OTTAWA –Diplomats and foreign nationals working at Canadian missions abroad are vulnerable to attack due to the federal government's failure to ensure all the necessary physical security measures are in place, according to a newly released audit.

Global Affairs Canada was studied as part of the fall 2018 reports from the Auditor General of Canada, to determine whether the department was meeting the physical security requirements needed to protect staff at missions abroad. This included reviewing the safety measures in place at six missions in medium- and high-security threat environments, where the potential for terrorism, political violence, and civil unrest loom.

Overall, Auditor General Michael Ferguson’s office found that the department that is responsible for Canada’s embassies and consular services worldwide "had not taken all measures needed to keep pace with evolving security threats."

What the audit found was that most key projects to upgrade security were at least three years behind schedule, and a lack of fulsome information about the state of security at many of these consulates has prevented Global Affairs Canada from being able to prioritize where upgrades needed to happen, leaving staff vulnerable abroad.

"The department had identified security deficiencies that needed immediate attention at many of its missions. Many of these deficiencies were significant. Several had been identified years ago, yet not all of the recommended measures to address them were in place," the report states.

In one instance, auditors flagged a “critical vulnerability” to one mission’s perimeter back in 2011 and upon a follow-up site visit in 2018 that "very urgent" issue had yet to be addressed.

There are currently 175 diplomatic and consular missions operated by Global Affairs, in 110 countries. These missions employ more than 7,800 people, a quarter of which are Canadian, the others being foreign nationals hired locally. In terms of physical assets, the federal government owns or leases 2,229 properties throughout the world, with a combined replacement cost of $3 billion.

Citing past security incidents that have occurred in the last decade — such as the 2016 suicide bomber who attacked a convoy of embassy security guards on their way to the Canadian embassy in Kabul, killing 16 people — and the more broader ongoing threat of terrorist attacks and armed conflict, the report emphasizes that the threat environment Canadians face when on these missions is "evolving and dynamic."

The audit's key findings:

  • Select missions had "significant" security vulnerabilities;
  • In some places the security assessments were either outdated, incomplete, or non-existent;
  • Major physical security projects were considerably delayed, mainly because of poor planning; and
  • A number of staff working in dangerous places had not taken mandatory safety training.

Information technology and operational security was not examined as part of this audit.

The report criticized the department’s ability to plan and oversee the necessary physical security updates, as well as how it prioritizes and allots funding for these upgrades. The auditor general is recommending Global Affairs develop better physical security standards for its missions and make sure that threat assessments are updated to reflect the current local risk.

Among the measures that are needed: video surveillance, X-ray scanners, alarms, and vehicle barriers at building entrances.

"The idea that we’re not keeping our foreign missions secure enough in this day and age… just blows my mind," said NDP MP David Christopherson, reacting to the audit's findings.

In 2017, the department received $1.8 billion over 10 years meant to improve the security of its missions, "to ensure that the government is fulfilling its duty-of-care obligation."

Responding to the findings, Global Affairs Canada agreed with the auditors’ assessment and says it is enacting new measures to improve the situation with targeted end-dates between December of this year, and December 2020.

Responding to the audit’s findings, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said the safety and security of Canadian diplomats is a priority for this government, and is why they plan to do better. Freeland also attempted to shift some of the blame to the previous Conservative government, despite the Liberals now being in power for three years.

"The auditor general's released today confirms how much work there was to be done. It shows that for over a decade the previous Conservative government failed to make sufficient investments in security upgrades at our embassies and did not commit to mandatory security training for our diplomats," Freeland said.

Freeland said the 2017 funding will be used to make sure the report's recommendations are fully implemented, and noted that in the last year Global Affairs has already made some upgrades, such as reinforced entrances, new blast protections, and increased guard patrols.