Global Affairs promised to boost language training for diplomats. Then it suspended two key programs

Both suspended programs are vital for Canadian diplomats to ensure they can converse in the language of their host country, multiple former ambassadors say

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OTTAWA — In early June, Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly stood in a room filled with over 100 Canadian diplomats and promised that her department would “strengthen” foreign language knowledge.

Two months later, Global Affairs Canada (GAC) halted two key foreign-language training programs due to budget cutbacks.

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In a memo sent to heads of foreign missions in August and obtained by National Post, the head of GAC’s in-house training institute said that it was suspending foreign language programs offered at missions until March 31, 2024.

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“We regret to inform you that we will need to temporarily suspend foreign language programs at missions for the remainder of this fiscal year,” wrote acting Canadian Foreign Service Institute director general Luc Cormier.

“We understand that many employees count on the funding provided by (the Centre for Foreign Languages) to maintain and continue developing their foreign language skills,” he added. “We have not taken this decision lightly.”

Cormier wrote that the decision was made to mitigate “in-year pressures” at the department and “limit spending” at least until April.

Thus, the institute can only fund courses for employees who are already on full-time foreign language training at GAC headquarters, he wrote.

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The decision is likely tied to a directive in the 2023 budget that all departments reduce spending by at least three per cent, though Cormier does not say so explicitly.

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The key program being temporarily cut is language training offered to diplomats while stationed abroad for them to either reach or maintain their required linguistic proficiency levels.

According to numerous former diplomats, it generally provided for a few hours per week of language teaching by a local tutor for eligible foreign service officers.

The other suspended program is an online learning platform called Polyglot.

Both tools are vital for Canadian diplomats to ensure they can converse in the language of their host country, according to multiple former ambassadors and the head of the foreign service union.

Global Affairs Canada did not respond to questions on the program suspensions by deadline Thursday.

The suspension is particularly jarring to experts because it came just weeks after Joly explicitly promised to invest further in foreign language training as part of a major reform called Future of Diplomacy.

“This is so disappointing. This is one of the foundational elements of the foreign service. You cannot function properly abroad without knowing a little bit about the foreign languages that you’re expected to,” said Daniel Livermore, a retired ambassador currently teaching at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College.

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“This is among the last things that you cut,” he continued, adding that the government needs to find a fix by April 1 or it will continue undermining “the front line” of the foreign service.

This is among the last things that you cut

Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO) union President Pamela Isfeld said she was “disturbed” to see GAC suspend both programs.

When she was posted to the Canadian embassy in Poland, she said continued Polish language training at the mission was crucial to make sure the skills she acquired from 10 months of full-time language training in Ottawa didn’t waste away.

“It’s just the classic of the left hand doesn’t really know what the right hand is doing,” she said about the cuts. “I don’t understand honestly.”

Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Affairs committee released a comprehensive report on the foreign service that called on GAC to increase its investments in foreign-language training as well as opportunities for staff to maintain their linguistic expertise.

Committee chair and former career diplomat Peter Boehm said that building up linguistic expertise in diplomats is a “longer-term” investment, and suspending language training programs is akin to “cutting something at the root.”

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Committee vice-chair Peter Harder told National Post the temporary cuts were “unfortunate.”

“It’s not in Canada’s interest to have a foreign service officer that is not able to speak the language and understand the culture intimately over a career,” he said.

Harder, who was deputy minister for foreign affairs until his retirement from the public service in 2007 said the foreign service struggled mightily in Afghanistan after 9/11 because of lack of local expertise.

“We had very little understanding of the languages and the culture because we weren’t present. And yet we spent a lot of Canadian dollars (which) might have been better spent” had the foreign service had a better grasp on the area and local languages.

Foreign language abilities have been a sore spot for GAC in recent years. Last year, a report published by seasoned Canadian ambassador Ulric Shannon revealed that only 23 per cent of GAC employees meet their job’s foreign-language requirement.

“Canada’s fledgling track record at producing diplomats fluent in foreign languages is an unfortunate distinction among its peers,” he wrote.

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In June, GAC Deputy Minister David Morrison that 30 per cent of diplomats who received language training before their deployment failed to reach the required language proficiency before their departure.

“If that person doesn’t achieve full mastery, the department still sends them. It is partly on a hope and a prayer that, while they are there, they will continue to work on their mastery of the language,” Morrison said.

They would presumably do so using language training at their mission.

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