more structured process put in place, which is helpful. We have a disciplined approach to looking at the triggers for moving mission posture through different phases. They don’t dictate what we do, but they provide a very useful factual sort of checklist on the things we need to monitor in the local environment that has an impact on safety and security. We go through that checklist, update it with the mission on a regular basis — in a case like Caracas, sometimes a daily basis — as to where we are at on these triggers and the things we need to be looking at for mitigation.
They run from the kinds of threats that might be direct. It’s the whole gamut of all the possible threats you can see at every mission abroad. For every country in a crisis situation, we look at the threats and demonstrations, and whether they jeopardize our access to the airport. We look at food supply, and water and fuel availability. We look at whether threats are being issued directly against us or whether they’re more generalized. There is a whole variety of all the different possible things we need to assess in the environment.
We monitor the trends. It’s the trends that are important. It’s important that we be able to look ahead to where things will be going, not just where they are today.
That triggered review process is a formalized part of our assessment that allows us to have that discussion in a very concrete way: “This is where we were three months ago, and this is where we are now. Therefore, we need to look at taking additional steps.”
Our staff are very dedicated. The last thing they want to do in most cases is to leave their post. They feel like the work they’re doing is valuable and that they’re providing a service to Canadians. On our side, we need to have a very clear-eyed view of the evidence on the security side. Also, because it needs to be a decision, ultimately, in terms of security, our colleagues need to understand their own environment and be alert. They are our best security defence. Their awareness and the seriousness with which they need to take the local situation and the circumstances are the most important parts of what informs us.
These kinds of processes and very formalized consultations allow us to have that dialogue. They allow us to hear from them where they think they’re at, how they feel about the environment and for us to reflect what we might be hearing from other partners or what we see when we consult with the headquarters team. It’s a joint approach that allows a much fuller assessment.
This is where we have recently also brought in the similar assessments that are done by other international NGOs like the UN or others who might also be conducting similar assessments to truth test our assessment against those of our partners and closest allies.
Senator Ngo: Thank you.
The Chair: Could I clarify something? Do you have an alert system for the missions as opposed to the travel advisory alerts that other Canadians like me would see on the web as to the state of the country I’m entering? Is that different than what you do for missions? They may to a certain extent be interdependent.
Ms. Jeffrey: Our travel advice is our most fulsome advice and our definitive view on the state of that country. Our policy is that whenever we become aware of information that would impact, not just the security of our staff admission, but the security of travelling Canadians, there is no double standard: That advice goes instantly into our travel advice for Canadians, as well as being provided to our staff. If it is avoid all travel to Sudan, which is where we are today, the movement restrictions apply to all. If the threat applies to a Canadian businessperson or NGO worker there, we push it out to our travel advice the same way we would to our staff.
However, there are aspects of security admission operations that affect only us, our diplomats and missions. Those are built into these triggers. They are things like making sure we have enough fuel to keep our generators going or things like diplomats of this country will be a particular target for this reason related to the local political environment or actions that are being taken. Those things are specific only to our missions.
Where they apply to everyone, they’re public and part of the travel advice we put out.
Senator Boehm: I have two more questions. The first is about indemnification and whether you deal with unions. I recall the Westgate incident and the tragic loss of Annemarie Desloges, a great Canadian government employee in Nairobi. She was not on the job when she died. Ms. Jeffrey, you mentioned in your comments that people live, go shopping, take their children to school and undertake leisure activities.
Is there a good dialogue going on, or are there procedures in place in terms of how to deal with OCRO, the Office of the Chief Resource Officer under Treasury Board and insurance companies?
At the same time, are you keeping the bargaining agents of the occupational groups’ unions — and there are several, of course, implicated in the employee structures — apprised of situations that could occur so that you can have a dialogue? That’s my first question.
My second is one I asked at our last meeting when you appeared. It is whether you could provide an update on the situation in Havana, particularly the so-called Havana syndrome, those affected, government employees and where that situation might stand now. Thank you.
Ms. Jeffrey: These questions arise when you’re sent abroad on behalf of the government and your working environment is the mission you’re in every day but you’re also exposed to threats when you go home at night. We’re not immune from the everyday challenges of living in those countries. There are accidents. There’s illness. These things are covered through our normal program.
I would suggest our human resource officer can give you a more fulsome answer. The decision on whether accidents are workplace-related or not is generally made by the WSIB in Ontario or whatever insurance board takes jurisdiction. The department participates in that dialogue and its recommendations.
In some cases, our diplomats are targeted for who they are and what they represent. In those cases, it’s much easier to make those links about how the accident that might have befallen them is directly connected to what they do as opposed to something that could happen to us here in Ottawa.
They are very sensitive issues. Each case requires a very particular and specific dialogue. The decisions are not necessarily as evident as they would be for a workplace accident that would happen here in Ontario and that would be more traditional in nature. I know our human resources officer, our ADM for human resources, spends a lot of time working with insurance companies on each case to fully explain the context around those events and how the particular nature of rotationality in Foreign Service plays into decision making of where that line is generally drawn.
Work with the bargaining agents and consultation is something we undertake frequently. We recently had our semi-annual National Labour-Management Consultation Committee meeting where we meet with all the bargaining agents. We had a discussion about mission security and duty of care. We had a discussion about the situation in Cuba. As we are consulting with employees, their bargaining agents are also invited to participate because we believe that having greater transparency and a more fulsome discussion is important to everyone’s understanding. They are also our allies and support us in helping to identify emerging issues that staff might have in terms of new circumstances that might require adjustments in policies. I’ve found that relationship to be very constructive and helpful.
I think it’s an important part of our consultation with employees and our responsiveness to the needs they identify. They aren’t static; they’re always changing. New situations emerge that we haven’t seen before, and we have to assess how to deal with them. They’re an important part of that response. They’ve been very helpful.
The situation in Havana is one of those cases where we meet monthly with staff who have been affected by those incidents. As you’re aware, we have an ongoing RCMP investigation into the cause. It’s a joint investigation with the Cuban national police into the cause of those incidents and the very real health impacts they have had on our staff. This is a situation that is really unprecedented, to have a situation that has caused injury to our staff, where the cause of that injury is not readily identifiable either by us or our partners.
We have put in place a variety of mitigation measures against all of the different lines of investigation. We are continually re-evaluating our security posture and the measures that are being taken on a health basis to deal with that. We have worked with the Nova Scotia Health Authority to put in place research being conducted by Dalhousie University that both provides our staff with additional information about the nature of the impacts on their health, and we also hope it could eventually help us to provide information that might help us get to the bottom of what is causing the health impacts that we’ve seen.
We continue to be in weekly and sometimes daily dialogue with those of our staff who remain at the mission in Havana. They are there voluntarily. We have daily discussions on the nature of the information that we have and on the mitigation that’s in place. We have very close cooperation with them. I think it is a situation that has required the expansion of the network of government agencies working on a response. Given the unknown nature of the cause, we have close collaboration with a task force across the different departments of the Government of Canada to marshal all their resources as well to contribute to the investigation and the decision making around that situation.
Senator Bovey: I appreciate all of this. I applaud the dedication of the staff who serve overseas and in the department.
I appreciate that in high-risk areas families don’t go. Does that compromise the advancement of our career diplomats if they have young families and aren’t able to go on certain missions? Does that compromise the career advancement of the diplomats themselves?
Ms. Jeffrey: What I have found about rotational service — as a mother with three children, I can speak from my personal experience. It’s an incredibly diverse portfolio of networks. It’s a diverse career, with a lot of different opportunities at different points in time. As employers, we try to be very sensitive to the needs of families. It isn’t just families with children; sometimes it’s families with aging parents. There are times in your life when you are more or less able to go on a posting for whatever personal and family-related reason.
While we have a commitment, it’s a condition of our employment that we are rotational. We have to be sensitive. We can’t put people in harm’s way, particularly minors and spouses. We control our footprint tightly in those situations. They are a minority of our postings. There are a wide variety of challenging, high-profile and important jobs in other areas.
I haven’t found that is an obstacle for people’s advancement. I think it is the ability to be flexible when required that is really important to make sure that nobody is excluded from their ability to contribute. I think that’s something we have to continually evaluate.
Senator Bovey: Thank you.
The Chair: Just on that case, from my own history way back when, you can apply for a position and then, of course, you go through the process of the personnel department, et cetera. By way of feedback, I didn’t know enough about it. I think you’ve corrected that now; people know what they are going into and the sheer publicity of the posts now. You can do your own research, et cetera.
There were benefits of going into posts of a different ranking. You did have the capacity to go home and bring your family, which are additional benefits for the fact that you may be separated. What I found was it was a better mix for spousal differences, where before there was a male ambassador whose spouse would go with him. All of a sudden I see one staying here, one going there, and sometimes they’re together. They make different career choices.
Are there then capabilities of coming together? In other words, more benefits to overcome distance and therefore the choices increase that way. We’re a much more mobile society and we have capabilities of coming together. I’ve talked to some of them and asked, “Is your family here?” The reply is, “No. They chose not to come because one is going to school and my wife is finishing doing something else.” I think we’ve adapted our thinking and culture. Has that led to more capability within the department to assist this kind of new reality, if I’m making myself clear?
Ms. Jeffrey: I think having greater flexibility to support employees and at the same time realizing that our operational objectives as the Government of Canada are to provide services to Canadians at these missions. We want the best possible people abroad to do that while respecting the very real constraints that families might have.
High-threat postings where families are not permitted leads some people to self-select out. Through the Foreign Service directives and our hardship allowance, there are additional financial incentives for people to accept postings to more difficult areas to compensate for the sacrifices that you make when you’re living on a compound, or sometimes in a shipping container, with your colleagues, 24-7, brings its own stresses.
I think the Foreign Service directives, which are the Treasury Board-managed directives that govern the conditions and different reimbursements afforded to sustain things like having R and R to go meet a spouse who didn’t accompany you to that post, are becoming more flexible. I think the interpretation of them is something that’s continually being adjusted. It has come a long way in the 23 years I’ve been in the department. There’s probably more to be done. I think that’s something that the management of our department is always looking at. They’ve just been renewed. I think they are continually assessing how the support packages can be tailored to support parents of both genders, children and to allow people to contribute in the best way they can. The Foreign Service we’re providing is really important.
A lot of what we do is to try to improve the agility of our response to changing situations. Reid had mentioned the example of R and R leave. It used to be in places widely recognized as a high threat, places like Kabul, but we have other situations that aren’t as high threat that wouldn’t have had that as an institutionalized part of that posting. However, we find that due to stress levels, or deteriorating situations, it needs to be part of our response to make sure employees get respite from that context. We’ve found ways to introduce those supports in places where the situation has changed. That agility and the ability to move more quickly is something we’re paying a lot of attention to and needs to be part of our response going forward.
The Chair: Thank you. I think we’ve covered a lot of ground. We’ve learned more about the workings of postings, the pressures on employees and the issues that your department has to grapple with on a daily basis. We appreciate this added information. We hope that we will provide a report that will be tabled in the Senate so all senators can have the benefit of understanding better the workings of foreign affairs overseas and here at Global Affairs in Ottawa. Thank you for coming here today.
(The committee adjourned.)