Dion says embassy safety top priority as government faces funding challenges

When worry wakes Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion in the middle of the night, one topic is the main culprit: concern over the safety of Canada's diplomats abroad. His concern seems well-founded.

OTTAWA — When worry wakes Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion in the middle of the night, one topic is the main culprit: concern over the safety of Canada’s diplomats abroad. His concern seems well-founded.

Sunday’s car bombing in the Turkish capital of Ankara, following a suicide bombing three weeks ago, left more than two dozen dead. Canada’s embassy in its NATO ally is about six kilometres from the location of Sunday’s attack.

Government documents also reveal that the cost of keeping Canada’s diplomats safe is rising faster than the government predicted.

Terrorism, civil unrest, criminal gangs and natural disasters pose threats to Canadian diplomats, says a memo on security at foreign missions prepared for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that was obtained under Access to Information.

This past week, Dion’s renamed department, Global Affairs Canada, said the government is continually assessing the threats faced at its embassies as it released its new Plans and Priorities report.

“It’s my top priority,” Dion said in a recent interview.

“There’s nothing more important for me than that.”

Asked what he plans to do to fix the situation, the minister replied: “I have made that very clear, that I don’t want to compromise the security of my people, and their families, by the way.”

The prime minister’s briefing note says Canadian missions face “evolving risks at a time when security resources are diminishing.”

The foreign affairs department has used “one-time funding” to complete security upgrades “at high-threat missions.” It has trained a group of new Security Program Managers that have been deployed at 30 high threat missions, the memo says.

But it also notes constant resource challenges.

“The financial cost of sustaining deployed security operations is rising rapidly, well beyond initial forecasts made a few years ago,” the memo says,

It says the department is “currently assessing future threats, mission security requirements” and “cost sharing opportunities” to find a sustainable way to protect people, information and assets abroad.

“Terrorism and armed conflict have fundamentally altered the risks to (government of Canada) staff abroad however they represent only a portion of the contemporary threat profile.”

It cites a rise in “civil unrest” in the last five years, “violent criminality in large swaths of Latin America and Africa,” natural disasters in Haiti, the Philippines and Japan as well as “a range of hostile espionage activities.”

The Plans and Priorities report highlights the threats from cyber attacks, including the theft of information from embassies and missions.

“Among federal departments, Global Affairs Canada faces unique cyber threats and exfiltration of information risks due to the global nature of its operations,” says the report.

“The information technology system used to support Canada’s international work is composed of 177 points of service in 109 countries. In several of these countries, departmental personnel operate in complex security environments that require a high degree of awareness to mitigate cyber threats and exfiltration of information risks.”

Overall, the report says, progress has been made with the completion of threat assessments at more than 170 missions to be completed by this fiscal year end in March.

“However, given the evolving nature of threats abroad, efforts will continue to improve the security of Canada’s international mission network,” the departmental report says.

“Almost 80 per cent of missions in the Middle East and Africa have identified and are actively managing security as one of their top three risks.”

The last Canadian diplomat to die in the line of duty was in 2013, when a 29-year-old woman was killed in Kenya during a terrorist attack on a Nairobi shopping mall that claimed the lives of dozens of people.

In recent years, Canada closed its embassies in Syria, Libya and Iran because of security concerns.

Dion said the government intends to make good on its commitment to re-open its Tehran embassy, and will make sure it is secure.

“Everybody is in Iran except Canada, except the Americans. If the other G7 countries are able to be there and protect their people, Canada should do the same.”

The government has no time frame on re-establishing relations with Iran, saying it is complex process.

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