Editorial: Be wary, traveller

Editorial: Be wary, traveller

Editorial: Be wary, traveller

Published on: March 29, 2016 | Last Updated: March 29, 2016 6:52 PM EDT

What happens if you lose your passport abroad? Or need a lawyer? What do you do if a loved one dies suddenly while on vacation outside the country? Where do you get help if you’re caught in a natural disaster outside Canada’s borders, or arrested?

These sorts of problems make up one of the least-examined areas of foreign affairs policy: consular services. Such services are vital, but a new study suggests the country has neglected some of its basic obligations to Canadians who travel abroad. The study’s author, Gar Pardy, former long-time director general of consular services for the federal government, wants this fixed.

Why care? Every year, more than five million citizens are outside Canada’s borders at a given time, whether for tourism, because they live abroad, or because they are dual nationals visiting their second country. For any of them, trouble can lurk – ranging from a physical accident to being clapped in irons. Enter the consular team, trying to help.

Or so you’d hope. Pardy’s report, released by the Rideau Institute, details a 10-year erosion of government support for citizens in trouble abroad. Because the major international convention on consular issues, the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, places no legal obligation on nations to protect citizens outside the borders of their own country, the government hasn’t always done so. For reasons that are sometimes political (or ideological), it has been selective in the help it provides.

Consular omissions have created two classes of citizen, but also have led to expensive, drawn-out court challenges (for instance, numerous legal attempts to make the government assist Canadian Omar Khadr, held in Guantanamo Bay on war crimes charges). There have been major inquiries into consular failures (the case of Canadian Maher Arar, tortured in Syria, led to an apology and a $10-million payment by the Canadian government).

The current Liberal regime has acted in some areas. For example, the previous Tory government would not automatically intervene if a Canadian faced the death penalty in another country. The Liberals, laudably, say they will always oppose the death penalty for a Canadian sentenced abroad. The Tories planned to revoke citizenship for dual nationals convicted of terrorist offences; the Liberals say Canadian citizens, dual or not, will serve their time here.

But the principle of “consular neutrality” – that is, treating all Canadian citizens the same – is not yet firmly established. And it’s not just Canada’s problem: International agreements on the treatment of travellers are shaky, and inconsistently practised.

Pardy suggests Canada could host an international conference to review the Vienna Convention in 2017, the 50th anniversary of the convention’s coming into effect. It’s a good idea, if it helps assure equal treatment for travellers. A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.