Well folks, it’s official: Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs has announced that the Villa Grandi, the federal government’s official residence in Italy, is up for sale. The four story, 13,000 square foot abode in the heart of Rome has been deemed “too large” and extravagant for Canadian taxpayers. After all, our tax dollars are too busy keeping our MPs and Senators in the lap of luxury to provide a nice house and a cook for our Ambassadors abroad. By forcing our ambassadors to live and entertain frugally, we will show the world how fiscally Conservative Canada is.
The sale of Villa Grandi marks the latest in Canada’s liquidation of foreign diplomatic properties. Starting shortly after the 2011 Federal Elections, the government quietly began putting our Ambassador’s Residences up for sale. The sale of Strathmore, the Canadian Ambassador’s Residence in Ireland, for $4.8 million and a new home for the ambassador in downtown Dublin made waves. Considering that we bought Strathmore for $57,000 in 1957, almost $5 million might seem like a fair sum. However, Strathmore is worth $17 million and the new home is a row house in a far less posh sector of the city. But that’s just Ireland, where 15% of Canadians have ancestral roots. Why would we need a nice place to chat with the Irish President there?
The government didn’t stop there. By 2012, the government had announced the sale of some 40 odd properties around the world. With that, we waved goodbye to our ambassadors’ homes in Oslo and Stockholm. Cuts abroad also meant closing down visa offices in Germany, Japan, Iran, Malaysia, and Bangladesh, as well as a number of consulate offices across the United States. Now, Canada still maintains diplomatic relations with the many countries around the world, but the closing of visa and consular offices suggests that we don’t want to deal with anyone. With the liquidation of Sir John A. Macdonald House last year for $530 million, we even have less physical presence in Mother Britain.
According to a number of former Canadian Ambassadors and politicians, the sale of these residences could hurt successful relations with these countries. Lorenz Freidlaender, our former Ambassador to Stockholm, despaired at the sale of the residence there, which was formerly owned by Nobel Prize Winner Gustav Galen. It seems, according to Freidlaender, that living in Galen’s house encouraged Swedish movers and shakers to visit. Galen is a household name in Sweden.
Derek Fraser, who served as Ambassador to Hungary in the 1990’s when the country transitioned to a democracy, also spoke on the subject. He noted that entertaining decision makers in foreign countries (much like entertaining them in Canada) is essential to building and preserving Canadian interests abroad. Fraser emphasized, “An official residence is set up in such a way that you can receive these people and by having … [it] well looked after, with Canadian artwork, you give the impression of authority to your position.”
Jeremy Kinsman, a former Ambassador to the UK and to Italy, stated that the sale of the Villa Grandi was an affront to Italian and Italian-Canadian pride. He explained that “bestowing the home of Italy’s former foreign minister to Canada for a low price” was a gesture made in appreciation and remembrance of the sacrifices Canada made for Italy during WWII. The sale of this property, according to Kinsman, “really isn’t going to save that much money,” but the political message it sends may end up costing Canadians.
When the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the decision to cut the fat, they claimed it might save us $80 million. This $80 million is part of the nearly $168 million in budget cuts made to Foreign Affairs. Of course, these cuts allow the PM to balance the budget by the next election and continue to live in his three-storey, 34-room home in downtown Ottawa for another four years. Or perhaps the similarly appointed retreat at Harrington Lake. John Baird, Forgein Affairs Minister at the time, refused to allow the department to sell its 22 most valuable paintings (which adorn the offices of the department and the Minister).
It seems the government can make cuts, just not close to home. This hypocrisy, as well as the exorbitant amount of money the PM has spent entertaining foreign diplomats in Canada, has angered Canadians at home, and dignitaries abroad. Let’s hope they don’t take it personally.