OTTAWA - The plan by Canada and Britain to consolidate consular services in some embassies sparked criticism Monday that the Harper government is turning back the clock on the country's relationship with its former colonial master.
By all appearances, the Canada-Britain agreement to share some consular services in each others' embassies represented little change from the status quo of traditional diplomacy. Canadian travellers in trouble, for instance, have routinely been able to turn to British or Australian diplomatic missions for assistance where their own country has no embassy.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird played down the new agreement on Monday as a small "administrative" matter.
But the fanfare associated with the announcement raised questions about whether Canada was compromising its foreign policy interests abroad.
Baird and his British counterpart, William Hague, discussed the plan together on Monday in Ottawa after a bilateral meeting. A day earlier, Hague scooped Baird and generated hype by announcing it himself.
"(Britain) happens to be our old colonial master," said retired ambassador Chris Westdal, who was a Canadian envoy to several Asian countries and Russia.
"In that situation, we have to be hypersensitive to the notion that people will see we're not really quite free, are we?"
Former Canadian ambassador Louis Delvoie, now with the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen's University, called the newly announced arrangement "a dumb idea."
Delvoie said in parts of the Caribbean and Africa, where Britain was a colonial power, an association could be a detriment to Canada.
"If you want to save money, shut down the less-important embassies in countries where Canada has limited interests," he said in a statement.
Fen Hampson, head of the global security program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, said the deal "puts us back into the colonial box."
"The former colonial powers carry a lot of baggage in large swaths of Sub Saharan Africa, Asia and elsewhere, he said. "One of Canada's great assets and strengths is it is seen as an independent nation that doesn't come with the baggage of great powers."
Ferry de Kerckhove, another well-travelled retired diplomat, said the deeper association with Britain could be viewed as an affront to Quebecers.
But he cited another practical concern about consolidating consular services: "It costs nearly as much money as non-consolidation."
Baird and Hague touted the new agreement as a way to cut costs by sharing services in some countries, where Britain has a diplomatic mission and Canada does not or vice versa.
Baird noted that the British have a desk in Canada's embassy in Haiti, where they have no embassy. Likewise in Myanmar, where Canada is working to establish an embassy, Canada uses office space in Britain's mission there.
Beyond that, he said, public servants in both countries were now on notice to look for more areas where they could co-operate.
"It is about speed and flexibility. Practicality, saving the taxpayer money in both countries," Hague said Monday.
"It doesn't in any way change their independence of policy … it just makes sound practical sense."
The opposition New Democrats accused the government of selling out its foreign policy to the British.
"Under this agreement, Britain will be the de facto face of Canada in the world," NDP Leader Tom Mulcair charged in the House of Commons. "Canada's foreign policy will be difficult to distinguish from that of the British.
"It's all very nice to be nostalgic for the great British Empire, but there are limits."
New Democrat foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar questioned "all the pomp and ceremony" surrounding Monday's announcement.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made no apologies for his affinity for Canada's British friend and ally. The Queen's portrait now hangs in the lobby of the Foreign Affairs headquarters in Ottawa, and it has been ordered to be displayed in foreign embassies.
Baird said the country will continue to have a "made-in-Canada foreign policy" based on Canadian values and principles.
"We will be moving forward with a small number of administrative arrangements, where we can co-locate," Baird said. "This is a small, administrative agreement."
Baird said the sharing will include offering consular assistance to travellers, including passport service.
Bob Rae, the Liberal interim leader, questioned why Baird needed to announce the changes in a joint press conference with Hague if they are, in fact, so minor.
Rae added that if Canada was serious about its foreign policy, Harper would be giving Canada's address to the United Nations this week, instead of leaving that job to Baird next Monday.