‘Unfair’ to blame lone GAC official as ‘process failure’ led to Russian embassy visit, say analysts, former diplomats
With Canada’s prime minister and top diplomat denouncing a Global Affairs official’s participation in a national day event at the Russian Embassy, foreign affairs analysts say the singling out of the lone diplomat was “unfair.”
The Globe and Mail reported June 12 that Global Affairs’ deputy chief protocol officer Yasemin Heinbecker attended the Russian Day function. She was the lone Canadian government representative to attend the June 10 reception.
Canadian diplomats regularly attend national day events at embassies in Ottawa and around the world, but there are some celebrations that officials are barred from attending. Typically, they have included those hosted by Iran, Syria, and North Korea—all countries which currently don’t have embassies in Ottawa.
After the event took place, both Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly (Ahuntsic-Cartierville, Que.) and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau. Que.) denounced Canada’s participation.
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Joly said the official attending the event “should never have happened.”
“This will not happen again, and I had a tough conversation with my team and also with my deputy minister,” she said.
Trudeau echoed his foreign minister. “It never should have happened, and we denounce it thoroughly,” he said.
Since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, the Canadian government has moved to diplomatically isolate Moscow and to support Kyiv’s defensive efforts, but has stopped short of ending its ambassadorial or diplomatic relationship with Russia.
While saying the “buck stops” with her as head of the department, Joly said that she was unaware that the official was going to attend the event.
According to a Globe and Mail report, Joly’s office was notified of the official’s participation, as Global Affairs sent an email to her chief of staff Sandra Aubé and four other staff members, but they didn’t read the email as they were in the midst of the Summit of Americas in Los Angeles, Calif., and the message wasn’t marked “urgent.”
Prior to participation in a national day, there are broad discussions between the protocol office and the geographic unit at the department before a decision is made to attend, former diplomats told The Hill Times. Those discussions can take place more than a month before the event and can include the ambassador to the respective nation.
Former Canadian ambassador to Russia Anne Leahy said discussion of attending the event would likely be raised to the deputy minister within the department, with consultations debating the pros and cons of attending the event.
Given that Canada has interests within Russia, Leahy said, there are considerations for maintaining minimal links.
“Attending a national day reception is part of those formal things,” she said. “But there are also elements that mitigate against [attending]—the brutal invasion and you may want to make a statement by not sending anyone or by sending someone very junior.”
Leahy said a single official wouldn’t make the decision to attend the function on their own.
Former diplomat Colin Robertson, vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said attending the Russian national day has diplomatic value for Canada.
“Someone should go and they’re there to basically observe. They are not there to shake the ambassador’s hand, but rather to see what the ambassador says because that ambassador is the senior Russian official in Canada. You want to hear what he is saying to the community on the national day. And you also want to see who is there—what other countries showed up,” he said, noting that the person attending should be a junior officer, but also someone is needed who knows the diplomats stationed in Ottawa, which he said could explain sending Heinbecker.
Robertson said he didn’t think Joly or Trudeau helped the situation by denouncing her attendance.
“I look at this as kind of an own goal,” he said, noting that it should have been Foreign Affairs deputy minister Marta Morgan commenting on the matter. “It’s an unforced error.”
“In long-term implications, it could have a bit of a chilling effect on the relationship between the foreign service and the political level, but I think it will sort itself out,” he said.
Pamela Isfeld, president of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO), said the focus on Heinbecker is “unfair.”
“People who work in the industry know that something like that would have been consulted very widely across organizations at different levels and that a decision to go or not go would not have been taken by a mid-level official on her own,” she said. “We think it’s a bit unfair that she’s the one out there on this.”
Julian Ovens, a former chief of staff to then-Liberal foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion, said that there was an organizational shortcoming that led to an official attending the event.
“I don’t think this begins and ends with the deputy head of protocol,” said Ovens, now a vice-president at Crestview Strategy.
“I think that there was clearly a process failure,” he said, noting that there should be an informed recommendation to the minister’s office from the department through the deputy minister’s office and the ministerial liaison’s office.
He said the situation should have been flagged to the minister’s office.
Ovens said the email to the office wasn’t sufficiently highlighted as it was only flagged for information, which he said wasn’t adequate given the amount of information a foreign minister’s office typically deals with.
He said there were insufficient calculations made about the damage in attending, noting that it would be one thing if it was a roundtable with a representative from the Russian Embassy attending versus a party.
Garry Keller, who was chief of staff to Conservative foreign affairs minister John Baird, said there is typically a list of countries prepared annually for which national days the department shouldn’t attend.
Keller, now a consultant at StrategyCorp, said when he staffed Baird, there was close co-operation between their office and the protocol office to ensure there wouldn’t be any diplomats attending an unsanctioned event.
Canada doesn’t need a friendly relationship with countries to attend their national day ceremonies, but when it involves a country like Russia in the midst of an offensive against Ukraine, he said, it “boggles the mind” why diplomatic officials thought it would be acceptable to attend.
“There is no rationale for them to attend this event. There is no diplomatic value to attend this event, especially when it is the Russian Embassy in Ottawa, which has been one of the leading conveyors not just of misinformation and disinformation, but active propaganda against Canada and against Canada’s support for Ukraine,” he said, noting that Russian Ambassador Oleg Stepanov and “much” of the embassy staff should have been removed from Canada “weeks ago.”
Keller said ultimately the decision of the department is Joly’s responsibility, adding that after the Russian invasion began, she should have made the department have ministerial office approval before any engagement or discussion with the Russian Embassy.
“The fact that instruction didn’t go down immediately, I think, is a huge error. Ministers are expected to lead. Ministers are responsible and ministers are responsible for the actions … or the inaction of their political staff,” he said. “Ultimately, she is responsible.”