CANADA

The honorary consuls

Life among Canada’s volunteer diplomats

GLEN ALLEN January 30 1989
CANADA

The honorary consuls

Life among Canada’s volunteer diplomats

GLEN ALLEN January 30 1989

The honorary consuls

CANADA

Life among Canada’s volunteer diplomats

“You might have made a good bargain for the Ambassador, but you can’t get anything in return for me. I’m not worth a peso to a human soul.” —Graham Greene, The Honorary Consul

The British novelist’s honorary consul was a sad, muddled Englishman serving a diminishing handful of compatriots in a northern province of Argentina in the late 1960s. When revolutionaries mistake him for a more distinguished visiting diplomat, they kidnap him to exchange for imprisoned comrades— but soon discover that he is not the bargaining chip they had hoped for. In the end, the consul is wounded—but survives when Argentinian police storm the revolutionaries’ hideout. Greene’s harrowing portrait of diplomatic life bears little resemblance to the daily routine of the 242 Canadian citizens or permanent residents who serve as honorary consular officials in Canada for foreign governments. Instead, their days are often taken up with humdrum tasks such as processing visa applications or handing out tourism pamphlets. But honorary consuls are kept busy by the 67 nations who appointed them in Canada. Yolanda Pagnotta McKimmie, Italy’s honorary vice-consul in Victoria, B.C., for 30 years, says that her condominium is often engulfed by the paperwork she processes for 10,000 ItalianCanadians in her region. “If you take it seriously,” she said, “it can be a 24-hour-aday job.”

Among the duties of honorary consuls—the honorary indicates that they are unsalaried, nonprofessional diplomats who generally work out of their homes or business-

es—is promoting commercial relations between Canada and the countries that appointed them. They also provide legal and community services for immigrants and visitors from the countries they represent. The rewards for those chores are minimal: some receive an

honorarium to cover minor expenses, but most receive nothing at all. Clearly, honorary consuls are at the bottom of the pecking order among foreign envoys.

Still, there are some perquisites—among them parties and receptions. But those fringe benefits are minor compared with the privileges enjoyed by the career professionals who staff embassies in Ottawa and consulates maintained by foreign governments in major cities. Those privileges include diplomatic immunity from arrest for minor crimes, duty-free shopping and access to high-level government officials. Yet many honorary consuls appointed by foreign governments say that the job brings them a sense of achievement. Said Montreal lawyer Harrison (Harry) Bloomfield, the Canadian-born honorary consul general for the African nation of Liberia and honorary consul for the Central American country of Belize: “It is a privilege to do this job because I’m representing Struggling nations.”

The appointment of an honorary consul must be ratified by the department of external affairs, which issues a letter of confirmation. Countries can grant honorary consuls the same powers as career consuls, including the authority to issue passports and visas, and to act as notaries public. And for some foreign nations, honorary consuls sometimes act as an essential ear to the ground in Canada. Bruce Oland, the 70-year-old former president of Oland’s Breweries, serves as Japan’s honorary consul general in Halifax. He said that before the Nov. 21 Canadian federal election the Japanese Embassy in Ottawa asked him to monitor the political mood in Atlantic Canada. Said Oland: “I told them what I heard on the street.”

For his part, Bloomfield, who worked on Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s 1983 Tory leadership campaign, says that he represented Belize at the Uruguay Round of GATT negotiations in Montreal last year because the tiny nation could not afford to send a regular delegate. “Since Belize starts with a ‘B’,” he said, “I was sitting in the front row. When the Prime Minister was up there giving his speech he must have wondered what I was doing there.” While the work varies in scope, the vocation of honorary consul has a long and well-weathered pedigree in Canada—above all in the country’s seaports. In 1867, in Canada’s first year of nationhood, the Kingdom of Sardinia— now part of Italy—had an honorary consul in Halifax. Now, Italy’s honorary consul in Halifax is himself Sardinian-born: Rodolfo Meloni, who came to Canada from his native Mediterranean island 20 years ago and owns an import-export firm. Meloni clearly takes his work seriously. As well as meeting the needs of the area’s 5,000 Italians and Italian-Canadians, Meloni is working to raise funds for a museum to be erected in the memory of Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian radio pioneer.

The social whirl of the diplomatic representative’s life has clearly pleased some honorary consuls. Fritz Ziegler, for one, an 86-year-old former chocolate manufacturer who came to Canada at age 9 from his native Germany, is Monaco’s representative in Vancouver. Ziegler said that his consular work, helping visiting businessmen and sending reports to Monaco, “gives me something to do. It keeps me active, and there are lots of parties.” He sought the position on the advice of an acquaintance who was Prince Rainier’s chief counsellor. Said Ziegler: “I had terrific contacts both socially and in business, I had a RollsRoyce, a beautiful home in the shape of a castle and the best collection of medieval furniture in Canada.” After being screened by Monaco officials, he became honorary consul in 1965. Said Ziegler: “It costs you a buck or two to do this job. That’s why they want to know all about your lifestyle before they give you your job.”

Raj Pillai, honorary consul for Fiji in Vancouver, told Maclean ’s that his main goal is “to provide service to my fellow man. I don’t care at all about the status.” Lawyer Marc Dorion, honorary consul for the Central African Republic in Quebec City, said that his job is to educate others about the status of the country that languished and almost died under the corrupt regime of former dictator Jean Bédel Bokassa. Said Dorion: “They have a constitution now and it’s a country that needs a lot of help.” Indeed, many honorary consuls can look back on careers marked by significant accomplishments. Mauno Kaihla, an insurance salesman who served as the Finnish consul in Sault

Ste. Marie for 20 years until his retirement in 1983, was chairman of a committee that oversaw the construction of a $3-million, 132-unit senior citizens’ apartment complex for the local community of 3,000 Finnish-Canadians. Kaihla was also chairman of the finance committee for a 22,000-square-foot cross-country ski lodge, and estimates that he volunteered 3,000 hours of his time to the two projects. As a consul, said Kaihla, “you are able to do good things for people that they cannot do themselves.” Honorary consuls usually hold their offices for an indeterminate period—with the consent of the nominating country. Most honorary consuls are asked to serve. Marc Dorion had acted in a legal matter for the Central African Republic in 1984 and two years later, while on business in Africa, he was summoned to a meeting with President General André Kolingba. “I spent several days talking with him,” says 31-year-old Dorion. “About three months later, a decree came in the mail and I was the honorary consul.”

Many honorary consuls make regular trips abroad, usually at their own expense. Halifax’s Oland has made two trips to Japan, the most recent one last October. He said that he receives a special welcome—“a staff car, an interpreter and a vigorous schedule.” Like some other honorary consuls, Oland occasionally enlists his own office staff to help with consular duties. But when asked whether his title gave him commercial advantages in Japan, Oland replied: “No, I wouldn’t try to sell them beer. I just wouldn’t do that. Besides, I am not in the business anymore.”

In addition to External’s regular consular offices abroad, Canada also has 47 honorary

consuls representing its interests overseas. About three-quarters of them are businessmen, while the rest are retired people “who want something to do and who want to be involved with Canada,” said Robert Hatheway, an officer in External Affairs’ consular policy division. Compared with some countries, Canada restricts the power of its own honorary consuls abroad. Although they can get in touch with local police if a Canadian gets into trouble, or carry out instructions from the local Canadian Embassy, “they can’t take any initiative on their own,” said Hatheway. On the other hand, they are paid. Canada’s consuls receive a minimum honorarium of $3,000 a year, plus expenses, with more paid to men and women in areas that attract a lot of Canadian tourists. Even at the bottom rate, Canada’s honorary representatives abroad get substantially more than the one-peso value that Graham Greene’s honorary consul put on his own forlorn head.

GLEN ALLEN