A plan for Canadian and British embassies to share lodgings and legwork has hit a storm of sensitivity about the Maple Leaf's independence, leading Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird to try to dispel the notion that Canada is merging its foreign diplomacy with that of another country.
It was a reaction neither government expected – for them, it was a modest cost-cutting arrangement that will see the two countries share premises, and some consular services, in some places. But Mr. Baird, the anglophile minister who likes to play up the symbols of Canada's independent character, found himself fending off fears that he is trading away a portion of Canada's place on the world stage.
Both Mr. Baird and British Foreign Secretary William Hague stressed the limited nature of the agreement even as they announced it for the first time in Ottawa on Monday.
The arrangement between the two countries will allow them to put some of their embassies or consulates in a shared building, and even combine on some consular services, like replacing passports or responding to emergencies. Canadian diplomats, however, won't represent Britain or vice versa, Mr. Baird said. In effect, the agreement calls for shared embassy buildings, not joint embassies.
And the two countries expect to use it only in a handful of places around the world – no more than 10, a British official said. Canada currently has 179 diplomatic and consular missions around the world and Britain has roughly 270.
"We are not moving to merge all of our embassies and consulates around the world. We are not going to be sharing ambassadors or trade commissioners," Mr. Baird said. "Each country will continue to have complete independence on policy and Canadian public servants will always protect and promote Canada's interests and Canada's values."
"In select locations, this simply allows Canadian diplomats to do their good work faster and at a lower cost to ... taxpayers."
But even with limited terms, Mr. Baird may have underestimated the sensitivity. Sharing diplomatic premises with Britain was portrayed by some as a harkening back to Canada's colonial status. "Nostalgia for the grand British empire is all very nice, but there are limits," NDP Leader Tom Mulcair told the Commons.
Former Canadian diplomats expressed concerns that Ottawa is sending a message that it has less-than-whole status on the world stage, or has teamed up in diplomacy with Britain, at least for its branding, if not in practice. They noted that in some countries, Britain's colonial past is a distinct liability that wasn't a burden for Canada– but might rub off now.
Mr. Baird noted that such arrangements already exist. British diplomats work out of Canada's embassy in Haiti; A lone Canadian diplomat has moved into the British embassy in Myanmar since Ottawa resumed ties there.
Mr. Hague, for his part, denied that the move to share resources with Canada was aimed at countering the expansion of the European Union's foreign services. "We're two countries with large diplomatic networks. … But we can't be everywhere," he said. "Of course it makes sense for friendly countries to work together. It doesn't in any way change their own independence of policy and independence of action. It just makes sound practical sense."