Internal review questions number of diplomatic passports

An internal memo shows the federal government is raising questions about the number of diplomatic passports issued each year to former officials no longer involved in diplomacy. A crazy quilt of ministerial instructions over 60 years has made the rules inconsistent, unclear and outdated, says the document obtained by CBC News.

Liberal government reviews potential problems with diplomatic and special passports

Ottawa issues about 2,800 diplomatic passports, with a distinctive red cover, every year. An internal review is raising questions about whether too many are going to people who no longer work for the federal government. (Government of Canada)

Federal officials are raising questions about whether Canada should be issuing so many diplomatic passports each year, including some to retired officials who perform no diplomacy.

The problem arises from "unclear, inconsistent or outdated eligibility provisions," according to an internal document from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), which runs the passport program.

A formal review of the program began in 2015, under the Conservative government, and continues today under the Liberals, with a set of clearer rules expected by next year.

Progress has been slow, partly because of "sensitivities surrounding eligibility for diplomatic passports," says an accompanying slide show, marked "secret."

The briefing says "high-profile stakeholders" might be "resistant to the perception" of no longer being eligible. 

"Some stakeholders also view their diplomatic or special passport as a symbol of prestige or a guarantee of certain immunities or privileges abroad."

CBC News obtained details of the review through a request under the Access to Information Act.

About 9,500 diplomatic passports, with their distinctive red covers, are in circulation, though only about 7,000 are held by employees of Global Affairs Canada, the department in charge of Canada's embassies, high commissions and missions abroad. Some 2,800 new ones are issued each year.

The rest are held by a broad range of others, including spouses or children of former prime ministers or of former governors general.

The current review of the diplomatic passport program is the second this decade. Prime Minister Stephen Harper ordered the first one in 2010. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Outdated rules

The current rules were set in 1956 by the federal cabinet under the Diplomatic and Special Passports Order, which has not been substantially updated in more than 60 years.

In the meantime, eligibility has been gradually expanded through a long series of so-called ministerial instructions. There are now more than 50 such instructions; many no longer relevant or consistent with other rules.

There were occasional, isolated cases of … misuse— Spokesman for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada

Adding further complexity are so-called special passports, which have green covers and are issued largely to National Defence employees for work overseas.

About 45,000 special passports are in circulation, some held by retired officials who no longer work in government — such as former lieutenant governors, former heads of missions, and Privy Councillors who have long since withdrawn from public life.

Some 9,850 special passports are issued each year, including to MPs, senators, premiers and speakers of legislative assemblies.

The passport program collected $3.5 million in fees to issue diplomatic and special passports in 2014-15, more than enough to cover operating costs of $2.3 million. But most of those fees — $225 per passport — are paid indirectly by taxpayers, with departments such as National Defence and Global Affairs picking up the bills.

And some diplomatic passports are issued without charge to former prime ministers, former governors general, former ministers of foreign affairs, former lieutenant governors and others, including their spouses.

The latest review follows an earlier examination of the program ordered by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in October 2010.

Earlier that year there were two incidents in which an MP and a former cabinet minister separately used their green passports for personal travel to Mexico, and were turned back by Mexican officials in a politically motivated visa dispute with Canada.

The review is also examining the numbers of special passports, with a green cover, being issued each year, about 9,850. Most go to National Defence employees and military members, but some go to provincial officials and others as a courtesy. (cic.gc.ca)

No immunity

The Minister of Foreign Affairs issued instructions for the proper use of such passports in 2011. 

"There were occasional, isolated cases of the misuse of the special and diplomatic passport," said IRCC spokesperson Faith St-John.

Among the rules: holders of such passports cannot use them for travelling on personal business, but must instead carry the standard blue-cover personal passport familiar to most Canadians. (The few exceptions to this rule include the prime minister, the Governor General, cabinet ministers and diplomats posted abroad.)

Diplomatic and special passports are valid for up to five years, and must be returned to the passport program after they're no longer needed.

MP Bruce Hyer in 2010 was unable to go to a Mexican vacation in 2010 because his special passport, with a green cover, was not accepted by Mexican officials. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Both types of passports confirm the bearer's identity and official role with respect to Canada. But, contrary to what some may think, they don't convey any diplomatic perks. 

"Neither the special nor the diplomatic passport convey any privileges or immunities to their holders," said St-John.

"Diplomatic immunity can only be provided via diplomatic accreditation from a foreign state."

She also cautioned that the status quo is an option.

"It has not yet been determined that this review will ultimately result in any type of changes," St-John said in an email. An implementation timeline for any changes and a vehicle for changes have not been set."

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter


Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby