Evidence of meeting #30 for Foreign Affairs and International Development in the 40th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was officials.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Kevin Sorenson

Order, please.

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. This is meeting number 30 of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, Wednesday, August 26, 2009. I remind all members of our committee that we are televised today, so I would ask, members, that you turn off your cell phones. There will be much less chance then to be interrupted in our deliberations.

Today we're studying the treatment of Canadian citizens abroad. In our first hour we will hear from witnesses from the Department of Foreign Affairs: Leonard Edwards, Deputy Minister--welcome--and also Gerald Cossette, chief executive officer in the passport office. Also from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, we have Lillian Thomsen, director general of the executive services bureau. From the Canadian Border Services Agency, we have Luc Portelance, the executive vice-president.

We welcome you to our committee and we look forward to your comments.

We'll begin with Mr. Edwards.

3:40 p.m.

Leonard Edwards Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. We appreciate the invitation to appear before the committee today to discuss the consular services provided to Canadians by the Government of Canada and, in my case certainly, by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

Today I'm here with the department's Associate Deputy Minister, Mr. Gerald Cossette. He is not the Chief Executive Officer of the Passport Office, Mr. Chairman.

My problem. I apologize, Mr. Cossette.

I'm also here with Ms. Lillian Thomsen, Director General, Consular Policy and Advocacy.

Canada provides consular services around the world. The Government of Canada has an official presence in most independent states in the world and provides consular services at more than 260 locations around the planet.

In these places, we have 498 staff providing consular services abroad and in the department's consular services and emergency management branch at headquarters here in Ottawa. Our staff, who are made up of both locally engaged and Canadian-based people, are professionally trained and dedicated employees whose devotion to the service of their clients is exemplary.

We are supported by partners in providing consular services to Canadians. DFAIT is supported by other departments and agencies, including Passport Canada, which is within the department; the Canada Border Services Agency, represented here today by Mr. Portelance; the Department of National Defence; Citizenship and Immigration; the Public Health Agency of Canada; and the list goes on. It's through these partnerships, Mr. Chairman, that the Government of Canada provides support to Canadians abroad while working to protect citizens against potential security threats.

Our consular services are very busy. On an average day, we open 686 new consular cases, which may include distress situations such as medical emergencies, arrest and detention, child abduction, custody issues, and deaths abroad. Sadly, every day an average of six Canadians are arrested and two die abroad. In the implementation of our consular policies and the development of new policies, we compare notes frequently with a number of key western partners whose approach to issues of citizenship and so on are much the same as our own.

Consular services take many forms, but they belong essentially to two main categories. The first is prevention and education, and here the department helps Canadians to prepare for travel before they go. Second is assistance. The majority of trips go off without a hitch, but unfortunately, even with the best preparation, unforeseen events can occur and Canadians may need assistance from their government.

Canadians are travelling more and more. In 2007, which is the last year for which we have statistics from Statistics Canada, Canadians took close to 50 million international trips. That's about a trip and a half for every Canadian. In addition, an estimated 2.5 million of our fellow citizens live abroad, whether working, studying, or spending their retirement. At the same time, the world is becoming ever more complex, and for this reason, there's an increasing need for consular services. Over the last five years, Mr. Chairman, demand for our services has increased by 32%.

Since 9/11, concerns about security and terrorism have increased and governments around the world, including Canada, have imposed more stringent measures to protect their citizens and their national borders. Kidnappings have become much more common and identity theft has grown exponentially, both at home and abroad.

Canadians are increasingly travelling in a more dangerous world. The changing profile of Canadian travellers, increased travel to remote and dangerous destinations, the pursuit of business opportunities in areas of the world that are politically and economically of higher risk and the growing impact of extreme weather events and other natural disasters worldwide have had significant consequences for the consular program.

Canadians are undertaking types of travel that were virtually unheard of 10 years ago. These include exotic extreme adventure and ecotourism as well as voluntourism and, largely for an older demographic, medical tourism. More traditional forms of travelling, including all-inclusive vacations and cruises, have seen exponential growth. Young people are also travelling more than ever, studying, working, or touring abroad, often getting by on bare-bones budgets. If they run into difficulty in some remote outpost, they and their families may end up requiring consular help.

In a society built on immigration, a great number of our citizens maintain strong ties to the country of their birth and continue to visit regularly. However, as you know, in many countries the Canadian citizenship of dual nationals is not recognized, which may limit or completely prevent the ability of Canadian officials to provide consular services. Every globe-trotting Canadian is a potential consular client that the Government of Canada must have to serve efficiently and courteously.

Consular services begin before Canadians leave the country. The first rule of the department in providing consular services is to ensure that Canadians have all the information they need to make informed and responsible decisions. The role of Canadian travellers is to make sure that they use that information. We have a consular website, travel.gc.ca, and that's the first step to begin planning a trip. Our website, which receives more than 12,000 visits a day, offers country travel reports for over 200 countries. These reports give an overview of the security situation in a country, any official travel warnings advising against travel to the country or regions of that country, contact information for the nearest Canadian mission, and much more.

We work closely with the travel industry as well in Canada to ensure that our travel reports are used. The travel insurance industry, in fact, relies upon them to determine whether or not they will offer coverage to Canadian travellers.

We also distribute a wide variety of publications, including Bon Voyage, But, which is a primer on safe international travel that is included in every new passport mailed out. Our department, in partnership with the Public Health Agency of Canada, recently released an informative new travel health booklet entitled Well on Your Way. On an average day, we distribute roughly 11,000 safe travel publications.

Information and help is only a phone call away. Canadians outside of Canada can call our emergency operations centre, which is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by trained, knowledgeable, and resourceful officers. In fact, Mr. Chairman, the United Kingdom is currently looking at this centre as something they are thinking of putting into their system. The centre handles more than 500 calls a day.

Canadians can inform us of their travel plans by registering online via our Registration of Canadians Abroad, our ROCA service, thereby enabling us to contact and assist them in an emergency or inform them of a family emergency at home. More than 100 Canadians register with us every day.

The department provides routine consular services abroad through consular officers and locally-engaged staff. Routine services include, among others: incidents of loss and theft, citizenship applications and inquiries on behalf of Citizenship and Immigration Canada and passport services on behalf of Passport Canada.

We are also faced increasingly with large-scale consular crises, be they acts of terrorism or natural disasters, such as hurricanes in the Caribbean, typhoons in Asia, and catastrophic fires in Athens, to name a few.

We provide emergency assistance and repatriation to Canadians whenever needed. In the past year, some 1,600 Canadians received assistance in more than 26 separate crises or emergency situations, including terrorists attacks in Mumbai, airport closures in Bangkok, and the evacuation of some 80 Canadians from Gaza.

Let me say, Mr. Chairman, for the purposes of the committee, that the list of services we provide is available to Canadians on our website. Members of the committee can consult the website if they wish to see the services that are on offer.

Last year, DFAIT spent $76.6 million on consular services, an increase of 6% over the previous year. This growing demand for consular services was recognized by the government in budget 2008, which provided an additional $18 million a year in funding to the department to better cope with this demand that I've been describing and to enable the government to reach out to more Canadians in order to ensure that they are well prepared before they leave Canada.

Mr. Chairman, in conclusion, of the hundreds of thousands of cases that we handle annually, a few are particularly complex. Some of these, but by no means all, come to receive widespread public attention through the media. Each of these cases is unique. I know that members of this committee are interested in them.

The government wishes to be as transparent as possible to ensure that all relevant information regarding these cases is made public. However, a number of considerations must be taken into account.

First of all, any personal information is subject to the provisions of the Privacy Act.

Secondly, in two cases of interest to this committee, Ms. Mohamud and Mr. Khadr have commenced a lawsuit against ministers of the crown and a number of public servants. It would therefore be inappropriate to comment on matters touching on the litigation now before the courts.

Finally, with respect to Mr. Abdelrazik, as the committee is aware, this matter has been referred to SIRC for review, and it would be equally inappropriate for the government to comment until such time as SIRC has been able to conduct its full review.

With these comments, Mr. Chairman, I thank you. I look forward to answering questions.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Kevin Sorenson

Thank you, Mr. Edwards.

We'll move over to Mr. Portelance, executive vice-president of Canada Border Services Agency.

August 26th, 2009 / 3:50 p.m.

Luc Portelance Executive Vice-President, Canada Border Services Agency

Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman. Good afternoon, everyone.

I'd like to thank the members of this committee for giving me the opportunity to speak today.

Before I begin, I would like to re-emphasize what my colleague Mr. Edwards has mentioned, that certainly the government wishes to be as transparent as possible to ensure that all relevant information regarding Ms. Suaad Mohamud's treatment by Canadian government officials in Kenya is made public. However, a number of considerations must be taken into account.

First of all, any personal information respecting Ms. Mohamud or other individuals is subject to the provisions of the Privacy Act. Moreover, Ms. Mohamud has commenced a lawsuit against three ministers of the crown and a number of public servants. It would therefore be inappropriate to comment on matters touching on the litigation before the courts.

Mr. Chairman, my goal today is to give the committee a sense of Canada's approach to border management and its reliance on overseas efforts. Let me stress at the outset that the majority of the CBSA's almost 15,000 resources are located in Canada and that less than 100 are situated abroad. Our role is very focused, but of growing significance, and I appreciate the opportunity to speak about our overseas activities.

The challenge, particularly since the beginning of this decade, is to facilitate the experience of international trade and travel, while mitigating threats to border integrity, if possible away from the physical border.

The structure and strategy of border management adhere to these principles. The Canada Border Services Agency's programs and policies reflect this modern way of approaching border security.

The small complement of our resources situated abroad is performing a valuable function of working with our domestic and international partners to ensure excellence in service to travellers and mitigation of risk. I'd like to take a moment to review the agency's approach to its responsibilities, with particular emphasis on our migration integrity officers, known as MIOs, who perform a key advisory role at points of departure overseas.

As I mentioned, the CBSA has a complex mandate that requires balanced focus to both security and facilitation at the border. This dual role is managed through the strategic placement of resources in Canada and abroad.

Because we understand that the vast majority of our travellers are legitimate and law-abiding citizens, the goals of security and efficiency at the border are often achieved at once, by making decisions about how and where we assess the risk.

The goal is to be able to assess and interdict risks away from Canada, prior to their materialization at the physical border, and provide service to travellers, traders and immigrants that facilitates their voyage to Canada by ensuring in advance that all requirements have been satisfied.

The CBSA has a number of such programs. We have pursued several initiatives to assess information related to inbound travellers, goods, and conveyances. These include our trusted traveller program; our container security initiative, which locates Canadian personnel at foreign ports in order to examine cargo prior to its departure; and the migration integrity officers, a growing network of offshore officers. I will explain this more fully in a moment.

These programs and the underlying policies are all examples of the agency's growing commitment to managing risk away from the border rather than at the ports of entry. This distribution of work means that the resources at our ports can more readily focus on the facilitation of legitimate travel and trade.

As I alluded to a moment ago, the CBSA already has a substantial international platform of officers who work abroad. The CBSA currently has 56 migration integrity officers located in 46 key embarkation, transit, and immigration points.

Migration integrity officers work closely with other Canadian departments, foreign mission representatives, airlines and host country officials and are involved in a range of activities including interdiction, airlines liaison, anti-fraud, intelligence gathering, training and removals.

In performing their duties, officers work closely with Citizenship and Immigration program managers, visa officers and consular staff. IATA's Code of Conduct for immigration liaison officers establishes the objectives for MIOs and governs their powers and responsibilities in foreign jurisdictions. Human trafficking, immigration fraud, terrorism, piracy and organized crime are international concerns. Their effects are universal. Canada is not alone in distributing its resources around the globe to meet these new challenges. Many other countries share this approach and more and more countries are following suit.

Working closely with airlines, our MIOs enhance service to travellers and immigrants by ensuring that documentary requirements are satisfied, and thereby reduce costs for airlines to return inadmissible persons and remove potential burdens on the Canadian refugee system. The MIO program is successful both in risk mitigation and from the service perspective.

There are approximately 20 million passengers arriving in Canada each year. Last year we interdicted approximately 5,000 people. At the same time, the CBSA facilitated, through direct intervention, approximately 3,000 individuals with travel document problems, the majority of whom were Canadians returning home.

In closing, I would like to reiterate the valuable role that MIOs play in ensuring that the agency meets its obligation to border integrity while safely and efficiently processing the vast number of legitimate goods and travellers entering Canada every day. CBSA's use of these important resources abroad are key to supporting a global effort to mitigate risks spanning terrorism, firearms, drugs, contraband, illegal immigration, and food and product safety.

Again, Mr. Chairman, my thanks to the committee for hearing me today.

I look forward to any questions you may have.

4 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Kevin Sorenson

Thank you to our guests from the departments for their comments.

We'll move into the first round. I remind all committee members that you have seven minutes. My intent is that this one-hour meeting be a one-hour meeting.

Mr. Volpe.

4 p.m.

Liberal

Joe Volpe Eglinton—Lawrence, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I've submitted to the clerk some documentation I would like to be distributed--it's in both official languages--both to the witnesses and to committee members, if you don't mind. And if they could begin now, it would be great.

Gentlemen and lady, thank you very much.

I wonder if I could begin with Mr. Edwards, the deputy minister. I realize that he has already taken the cautionary step of saying that everything is sub judice so he can't discuss any specific cases, but he's here to discuss specific cases, so let me begin.

Mr. Edwards, you obviously, as a deputy minister, do your job and brief your minister. How often would that be? Once a day, twice a week, three times a week, every day?

4 p.m.

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Leonard Edwards

If I may, Mr. Chair, do you mean brief him on consular cases or brief him on anything?

4 p.m.

Liberal

Joe Volpe Eglinton—Lawrence, ON

You sit with him and you brief him on the affairs of your department.

4 p.m.

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Leonard Edwards

Well, we meet—and it's a pretty common practice across government—formally at least a once a week to conduct departmental business.

4 p.m.

Liberal

Joe Volpe Eglinton—Lawrence, ON

How often do you meet with some of your ADMs and directors general responsible for various parts of the world to get information on what's going on there? I mean you personally.

4 p.m.

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Leonard Edwards

Well, I meet almost all of them, I would say, at least once a week for one matter or another.

4 p.m.

Liberal

Joe Volpe Eglinton—Lawrence, ON

You're here with a colleague from CBSA. Do you have a practice of exchanging information with the deputy for CBSA as well?

4 p.m.

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Leonard Edwards

Well, in fact, deputies contact each other a lot to conduct—

4 p.m.

Liberal

Joe Volpe Eglinton—Lawrence, ON

Well, I mean on a case like this, on consular cases, where you've got three different types of officials at every post. You have immigration, CBSA, and your own people. Do you coordinate your information?

4 p.m.

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Leonard Edwards

Not always at the deputy level, no. I think a lot of the work is done at lower levels. It has to be done at lower levels.