CONSULAR DUTIES by Jim Elliott (Article)


Jim Elliott and Joan Ann

I was hired as a Trade Commissioner in 1961 so, in the normal course of events, I would have had very little to do with Consular Duties. At a large Embassy someone else would do that. Since providing Consular services was the Department of External Affairs’s single main source of contact with the tax-paying travelling public, it was of course entrusted to the youngest, most junior and least-experienced officer at the Embassy.

Oh, a Trade Commissioner might be expected to serve as Duty Officer once in a blue moon, but you would have plenty of back-up a telephone call away if anything should come up.

For whatever reason I served much of my career abroad and in either small Embassies or Consulates, this gave me much greater exposure to Consular duties than I would otherwise have enjoyed.

My second foreign assignment was to a small European consulate, in Duesseldorf, Germany, only three Foreign Service officers, all Trade Commissioners, but with a very heavy consular workload due to the presence of a Canadian army brigade group in the area (about 5,000 soldiers plus support and dependents.) These people arrived with military travel documents but required passports to travel, usually on leave, anywhere outside NATO member countries. Main destinations seemed to be Austria, Switzerland, Sweden and Spain (not a NATO member until 1975). In addition, Air Canada served the city airport several times a week.

Early in my posting, I was summoned to the airport on a Saturday to face a near riot by the passengers on a Canadian charter carrier in the process of going broke. The presence of reporters from the local paper did nothing to ease the situation since the passengers had been told the plane would not be arriving as scheduled that day. They were due to return to Canada after a three-week European holiday, and few, if any, had any funds left. My only resource was a singularly unhelpful Manual of Consular Instructions which clearly stated that before funds could be advanced to a stranded Canadian, a particular form had to be filled out, in quintuplicate, (using carbon paper in those days.) This was clearly impossible given the numbers involved, and the fact that some, landed immigrants rather than citizens, could be helped only in the most unusual conditions. Aided by the Air Canada rep, who really had no reason other than friendship to get involved, I took the bull by the horns, said that everyone had to be fed and put to bed, chartered a bus and sent the bunch of them off to a hotel somewhere up in the Ruhr area willing and able to accommodate them for a small amount. The next day the bus brought them back, and in due course a one-lunged old Super-Connie limped into the airport to take everyone home. I was, of course personally exposed for the bus and hotel bills to the tune of about a year’s pay. The distressed airline’s credit cards had been cancelled, I learned from the airport authorities, meaning they would have to pay cash for their fuel. Using, and undoubtedly exceeding, any authority I may have had as Consul (OK, Vice Consul, but who’s counting?) I got the control tower to agree that the aircraft would not be cleared for takeoff before I gave the word. I then demanded payment from the crew, knowing there was a cache of cash somewhere on the plane. After a thorough search, I found a large wad of US currency concealed in the purse of one of the flight attendants, which I appropriated, extracting enough to reimburse myself for the bus and hotel costs. After some discussion I returned enough money to buy fuel to reach Reykjavik where the pilot thought the credit cards might still be good. This was safely out of my jurisdiction and left me out only a small amount of money which I thought I could recover one way or another from the post accounts, which, as junior officer I also kept. I heard nothing more from the plane nor its passengers so I presume they made it back to Canada safely, unless of course they are still in Reykjavik some fifty years later.

By co-incidence a similar plane load was stranded in Britain by the same charter airline that same week-end. The consular official there followed the book, the passengers spent an uncomfortable week-end camped out in the airport and the Department, and by extension the government, were flayed in the Canadian press for cruelty insensitivity etc. Of course I received neither praise nor condemnation for my rather egregious misuse of authority, albeit in a good cause.

There were other unusual consular cases during my Duesseldorf assignment. On one memorable occasion I received a call, again well after office hours, from the manager of a local hotel who had an unruly Canadian guest. It turned out that the Canadian in question was a ten-year veteran of the Alcoholics Anonymous program who had been travelling with a bunch of his friends on a European tour. His friends decided that it might be fun to get Wilf drunk, ending his ten years of sobriety. This proved easier than getting him sober again, so his friends left him in the hotel and boarded their charter flight home. By the time I was called he had run out of funds and the hotel manager out of patience. What to do? I was stuck for any better idea so I took the man home and, over the course of the next several days managed to wean him off alcohol gradually, obtain plane fare from his wife in Canada, and dry him out enough for Air Canada to take him home.

Wilf was not the only consular houseguest I entertained over the course of my career. There was also “Shipwreck Magee” some years later in Bogota. Again I received a phone call at home, after hours, this time in the evening of December 23rd from the honorary British Consul in Barranquilla telling me that he had a distressed Canadian on his hands and what was I going to do? I knew that I was unlikely to get any meaningful support from Headquarters that close to Christmas but told the British Consul he would be reimbursed if he sent the Canadian up to me. “Shipwreck” arrived the next day, Christmas Eve, and found Bogota at over 8,000 feet elevation was substantially colder than Barranquilla on the coast. He was still wearing the jeans he had on after the shipwreck, the tattered shirt and straw sandals he had been given by the impoverished Colombian peasants who had taken pity on him after he came ashore. He told me his story.

He and two friends had been taking a load of Colombian marijuana across the Caribbean in a sailing boat. Remember this was back in the day when the marijuana trade had room for amateurs, which would be referred to as “gentleman players” in a British sporting context. Anyhow, the three adventurers got to sampling the product and somehow their vessel caught fire and burned to the waterline just after they abandoned ship. The water was warm and shore was close. When they reached land, all they owned were the blue jeans they were wearing and the ropes holding them up. The first group of Colombian peasants they encountered gave them some old shirts, and straw hats to protect them from the tropical sun, and straw sandals to protect their feet as they set out to walk to the nearest city, Barranquilla where there were foreign Consulates.

I brought “Shipwreck” home, gave him an old suit ready for charity and an old shirt which, while frayed at the collar, stil had French cuffs. I threw in a pair of cuff links I had been given on a visit to some agricultural equipment manufacturer or other, some badly worn shoes etc. and took him home. We didn’t really want to leave him alone there so we took him to the Christmas Eve service at the local Anglican church. The next day we set an extra place for him at the family Christmas dinner. On Boxing Day we managed to raise someone in Ottawa who contacted his family in Canada. They provided the funds so we bought him a plane ticket and sent him off, still in the old suit etc.

There was a sequel to this story. About two years later, just as I was getting ready to leave Bogota, the office receptionist told me there was some disreputable looking character asking for me. Curiosity got the better of me and there was “Shipwreck” back in Colombia, and, it turned out back in the same business. He had come to Bogota to return the farm implement cuff links which he assumed were quite valuable. It was about lunch time so I treated him to a slice of pizza and he told me what life was like in the dope trade in Colombia in those days. He lived in a section of Barranquilla known as the “Zona Negra” where the police dared not go, but had to leave it to meet his suppliers, not surprisingly, those same police!

He said he was planning to retire after making another hundred thousand dollars. I wonder where he is now. Probably dead or in jail. I think I may still have those cuff links. I’ll have to look.

Tags: Jim Elliott