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Canadian diplomats set to receive martial-arts lessons

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird prepares to chop at plank of wood in Ottawa, Sept. 22, 2012.

Serge Fournier/Department of Foreign Affairs

Diplomacy, it's been said, is the velvet glove that cloaks the fist of power. If so, Canadian diplomats are poised to drop their gloves.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade is moving to hire martial-arts instructors, to educate its envoys on how to handle themselves should words fail.

"Employees posted abroad must be sensitized to personal security threats in foreign countries," says a solicitation for martial-arts instructors that was publicly tendered by DFAIT last month.

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Ambassadors deployed to "certain higher-risk countries," the bid says, need to know rudimentary "reactive techniques to manage confrontation in potentially dangerous situations."

There can be no doubt that Canada's diplomats are vulnerable to violence.

In 2006, a diplomat was killed by a car bomb attack in Afghanistan. In 2008, two Canadians working as United Nations envoys were abducted for 130 days by a terrorist faction in Niger. Just last fall, the diplomatic corps was pulled out of Iran over Ottawa's security fears.

And yet – could better fighting skills really be the solution to any kind of conceivable trouble abroad?

"I can't see where it's going to be of much use anywhere," said Dan Livermore, a former Canadian ambassador to Guatemala.

Like other retired diplomats contacted by The Globe, Mr. Livermore seemed surprised by DFAIT's bid for martial-arts instructors.

In the past, he said, security briefings for hardship posts never included instruction in hand-to-hand combat. He worried that martial-arts lessons could imperil diplomats' lives, should they become overconfident about their own toughness.

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"The emphasis has always been on go with the flow, do what they tell you within reason, and try to worm your way out – you don't fight your way out," Mr. Livermore said.

But these days DFAIT says it hopes to hire fighting instructors whose credentials may include "achievements in martial arts, such as a black belt or equivalent."

The plan is to run a series of two-day, eight-hour "personal security seminars," where up to 24 diplomats at a time will learn the fundamentals of self-defence. Courses are to include the "rules of survival" and "weapons-defence methodologies." DFAIT says it has been offering personal security seminars in some form for a number of years.

One martial instructor in the nation's capital was intrigued about the job, when told about it by The Globe.

"I used to teach DND [Department of National Defence] people a long time ago," said Tae Lee, a tae kwon do grandmaster. "If they [DFAIT] need that we send some good instructors, no problem."

Mr. Lee pointed out that some of his young students grew up to become Canadian ambassadors. And that one of his tae kwon do pupils even became the boss of all ambassadors.

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Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is said to have been an excellent tae kwon do student, starting from the time he was an Ottawa high school student.

"He's really, really good," Mr. Lee said.

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About the Author
National security reporter

Focusing on Canadian matters during the past decade, Colin Freeze has reported extensively on the interplay between government, police, spy services, and the judiciary. Colin has twice been to Afghanistan to be embedded with the Canadian military. More

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