The Harper government is closing the Canadian consulate in Buffalo only 18 months after spending more than $1.5 million on renovations and signing a 10-year lease that is almost certain to stick taxpayers with millions in rent for empty offices, CBC News has learned.
Foreign Affairs is expected to announce the closure, which will affect about 75 employees, sometime next week.
One official estimates that abandoning the consulate's two floors in Buffalo's tallest downtown office tower will leave Canadian taxpayers on the hook for about $8 million in rent (that includes the renovation costs) between now and the end of the lease in 2020.
The closure of one of Canada’s largest and oldest diplomatic outposts in the United States is the result of federal budget cuts and a major change to immigration rules.
For decades, foreign students and temporary workers in the Toronto area wanting to extend their stay in Canada have been forced to travel to the Buffalo consulate to apply for the necessary changes to their visas.
But the Harper government is putting an end to what became known in immigration circles as the "Buffalo shuffle" by getting rid of the requirement that foreigners have to leave the country for interviews regarding a requested visa change.
Instead, officials say, foreigners wanting to alter their visas will be able to apply and pay the necessary fees online, and if an interview with Canadian officials is necessary, they will be conducted at immigration offices in Canada.
Government statistics show that at any given time there are approximately 400,000 foreigners in Canada on various kinds of temporary visas.
'More convenient' visa changes
A senior official says the change in rules, coupled with a move to electronic immigration applications that will be processed in Canada rather than in Buffalo, led the Department of Foreign Affairs to conclude it "simply could not justify keeping open the rest of the mission."
All of the remaining functions of the Buffalo mission will be taken over by the consulate in New York City, the second-largest Canadian diplomatic office in the U.S. next to the main embassy in Washington.
One immigration official says: "Our government is saving taxpayers' money while continuing to provide a high level of service through the use of new technologies.
"This change will be much more convenient for in-Canada applicants."
The changes will similarly impact the Canadian consulate in Detroit, but officials say there are no plans to shut it down.
Foreign Affairs recently announced it was closing five smaller trade offices in the U.S. — Phoenix, Philadelphia, Raleigh, Anchorage, and Princeton — as part of its budget-cutting efforts to trim $170 million in annual spending.
But the Buffalo office is the first full-service consulate being shuttered, eliminating walk-in services for everything from lost passports to visa applications.
Foreign Affairs and immigration officials stress the closure of the Buffalo consulate and five trade missions south of the border is not meant to be a snub of the U.S. in any way.
They point out that even after the six closures, Canada will still have 15 consular and trade offices across the U.S., as well as the embassy in Washington.