Canadian foreign service officers have over the decades been kidnapped, bombed, swept up in violent protests and even killed — risks that returned to sharp focus Wednesday with the death of four U.S. embassy officials in Libya, including U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens.
With the violence coming as it does on the heels of last week's closure of the Canadian embassy in Tehran, a move that Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird attributed to lingering security concerns, diplomats have good reason to be apprehensive.
Glyn Berry, a Canadian diplomat working in Afghanistan, was killed in a suicide car bomb attack in 2006. A few years later, veteran diplomat Bob Fowler was taken hostage by an al-Qaida offshoot as he did United Nations envoy work in Niger, spending four months in captivity.
Even Canada has been the setting for violence — British envoy James Cross was kidnapped at gunpoint in Montreal by the Front du Liberation de Quebec (FLQ) terrorist group in 1970. He was released three months later.
Louis Delvoie, a retired Canadian diplomat who held posts in Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria and Pakistan, recalls being one of only two embassy staff in Cairo left behind as an angry crowd swelled outside during the Six-Day War of 1967. They were prepared to flee out the back door, but it never came to that.
"Basically what you did was you stood by with an axe and a sledgehammer, ready to demolish the cipher equipment and make your way out the back door," Delvoie said, referring to sensitive encryption devices used in those days.
"On that particular occasion, both the Americans and British did destroy their cipher equipment because the Egyptian foreign minister said they couldn't provide any protection. We were slightly cooler headed, I guess."
In most cases, Canadian missions are not outfitted with the intimidating barricades and guards featured at American embassies. Canada's embassy in Tehran is located in a nondescript building on a busy downtown street.
"It's right on the road," Baird said. "The fencing wasn't as strong as we would normally like, and that has been a concern for some time."
In one of the most shocking episodes in Canadian diplomatic history, an office building housing the embassy in Vienna was hit with a gasoline bomb in 1969 and completely gutted as 100 firefighters worked to douse the flames.
"Canadian diplomats escaped the intense heat by clambering through windows and then climbing down ladders that been brought in response to their pleas for help," read a newspaper report from the time.
A mentally ill Austrian-Canadian was behind the attack, which killed two Austrian employees.
In 1976, five Lebanese gunmen infiltrated the Canadian embassy in Lebanon and kept 20 people hostage for eight hours. Nobody was hurt, but six years later, a Canadian embassy employee was murdered near the recently evacuated mission.
"The reputation of diplomats living the high life seems to die very hard, but there's a lot hardship and there's a lot of danger involved in the work, and it takes a fair amount of courage to keep operating in some places where the risks are obvious," said longtime diplomat Paul Heinbecker.
"Most diplomats would tell you that they'd rather be there, unless there's an explicit reason you shouldn't be there, because they're the eyes and ears and the voice of your own country."
In December 1996, Canada's ambassador to Peru, his wife and three other Canadians were guests at the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima when Marxist guerrillas took hostages. Anthony Vincent was released after a few days, and went on to act as an interlocutor between the hostage-takers and officials.
David Bickford, then a political councillor at the Canadian embassy, wrote an account last year on his blog of life after the dramatic events. The Canadians had suddenly become the enemies of a frightening group when the Peruvian government raided the residence and killed all the kidnappers.
"My family and I travelled with Peruvian police bodyguards for the next two years; our home had 24 hour armed guards," Bickford wrote.
"The embassy resembled a bunker with a private guard service within the perimeter of the property, barricades, cement barriers, and high grills/walls with barbed wires surrounding the grounds, and armed SWAT team from the national police (including a bomb squad truck) in the street in front of the building."
So why do some young foreign service officers choose life in hardship posts, such as Tehran?
A posting in London or Paris might be great, but you won't get much to sink your teeth into as a junior officer, Delvoie said.
"If you're in the embassy in Cairo or the embassy in Nairobi, you've got a hell of a lot more substantive responsibilities."Suggest a correction