Mulroney tips hat to foreign service

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Sun Media, Friday, February 19, 2010

Apart from the Olympics, the talk of the town in Ottawa this week has been extemporaneous remarks by former prime minister Brian Mulroney in praise of the Canadian foreign service.

Mulroney was speaking at a symposium on the 20th anniversary of the Open Skies Conference. Conceived as a conference where NATO and Warsaw Pact foreign ministers were to consider military over-flights of each others’ air space, it was transformed after the fall of the Berlin Wall into the Two Plus Four conference, where East and West Germany and the four occupying powers discussed German reunification.

Describing Canada’s role in hosting at the Government Conference Centre as that of a “friendly bystander” who wished the principals well, Mulroney said our country caught “a wave of history” that culminated, only seven months later, in the reunification of Germany, an event triggered by the fall of the wall, and resulting in the end of the Cold War, one of the great moments in modern history.

But then Mulroney, departing from his text, quite spontaneously lavished praise on the foreign affairs and trade departments, and by extension the entire public service.

“I say parenthetically,” he began, “to any government elected in Canada, that if you don’t take full advantage of the brilliance and innovation of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, you’re making a mistake.”

He went on: “All of the major initiatives associated with my government — including the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, to joining the Organization of American States, to the fight against apartheid and you name it, came from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.”

You don’t hear that every day, not in Stephen Harper’s Ottawa, not in a context where the foreign service feels beleaguered and put upon for the way in which the government came down on Richard Colvin, a career intelligence foreign service officer, for his testimony over the treatment of Taliban detainees after they were turned over to Afghan authorities by the Canadian Forces.

Ottawa is a company town and the former CEO of Canada Inc. was making extemporaneous remarks saying he came to praise the public service, not to bury it.

At the cocktail following the symposium on Monday night, the invited audience of 400 people was buzzing about Mulroney’s comments. The cream of the foreign policy establishment, as well as retired heads of mission, the diplomatic corps and the academic community were on hand.

Just in case Mulroney’s remarks were to be construed as a rebuke of the Harper government for the Colvin affair and by proxy for other governance issues involving the public service, Mulroney also went out of his way to praise the way foreign affairs and the entire government have stepped up in the Haitian disaster, and he specifically singled out Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, a personal favourite on the Conservative front bench.

Mulroney concluded with another memory, of meeting Helmut Kohl, the father of German reunification, for lunch at a hotel overlooking the Brandenburg Gate in the former East Berlin.

Afterwards, the former West German chancellor pointed to his office, also in what was once East Berlin. It had once, he said, been occupied by the former education minister, who was the wife of Erich Honecker, the last president of East Germany.

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