Honorary Consuls are up there in royal gigs. Used as a cost-saving measure: many countries have a salaried ambassador in Ottawa but contract to these Consuls for greater representation in the West.
There’s a party of global proportions going on at the plush Royal Vancouver Yacht Club. It’s the annual soiree of the Consular Corps of B.C., and representatives of dozens of far-flung countries are drinking champagne and watching Heather Ireland, honorary consul general of Iceland, sing a medley of tunes. The well-dressed guests are making repeated trips to the buffet to fatten themselves up with mussels, lamb, roast beef and cheesecake. Later, the consul general of France, Jean-Yves Defay, leads a series of draws for prizes, insisting the consuls announce the winning numbers in their own languages – French, Spanish, Tagalog and Swedish. “My number was called out in German,” says David Varty, a Caucasian lawyer who is B.C.’s honorary consul for the West African country of Senegal. “I figured it out because someone read numbers in German earlier. It was a skilled crowd, no one had to ask.” Varty walked away with a bottle of tequila, brought from Mexico by that country’s consul general, Hector Romero. The party was a good indicator of how international diplomacy in Vancouver has been on the rise: Seventy-three countries have representatives in B.C., up from 63 a decade ago, and most are situated in Vancouver. One-third are career consuls – they receive a salary from the government of the country they represent – but the majority are honorary consuls who act on a volunteer basis. Some are expatriates, but almost half have no ethnic connection to the country they represent. What these honorary consuls actually do is up for debate. They certainly aren’t high-level diplomats involved in dividing up territories or making treaties, and critics say their main activity is drinking at cocktail parties and chowing down at luxury luncheons. However, most honorary consuls say they do important work fostering international trade and tourism, assisting citizens abroad and bolstering the position of the countries they represent. For the most part, honorary consuls are lawyers and businessmen (45 of the 56 are male) who enjoy playing the role of global diplomat and are willing to pay for the privilege. Some work hard to bring benefits to the countries they represent, while others are seemingly more interested in the social aspects of the role. Honorary consuls are used as a cost-saving measure: many countries have a salaried ambassador in Ottawa, but they also want representation in the West. Large countries such as the U.S., China and France have career consuls in Vancouver, but smaller countries often can’t afford the expense of hiring staff and running an office so they look for a local – often a respected businessman or lawyer – who wants to play the role of consul for free. Honorary consuls pay the office expenses and entertaining bills out of their own pockets – they spend between $1,000 and $15,000 each year, depending on how lavishly they entertain. The rights and duties of consuls are outlined in the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and Optional Protocols: the host state must allow for freedom of movement and communication, and both countries must agree with the appointment. Vancouver has dozens of offices and private homes that double as official consulates. Visitors to David Varty’s law firm in Two Bentall Centre on Burrard Street, for example, often don’t realize they’re in the consulate of Senegal – the only sign is a small red, green and gold Senegalese flag on the filing cabinet. Varty had never even been to Senegal when he first became its B.C. representative. However, his interest in Africa goes back to his childhood. Varty was intrigued by the exotic music and art his uncle, a development worker, brought back from his voyages to the continent. As an adult, Varty vacationed in East Africa and in 1997 he met a Senegalese living in Vancouver who encouraged him to apply for the position of honorary consul for the West African nation. He filed his papers and was accepted for the post. Almost immediately, Varty headed to Senegal to see the country for himself and since then he’s returned several times, paying his own way to participate in government conferences. [pagebreak] Less than a dozen Senegalese live in Vancouver, so Varty doesn’t need to provide much support to them. His main duties are giving out information about tourist visas and organizing an annual celebration for Senegal’s Independence Day. Varty is a regular at Consular Corps luncheons, where speakers such as former mayor Larry Campbell came to explain the city’s Four Pillars drug strategy. Clearly, there are perks to this job. Honorary consuls don’t receive diplomatic immunity but they do get consular licence plates, which means they can park for free at city meters, saving more than $1,000 a year in downtown parking fees. They also receive invitations to several champagne-filled consular events each week, ranging from the Dutch queen’s birthday to the massive American Fourth of July party in Shaughnessy. One of the highlights of Varty’s volunteer post was when the Senegalese ambassador from Ottawa came to B.C. in 2003. The provincial government sent a car to meet them at the ferry terminal in Swartz Bay and whisked them off to the legislature for a briefing with various ministers. Varty agrees his duties are largely social, but maintains his activities help promote Senegal’s position in the world. “The cocktail parties allow for interaction between people from different countries who often have quite different ways of perceiving the world,” he says. “In terms of good relations between countries, much can be achieved through social events. Consuls become very sociable with all kinds of people and we find ways to talk about serious matters in a peaceful, mutually enjoyable way. Hopefully it sets an example of how countries all over the world can deal with difficult situations.” Michael Byers, academic director of UBC’s Liu Institute for Global Issues, says the roles played by honorary consuls vary widely. “There are instances where honorary consuls take their job very seriously and try to boost the presence of the country in Vancouver. For some, it’s a way to provide service to their country of origin,” he says. “At the bottom end, they are just honorific titles that don’t mean very much. For example, if you’re B.C.’s honorary consul for Vanuatu, a tiny South Pacific island, you won’t have very much to do on behalf of Vanuatu in Vancouver. In that instance, being an honorary consul could be just a ticket to dinner parties.” Although Vancouver still doesn’t have as many honorary consuls as Ottawa, Toronto or Montreal, Byers has noticed the number rising. “It’s a reflection of how incredibly international and important Vancouver is becoming,” he says. “In terms of international promotion and trade, it’s good to have as much representation from foreign countries as possible in Vancouver – preferably full-time diplomats, but if the country can’t justify that economically, a good honorary consul is the next best thing.” Members of the Consular Corps of British Columbia are sensitive about being portrayed as socialites, and they normally don’t allow members of the media to attend their events. “It’s not a closed shop,” says Iceland’s honorary consul general, Heather Ireland. “We just don’t want to advertise our social events and give people the impression that’s all we do.”
Ask Gordon Longmuir what he does as honorary consul of the Kingdom of Cambodia, and he responds “not a whole lot.” The Cambodian community in B.C. is fragmented and he doesn’t have much contact with its members. Also, the investment climate in Cambodia isn’t that strong, but Longmuir does pass on business contacts and tries to talk the country up as a great tourist destination. Of course that’s not easy, given the country is best known for the phenomenally brutal Pol Pot regime of the 1970s. So, his biggest task is responding to phone calls that come in from the Western U.S. and Canada. “Ninety-nine per cent of the calls are about how to get a visa, and 99 per cent of the time, you get it when you arrive,” he says. Without a doubt, Longmuir is overqualified for the role of honorary consul. He retired in 1999 after serving as Canada’s ambassador to Cambodia and he worked for the Canadian government in Vietnam, Japan, Korea, Thailand and India. While Longmuir was on a trip to Cambodia last year, a local official asked him to take up the post, and he agreed because he sees it as an opportunity to stay engaged with the country. The ¬consulate of Cambodia is Longmuir’s residence, located in a beige condo tower a stone’s throw from Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver. The beautiful apartment is decorated with mementos from Asia, including a signed photograph of the king and queen of Cambodia. Longmuir feels his role as honorary consul is largely symbolic, although he says every so often, he has an opportunity to do something that might help Cambodia. “I have a direct line to the Cambodian prime minister and the people in government,” he says. “If I hear people at the UBC Institute of Asian Research are criticizing the government for how long it takes to get to trial or for jailing activists, I can explain the Canadian perceptions on the issue. I talk to the ambassador in New York and I embarrass him mightily sometimes. They know me and if they think I have some influence – that’s good.” [pagebreak] Harry Jaako, honorary consul of the Republic of Estonia, argues that honorary consuls provide a valuable service to their countries. The consulate of Estonia, located in the office of the venture capital firm Discovery Capital, is decorated with the Estonian flag and a shield with the words Eesti Vabariigi Aukonsul – Estonian Honorary Consulate. It’s not uncommon for Estonians to come here from as far away as Oregon or Idaho to pick up their passports – many decided to reinstate their Estonian citizenship after the country regained its independence in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The passports are issued in the Estonian capital Tallinn, but they must be picked up at the nearest consulate or embassy. In 1997, the Estonian government spread the word in Vancouver’s 1,000-strong Estonian community that it wanted a representative in B.C. An elder of the community approached Jaako, Discovery Capital’s co-founder and chairman of the board, and asked if he was interested. Jaako grew up in an Estonian-speaking household in Thunder Bay, Ontario, after his parents fled the Soviet invasion of Estonia in 1944. Jaako submitted his CV and underwent a security check and several interviews. He didn’t hear back until November 1999, just as Estonia was planning to make its entry into the World Trade Organization by sending a large delegation to negotiations in Seattle. The Estonian government figured it was a good opportunity to open the Vancouver office and asked Jaako to organize a reception. He scrambled to get the crest and the flag, and a few weeks later he hosted the consulate’s opening ceremony in the Discovery Capital boardroom. Jaako says the title of honorary consul is good for his business. “Some people think it’s mildly amusing,” he says. “For others, it’s a credibility builder. They know the type of screening and character references that are necessary to get the position. You can’t be a cheat and a thief and fly the flag of a sovereign nation. That’s why my business partner puts up with the inconvenience of the events and having people come to get their passports. It’s a positive credibility builder.”
The consulate serves as a link between Estonian entrepreneurs and local businesses. Jaako has hosted delegations of Estonian architects, biotech firms and software companies who’ve come to Vancouver in search of investors or partnerships. He passed on some contacts to an Estonian biotech company a few years ago, and it is now doing business with St. Paul’s Hospital. It’s also Jaako’s job to help Estonian travellers who end up in jail or hospital or who are affected by natural disasters, but in reality he’s never been asked to help in a situation like that. However, Jaako says Estonia’s honorary consul in Thailand was recently honoured for his hard work after the 2004 tsunami, when he served as a crucial point of contact between 350 Estonian travellers and their families back home. Jaako, who also serves as treasurer on the B.C. Consular Corps executive committee, spends “thousands of dollars a year” running the consulate, and his assistant spends around 25 per cent of her time on consular matters. Last year he travelled to Estonia on his own dime to attend a three-day conference for honorary consuls put on by the Estonian government. (He combined the trip with a family visit.) “It’s my way of giving back to the community,” he says of his consular job. “Estonia is a newly independent country that is expanding its diplomatic network after 50 years of being in the Soviet clutches. I wanted to be a part of it, to witness it.” Each of Vancouver’s honorary consuls brings his or her own special blend of qualities to the job – ethnic background, business connections or simply the ability to throw a great party. Some provide substantial benefits to their country and have global connections that help increase Vancouver’s cultural and financial riches. These small-scale diplomats won’t transform Vancouver into an epicenter of global political hegemony, but the ¬increase in international diplomacy can only help to put this formerly provincial town on the world map. Of course for other honorary consuls, the post is more of an indulgent hobby. However, it’s hard to be too critical when you remember that these weekend diplomats are footing the bill for their leisure pursuits themselves.
And if the thought of experiencing international diplomacy without crossing any borders fans your own fantasies of global intrigue, you might be in luck. The B.C. honorary consul posts for Chile, Uruguay, Malawi, Ghana and the Czech Republic are currently vacant. But be quick if you want to snatch up a title while there are still some empty seats at Vancouver’s global cocktail bar.