Who We Were

   A Brief History of CMs

  Who were Canada's Foreign Service Communicators?

Communicators served in the operational side of the telecommunications division of the Department of External Affairs (now known as the Foreign Affairs Canada and International Trade Canada), at headquarters in Ottawa and at Canadian Embassies and Missions abroad. Many of the original Communicators came from Canada's military environment, most with a communications background. In their new civilian jobs they handled all the aspects of telegram processing within the department's internal communications network...preparation, transmission, receipt, and copying, according to some well-established procedures. Over time they were joined by new employees who won various internal and external competitions for a CM position, women and men not necessarily with a communications background, who trained and became equally skilled and knowledgeable in this profession.

Telegrams were the life-blood of the organization. This is how reports were filed, supplies were ordered, personnel were moved from Canada to abroad and back again, finances were maintained, immigrants and refugees were processed, trade was established, aide was rendered, treaties were written, policies and decisions were disseminated. Virtually every aspect of Foreign Service operations required a telegram stating in black and white the who, where, when, how and why of every aspect of Canada's relations with the rest of the world; from the most mundane requirement for paper-clips to the most profound policies between Canada and other countries.

Around the world, around the clock, messages passed back and forth between Canada and abroad, work that was certainly tedious and unexciting to perform, but nonetheless vital to every aspect of the department's operation, and other departments of the Canadian government who were present abroad.

Telegrams were prepared by secretaries, clerks, and officers, and taken to the communications centre. There the telegram was re-typed according to established format and procedures, and introduced into the network, where it was routed to its destination, printed, copied and distributed. A river of words. Sometimes a very slow moving river, when the leased line was a quarter-speed circuit. In the early years telegrams were prepared on paper tape, later recorded on magnetic tape, and later computer diskette. Most manual operations over the years became automated, but like many things, the level of work and number of telegrams increased to match the speed of processing. Overall security was the most important aspect of the work, though this gave a somewhat mysterious and secretive air to the job, which was often noted by those who could not enter the sacred chamber behind the closed door, but the overall routine would probably have made many others choke.

Some postings abroad were a bit more exciting than others...there was always the opportunity to find yourself in the middle of a war and enjoy the sound of shells falling close to your Embassy; or experience any of a number of natural disasters, acts of terrorism, breakdowns of civil order, riots, coups or assassinations, or just plain old robberies and theft.

Security and secrecy are synonymous with the CM era which roughly parallels that of the Cold War. While all staff of foreign embassies in serving in "Iron Curtain" countries received their fair share of attention from the KGB, STB, GRU,...CMs often found themselves receiving a bit more "surveillance" than others, and were often on the receiving end of "approaches" by intelligence agents in various forms and guises.

The work tedious and unexciting? Yes. Adhering to strict rules and procedures doesn't allow for much creativity and imagination on the job. Traditionally the job was noted for long hours overseas, and a constrained and factory-like work environment back at HQ in Ottawa. Above all this the communicators provided a level of dedication and service as a group that is unequaled elsewhere in the Federal government. There is no doubt that there would be a lot of social problems because of the nature of the work, the long hours, the strange hours of shift work at HQ, the loneliness away from home when serving outside Canada, the pressures on family relationships and marital breakdown, the enhanced opportunity for alcohol and substance abuse, and the lack of career advancement. At the same time the level of confidence and trust enjoyed by communicators, the superlative efforts made to complete their tasks in a professional manner and the breadth of working knowledge to do their job, all these things made this an outstanding group to have belonged to.

Today telephone mobility and near-universal availability is taken for granted. Not too many years ago at posts abroad using the telephone was usually an expensive option, sometimes completing a call to Canada was a near-impossible task, within the working hours of Ottawa even more so. It was the communicator who relayed the information from Canada and maintained that vital link to home. At the same time the communicator often opened and closed the mission, changed all the locks, made courier runs to the Airport, and performed a myriad of other minor but very important functions at Canada's farflung places of representation around the world.

From the 1950s until the early 1990s, the Communicators belonged to a special era in the Foreign Affairs Department of Canada. Technology was certain to overcome the job performed by Canada's Communicators at some point. But before that point was reached, the Department benefitted from an incredible wealth of corporate knowledge held by these employees, standards and procedures that effectively controlled the distribution of information within the Department, all these things that were rock-solid, reliable, and contributed to the positive view held by people around the world of the effectiveness of Canada's presence abroad.

Eventually when the Department embraced grand visions and greater technological progress, first COSICS and then eventually SIGNET, it was deemed that the entire CM group in External Affairs would be eliminated. There were no more competitions for new employees, and the ranks of CMs took an initial wobble downwards. The process of elimination was relatively slow, and though new technology helped to deal with some of the increasing communications workload, the human resources were becoming thin on the ground. To ease the crunch, a new and expendable breed of CM appeared, the term employee. The idea was the "terms" would keep the HQ comcentre at some level of functionality, while the older permanent staff served at the dwindling positions abroad, retired, underwent retraining, or moved on to another group, and while the Department generally grappled with what technology would replace the old and getting it in place. These term employees worked incredibly hard for little reward, as staffing levels dropped to the absolute minimum, and the only promise they had was that within a short period of time the job would disappear and they would be released. While often disdained by the permanent employees, who were very worried and concerned for their own jobs and well-being, the last glorious days of the CM era belonged to the terms.

Will the last CM out please turn off the lights?

© 2001, 2006 George McKeever / Laurenzerberg IceWorks
Last Updated October 3, 2006
Some Rights Reserved. Please refer to the legal fine print on the home page of this web site.
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