Global Affairs to relaunch two key language trainings, but only if it has the money to do so

The two programs that were cut are those used by the largest number of Canadian diplomats every year

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OTTAWA – Global Affairs Canada says the relaunch of two key foreign language training programs for diplomats in April depends on whether the department has the money for it. 

“Our intent is to relaunch those two language training programs on April 1, 2024, pending final funding decisions at the end of (the fourth quarter of) 2023-24,” spokesman Pierre Cuguen said in an email. 

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Global Affairs did not immediately clarify which department would make the funding decisions (GAC or Finance Canada) or whether the relaunch would require additional money in the next budget. 

The statement came after a National Post report Friday revealed that in August the department suspended two major foreign language training programs for diplomats barely two months after Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly promised to strengthen language skills. 

Neither Joly nor her office has provided a reaction to the cuts since Friday. 

The suspension until the end of this fiscal year on March 31, 2024, affects language training offered to diplomats abroad who need to continue mastering their new tongue, as well as online training through a platform called Polyglot. 

In a memo sent to heads of foreign missions last summer, the head of GAC’s Canadian Foreign Service Institute (CFSI) said it would continue funding courses for diplomats in full-time, pre-deployment language training at headquarters. 

According to statistics provided by GAC, the two programs that were cut are those used by the largest number of Canadian diplomats every year. 

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Cuguen said roughly 200 diplomats stationed abroad enrol in “maintenance training” offered by their mission and approximately 360 employees attend one of three language sessions offered via the Polyglot online platform yearly. 

That’s compared to an average of 150 employees who take intensive foreign language training at GAC headquarters in the national capital region before their postings. 

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Why is it so important for Canadian diplomats to master foreign languages?  

In a statement last week, the department admitted that it’s what allows diplomats to be “influential” with host country nationals “and to foster and engage in open communication and understanding.” 

The department also said it has a “track-record in building and maintaining a multilingual workforce with many employees who have proficiency in at least one foreign language.” 

Numerous recent reports and statements from top GAC officials suggest otherwise. 

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Last year, a report published by Canadian researcher and diplomat Ulric Shannon revealed that Canada has an “unfortunate distinction” among its peers for its “fledgling track record at producing diplomats fluent in foreign languages.” 

To his point, Shannon noted that only 23 per cent of GAC employees meet their job’s foreign-language requirement. That number drops to 17 per cent for executive-level staff, which includes heads of missions. 

The Future of Diplomacy reform document presented by Joly in June spells out that the department needs to “immediately” strive to “enhance its compliance rate for foreign language-designated posts” while incentivizing learning and retaining foreign language skills. 

Even the department’s top bureaucrat, David Morrison, acknowledged to a Senate committee in June that 30 per cent of Canadian diplomats don’t reach the required language proficiency of their posting. Yet they are sent abroad anyway based on “a hope and a prayer” that they’ll continue learning on the job. 

Many current and former Canadian ambassadors expressed high hopes for the Future of Diplomacy reform presented by Joly and Morrison in June that promised to make the department less top-heavy and risk averse and invest more in developing local expertise and foreign language knowledge. 

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But over six months later, some are already starting to lose hope that the reforms won’t receive the required resources to be fully implemented. 

“More has to be invested in the difficult foreign languages, so Mandarin and Russian … but Arabic as well,” Senator and former diplomat Peter Boehm said last week. 

“Yes, that costs money and with the current cuts, I’m not sure that money is there,” he added. 

Already in late summer, the department flagged in its implementation plan for the reforms that it was possible it will not receive all the funding it requested. At the time, Morrison said much of the work that needed to be done could be completed via red-tape reduction and resource reallocation. 

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