OTTAWA - Being a foreign service officer often involves genuine risk, not just endless cocktails at swishy parties, say those with strong ties to the diplomatic world — a fact driven home by the death of a Canadian who worked at the high commission in Kenya.
Annemarie Desloges, who served in the immigration section as a border liaison officer, was killed on Saturday in an attack by al-Shabab terrorists at a Nairobi shopping mall frequented by westerners.
"It underscores that these are very, very challenging jobs," said Fen Hampson, director of global security with the Centre for International Governance Innovation, a non-partisan think-tank.
"I think Canadians — certainly some of their elected leaders — tend to have a misconception about what is really a 24-7 job, and one where the risks run not just through the working day but when you're off duty."
Desloges belonged to the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers, whose 1,350 members have been in a legal strike position since April, staging rotating job actions in Ottawa and at foreign missions.
The union wants wage parity with counterparts in other federal departments who make as much as $14,000 more for doing similar work. The federal government has resisted their demands, painting foreign service work as a coveted career with plentiful perks.
"In an age of terror, westerners — particularly diplomats — are targets," Hampson said. "They're carrying the flag of their country.
"When you sign up to join the foreign service, you go where you're sent. And whether you're young or old, married or unmarried, you're going to find yourself in hotspots where bad things can happen, and are more likely to happen."
Canadian diplomat Glyn Berry was killed by a car bomb in Afghanistan in 2006 — a horrible event fellow foreign service officer Ferry de Kerckhove, who served as Canada's high commissioner in Islamabad, remembers well.
"He was my No. 2 when I was in Pakistan," said de Kerckhove, who would later become the Foreign Affairs Department's director general for international organizations.
"He was pleading to go to Afghanistan. Eventually I allowed him to go."
De Kerckhove had brushes with violence himself, from dodging snipers in Russia to sifting through the wreckage of the devastating Bali bombing.
He's concerned the public has an inaccurate picture of foreign service work — "that diplomats are people holding a glass of champagne from five o'clock until midnight when that old myth is no longer the reality."
Before retiring in 2011 he served three years as Canada's ambassador to Egypt as the Arab Spring uprisings unfolded.
De Kerckhove says Stephen Harper's Conservative government "has very little time for its diplomats."
He now worries Canadian diplomats in trouble spots — including those in Cairo — are not adequately protected in the age of extremism.
De Kerckhove says he told departmental security officials in Ottawa that a single, well-placed grenade could do serious damage to the chancery.
"The problem is that our department has tried to invest in security but hasn't done it in a systemic way, a way that would cover the real needs," he said Sunday.
"I don't think that that has been done particularly well. There's been some spending here and there."
Retired diplomat Gilles Gingras, who served in Ivory Coast among other countries, also argues there should be more protection for Canadian foreign service members.
"We are not doing enough at all," he said.
"I don't think we are at par with the EU countries and with Americans."
The attack in Kenya is a reminder of the lurking dangers, Hampson said.
"It's not just the Afghanistans of the world or the Pakistans of the world that are very troubled and dangerous places where we have serving diplomats, but many, many other countries as well."