Diplomatic and Consular Representations | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Diplomatic and Consular Representations

When representation is established by one independent state in the capital city of another independent state, the senior representative is usually an ambassador and the establishment is called an embassy. The term ambassadress has been used to describe a female ambassador.

Diplomatic and Consular Representations

When representation is established by one independent state in the capital city of another independent state, the senior representative is usually an ambassador and the establishment is called an embassy. The term ambassadress has been used to describe a female ambassador. In Canadian practice the designation ambassador applies to both sexes. The term ambassadress has also been employed as a style of address of an ambassador's wife, but it is not the practice to do so in Canada.

On occasion the senior representative could be a chargé d'affaires, ad interim if pending the arrival of an ambassador (or, later, during his absence from the state), or en pied if the chargé is to be in charge indefinitely.

In times past the senior representative might have been a minister, where a legation rather than an embassy was the level of representation. After WWII, with the general acceptance of the legal equality of all independent states, the usual practice of accrediting ministers and establishing legations gave way to the accreditation of ambassadors and the establishing embassies.

Between independent COMMONWEALTH countries, the senior representative is a high commissioner and the establishment is called a high commission (formerly office of the high commissioner). While an ambassador is accredited to a head of state (a monarch or a president), a high commissioner is accredited to a government. Generally speaking, ambassadors and high commissioners are regarded as equivalent in status and function and embassies and high commissions are both deemed to be diplomatic missions.

The title excellency is accorded ambassadors and high commissioners in foreign states, and foreign ambassadors and high commissioners in Canada are entitled to be so addressed. A Canadian citizen addresses a Canadian ambassador or high commissioner formally, as sir or madam.

Diplomatic Representation

Canadian First Representatives Abroad

Canada has had representatives abroad for various purposes, particularly immigration and trade promotion, since Confederation in 1867. In 1869 Sir John ROSE, a former minister of finance, was appointed to a senior liaison capacity with the British government and later designated financial commissioner.

In 1880 Sir Alexander GALT was appointed to London as the first high commissioner, arguably Canada's first diplomat. In fact, neither he nor the agent general appointed to Paris in 1882 had diplomatic status. Furthermore, although the Department of External Affairs (now FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND INTERNATIONAL TRADE) was established in 1909, the Paris and London offices were not placed under the jurisdiction of that department until 1913 and 1921 respectively.

It was not until after the Imperial Conference of 1926, which acknowledged the equality of the Dominions with the UK, that Canada accredited diplomatic representatives abroad, although the Canadian representatives in London and Paris and, beginning in 1925, the Canadian advisory officer to the LEAGUE OF NATIONS in Geneva, were essentially carrying out the tasks of diplomats.

Consular Representation

Representation in cities other than capital cities, where the task relates to the promotion and protection of Canadian interests locally, particularly with the private sector (eg, trade and tourism) and with local governments (eg, assistance to Canadians abroad), is achieved through the establishment of consular posts (consulate general or consulate). These may range from substantial establishments under a consul general or simply a single honorary consul or commercial agent working out of personal quarters.

Canada's first consulate general was established in New York in 1943. There had previously been, over the years, representation abroad, primarily to promote trade and immigration. A trade commissioner's service was well established by the beginning of WWII. Indeed, the first trade commissioner had been posted in Sydney, Australia, in 1894.

Consular affairs had been handled by the British consular posts in the absence of qualified and duly authorized Canadian representatives, well after WWII. Progressively, however, Canadian diplomatic missions and consular posts were established to manage the bulk of Canadian responsibilities abroad. As of 1994 Canada maintained abroad 63 embassies, 20 high commissions, 18 consulates general headed by career officers, 3 consulates headed by career officers and 57 consulates headed by honorary officers with more expected.

Full Diplomatic Status

During and immediately after WWI the question of the appointment of a Canadian representative to the US had frequently been raised. Finally, in 1926 Vincent MASSEY was appointed to Washington as Canada's first minister, opening Canada's first legation in 1927 with a staff of 4 officers. This first appointment of a Canadian representative abroad with full diplomatic status was followed in 1928 by the appointment of Phillipe ROY, commissioner general in Paris since 1911, as minister. In 1929, Herbert Marler was appointed minister to Japan. These appointments in Washington and Tokyo being "firsts," led to the establishment of further Canadian landmarks abroad.

In 1928 the first British high commissioner arrived in Ottawa to represent the UK government. Until then the GOVERNOR GENERAL had had that role. As well, in 1928, the Commonwealth high commissioners in London (the Canadian was the Honourable P.C. Larkin) were recognized as having equivalent status to ambassadors. At the same time Canada's advisory officer to the League of Nations was regarded as having equivalent status to ambassador.

Elevation to Embassy

It was not, however, until November 1943 that Canada's first ambassador, as such, appeared on the scene, when Canada and the US elevated their legations to embassies. The Canadian minister, the Honourable Leighton McCarthy, became Canada's first US ambassador, and the US minister to Canada, the Honourable Ray Atherton, became the first foreign ambassador to serve in Ottawa.

In December 1943 the elevation to ambassador of the Canadian ministers in the USSR, China and Brazil was announced. Thereafter, additional legations were raised to embassy status and gradually the practice of exchanging ambassadors, rather than ministers, became the rule. The last Canadian legation was raised to embassy in former Czechoslovakia in 1962.

WWII brought a rapid expansion of Canada's representation abroad. By the end of the war Canadian diplomatic representatives were accredited to 20 states and so-called European "governments-in-exile" in London. The expansion continued apace in the postwar period.

Diplomatic Missions

CANADA HOUSE in Trafalgar Square, meant to bring together all Canadian departmental representatives in London, was purchased and christened in 1924. It is still very much a Canadian place in London.

The offices and residences of the first minister to the US occupied one of the fine mansions on Massachusetts Avenue, popularly known as "Embassy Row." From 1947 it housed only offices; in 1989 the offices were moved to a new Canadian building on a unique site midway between the White House and the Capitol on Pennsylvania Avenue.

In Tokyo the chancery and an adjacent magnificent residence were built in an auspicious location across from one of the royal palaces. The Canadian buildings in Tokyo survived the fire-bombings of WWII, partly thanks to the efforts of Japanese caretakers. Canada House in London, by good fortune, escaped damage during the air raids on that city.


In Canadian foreign service, heads of diplomatic missions and consular posts are interchangeable subject, generally, to their own foreign service rank (which is distinct from their diplomatic or consular rank) and the classification of the diplomatic missions and consular posts, which are assessed according to the level of responsibility and activity.

Appointments are initially submitted by the prime minister for consideration by Cabinet and are confirmed by order-in-council. Consular commissions are issued to appointees by authority of the governor general in the name of the Queen.

Political Appointments

Originally Canadian high commissioners to the UK were so-called political appointees, as indeed were Canada's first ministers and ambassadors. The practice of appointing career officers as heads of diplomatic missions began with the appointments to head the advisory office to the League of Nations in Geneva of W.A RIDDELL in 1925 and of Hume WRONG in 1937. With the expansion of representation abroad which occurred at the beginning of WWII, more career officers were appointed heads of diplomatic missions: at that time as ministers at legations.

The first career member of the Department of External Affairs to be appointed ambassador was Jean Désy, Canadian minister to Brazil, who was elevated to ambassador when the legation was elevated to embassy status. At the same time Dana WILGRESS, deputy minister of trade and commerce and formerly a senior trade commissioner, was elevated to ambassador in the former USSR, where he had been Canada's first minister in 1942. The first career ambassador in Washington was Lester PEARSON, who was elevated to that rank, from second-in-command, in 1945.

With the rapid expansion of Canadian diplomatic and consular representation abroad during and after WWII, the practice favoured appointment of career officers as ambassador, high commissioner and consul general and consul. Appointees came from the ranks of the Department of External Affairs, the Trade Commissioner Service and, occasionally, other departments. In later years career appointments were also drawn from the immigration service and from the Canadian International Development Agency.

During the 1990s there continued to be a fluctuating, though relatively small, number of so-called political appointments, such as the Honourable Royce Frith as high commissioner to the UK in 1994 and the Honourable Benoît Bouchard as ambassador to France in 1993.


The status of a diplomat is governed by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961), to which Canada is a party. The appointment of a diplomat, while initiated by the sending state, is subject to the approval of the receiving state. The diplomat must continue to be acceptable (persona grata) to the receiving government throughout the appointment otherwise, if unacceptable (persona non grata), the receiving state may require withdrawal.

The Ambassador

An ambassador's task is to represent the sending government in its dealings with the receiving government and includes negotiating as may be required. Ambassadors are responsible for safeguarding the property and persons of their nationals from discriminatory treatment in the country of their accreditation. They promote and clarify their government's interests and policies. They provide an informed perspective to their own government on the policies and interests of the receiving government and they report on important and relevant developments in the foreign country.

The designation diplomat may also be accorded to representatives to international organizations (eg, the UNITED NATIONS and NATO); to representatives for a specific international event (eg, EXPO 86); for a particular negotiation (eg, the 1987 trade negotiations between Canada and the US); for a particular continuing function (eg, disarmament, multilateral trade negotiations of the GATT); or for more general, sometimes itinerant, international undertakings (eg, ambassador-at-large). It is the practice in many countries that the designation diplomat, once bestowed, is carried for life, as, for example, in the US.

State Within a State

The staff, residence and offices of a diplomat form the embassy. In practice, the offices are called the "chancery." The same term applies to the offices of high commissioners. Under INTERNATIONAL LAW and custom the physical premises of a diplomatic mission are not subject to the jurisdiction of the receiving state. Also, a diplomat and all foreign-based staff are immune from the jurisdiction of the receiving state unless, in specific cases, the sending state waives their immunity. The purpose of immunity is to protect the diplomatic mission from undue harassment; this is not to say that the diplomat and all foreign-based staff are not expected to abide by the laws of the receiving state.

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