The Great Embassy selloff
Historic houses and lavish flats are costly symbols of a bygone era in Canadian diplomacy. Now, many are saying Canada’s move to unload some prime real estate abroad is long overdue
Canada is selling some of its prime diplomatic properties in world capitals in a bid to cut costs, find better locations and adapt to the new style of diplomacy. Strathmore, a Canadian official residence in Dublin, is up for sale. So is Macdonald House in London, and about 15 other properties in the British capital.
The federal government is also considering more economical replacements for its diplomatic properties in Stockholm and Paris.
Canada is reviewing properties abroad that have been owned for 25 years or more that are too big for their diplomatic functions, too costly to upkeep and too far from business centres, said Foreign Affairs spokesman Rodney Moore. When a property is sold, it will be replaced by a more economical leased or purchased property.
Mr. Moore stressed that Canada House, the historic building on Trafalgar Square, is not being sold and will continue to be Canada’s flagship in Britain.
The former Conservative government of Brian Mulroney caused an uproar when it considered selling Canada House as an economy measure during the 1990s.
Macdonald House, an eight-storey building for Canadian diplomats on prestigious Grosvenor Square — which was once the U.S. Embassy — was recently placed on London’s superheated real estate market for almost $600 million. A property exchange would also be considered.
The sale of large flats in London used as staff quarters are expected to fetch millions of additional dollars. Part of the rationale for selling off larger staff quarters is that modern diplomatic spouses often work, don’t entertain in their homes as they once did, and use restaurants when they do entertain.
To replace the sold properties, Foreign Affairs hopes to lease or buy properties that are cheaper to operate and more centrally located, said Mr. Moore.
He said the department doesn’t know how much money will be saved with the sale of older properties. However, he noted: “Nothing’s cheap in London.”
In Dublin, Foreign Affairs wants to have a more modest residence that’s closer to Dublin’s business district and Canada’s diplomatic offices.
The federal government plans to reach a decision about moving into more economical quarters in Stockholm within six months. And, the government is considering what to do with the Paris chancery it has owned since 1952.
Neil Hrab, spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier, said there are “high-cost, oversized and poorly located properties” in the government’s diplomatic holdings that need to be replaced with properties that “are more appropriate and respect the taxpayer dollars of hardworking Canadians.”
“We are looking to maximize efficiency and effectiveness,” said Mr. Hrab.
“It is long overdue,” said Joanna Gualtieri, who worked for the Bureau of Physical Resources in Foreign Affairs in the early 1990s, said the move to unload the pricey properties “is long overdue.”
While she was with Foreign Affairs, Ms. Gualtieri tried to expose the waste and excess in Canada’s diplomatic real estate portfolio, but said her superiors would not act.
“I’m encouraged to see that there is a movement afoot to do the right thing,” she said. “These properties way surpass what is needed to meet program requirements and they have for many, many years.”
Ms. Gualtieri said some of Canada’s properties in London sat vacant for long periods and “represent a bygone era.” But she was astonished by the attitudes she encountered at Foreign Affairs, where senior people didn’t want to let prestigious properties out of the department’s hands. Some were listed for sale and then not sold.
“It’s lifestyle. It’s empire building,” said Ms. Gualtieri, who is still involved in a lawsuit over her whistleblowing at Foreign Affairs. “A lot of it was just living the high life.”
John Noble, president of the Retired Heads of Mission Association, said it’s right to sell Canadian diplomatic properties that are not functional. He said Canada has had a surplus of properties in London for some time.
But, he said, most of Canada’s office and residential buildings abroad are well used, so if Canada is selling, it will have to replace them with new quarters.
Historic buildings that are landmarks are difficult to hold onto because it’s hard to argue in Ottawa for the large cash investments needed to keep them up properly, said Mr. Noble.
“In the case of Strathmore, it’s probably long overdue,” he said. “People get upset about the symbolism of that, but it’s miles out of the city. It’s not very practical. Several ambassadors didn’t consider it very functional.”