Far from home, away from the spotlight and not without risk, Canada’s diplomatic couriers traverse the globe to ensure confidential packages reach their destination.

By ROBERT SARNER, Today magazine*, March 1981

Seated alone in the first-class section, next to a window, Ron Kaiser’s eyes leave his copy of Newsweek to survey the scene 30,000 feet below. “You don’t get this kind of thing working on the ground,” he says. “It’s views like this that make my job worthwhile”. The sight is indeed impressive: A postcard-perfect shot of a sun-lit, snow-capped mountain range in Yugoslavia. Kaiser takes it all in, savouring the view while it lasts. It makes no difference he’s seen such sights a thousand times before. At 43, Kaiser, a soft-spoken ex-navy man from Halifax, has seen every continent and ocean, and most countries, world capitals and mountain ranges on earth. Usually from far above. Like some restless fugitive, he’s constantly on the fly, rarely spending two nights in the same country. By day, he flies first-class. By night, he sleeps in five-star hotels, always mindful of his next destination. And it doesn’t cost him a cent.

The Canadian government pays Kaiser to travel. He’s one of 18 diplomatic couriers, all men, who crisscross the globe to link up most of Canada’s 70-odd embassies and consulates abroad. An apparent anachronism, they have become indispensable to Canada’s foreign service. These modern-day nomads are the guardians of Ottawa’s secrets, accompanying diplomatic pouches and shipments in a world in which assaults on diplomatic privilege and protection – not to mention on diplomats themselves – have become increasingly commonplace.

Mention “diplomatic couriers” and images of trench coats and midnight meetings spring to mind, thanks in part to TV and movies. But Ron Kaiser, with his curly grey hair and goatee, doesn’t look much like Cesar Romero in the TV series Passport to Danger nor like Tyrone Power in the film Diplomatic Courier. With the mountains no longer in sight, he returns to his magazine and yet another Player’s non-filter. It’s Monday early afternoon, the beginning of another week, another itinerary. Compared to most, this trip is a cinch. He need only hit Belgrade, Bucharest, Vienna, Budapest, Prague, and Amsterdam before returning to Paris on Thursday night.

The trip began a few hours earlier at the Canadian embassy in Paris, home of the largest contingent of couriers outside Canada. (Six are based in Paris, two in Bangkok and ten in Ottawa). Behind a thick steel, double-lock door in a small windowless room in the embassy’s basement, Kaiser met with the head of courier services in Paris, Ray Bordeleau, 48, a French-Canadian from Alberta. They go over the luggage for the trip, making sure each canvas bag is weighed, numbered, entered on the checklist, labelled and finally locked with a metal crimp and sealed with wax. The Americans have orange bags, the British have white, the Australians have green, the Russians grey. Canada’s are red with the words “DIPLOMATIC DIPLOMATIQUE DIPLOMATICO” emblazoned in black capital letters. Today, Kaiser has his hands full; in addition to his own attaché case and small suitcase, he’s leaving with ten bags weighing 130 kilos (much more on occasion). He must never leave the pouches unattended until they’re deposited at an embassy, with an embassy representative or another courier.

At the Paris airport, Kaiser is the last to board the plane after personally surveying the loading of the pouches into the hold (baggage compartment). Because he’s making several stops behind the Iron Curtain this week, he must be especially vigilant. Unlike their American counterparts who always travel in pairs in Communist countries, Canadian couriers operate alone.

In Belgrade, the moment the plane taxis to a halt, Kaiser darts to the front exit – hence one of the main reasons for travelling first-class. True to form, Kaiser is the first off the aircraft. He’s beneath the belly of the plane before the hold is opened.

Nobody is to be trusted. As long as the hold is open, the courier must keep the bags in sight. Nobody must touch the bags without his supervision. The air is raw, the noise deafening. Under the cheerless stare of machine-gun toting Yugoslavian soldiers, Kaiser keeps a vigil until a representative from the Canadian embassy whom he knows arrives at the plane and carriers away the first of the ten red pouches. Once the baggage handlers have finished loading and unloading passenger luggage and have closed the hatch, Kaiser is again the last to board the plane.

An hour later, a similar scenario unfolds in Bucharest. This time, Kaiser is met by Jim Fanning, a communications officer at the Canadian embassy in Romania who arrives on the back of an airport tractor. Under their supervision, the pouches are loaded on the vehicle for the trip to the embassy car. The Romanian soldiers, seemingly everywhere, look on with glacial disdain.

Kaiser escapes one complication faced by ordinary travelers. Under article 27 of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations which formally codified long-standing customs, every country has the right to import diplomatic shipments into another country free of inspection. After showing his red diplomatic passport, Kaiser and his pouches pass through customs unchecked.

Of course, the diplomatic pouch can also serve as a sort of Trojan Horse. The New York Times reported not long ago, based on Western intelligence, that “… clandestine arsenals sent abroad at one time or another by most Western countries including the United States usually get to their distribution point by diplomatic courier.”

Canadian couriers neither pack the pouch nor know its exact contents. They don’t want to know. Their bags are mostly full of paper – classified reports, briefing material, personal mail for embassy employees behind the Iron Curtain, military documents from NATO and the like. In short, anything too sensitive or too voluminous to send by other means.

In 1980, after then-Prime Minister Joe Clark decided to secretly issue false Canadian passports to six American diplomats for their escape from Iran, there was but one sure way to smuggle the documents from Ottawa to Ken Taylor, Canada’s ambassador, in Tehran – by diplomatic pouch. Then, as always, the courier, whose name has never been disclosed, was blissfully unaware of what he was carrying.

Despite all the advances in telecommunications, Canada’s courier service has taken on a greater importance during the past 15 years. Before World War II, the foreign service was small. Canada relied mainly on British embassies for representation abroad and as such it used British couriers, whose origins date back to 1772 when the King’s Foreign Service Messengers were formed. (It was as a King’s Messenger during World War 2 in that former Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson got his first glimpse of the world.)

In the 1950s, as Canada opened more embassies abroad, Ottawa launched a modest courier system. At first, it served only missions in the United States, followed by service to the UK. In the 60s, Canada dispatched couriers farther afield but always on an ad hoc basis out of Ottawa. Only in the last decade did Canada station couriers overseas. Even today, it still relies on English and Australian couriers to serve certain Canadian embassies.

Telexes, telecopiers and conference calls provide the most rapid contact between Ottawa and its embassies. But according to Ray Bordeleau, nothing beats the venerable diplomatic pouch when it comes to reliability and security. No matter how sophisticated the communication system, he cautions, there’s likely someone monitoring and decoding the messages.

Earlier this year, for instance, the CBC reported that Britain was wiretapping Canada’s embassy in London. “We must take it for granted,” the network said in quoting one of the ambassador’s cables to Ottawa, “that the phone conversations of this sort are all monitored and taped by suitably equipped countries including Britain, France, the USA and the Soviet Union.”

Couriers spend close to 200 days a year on the road – and in the air – logging about 250,000 miles. They travel light, unarmed, dress inconspicuously and try to be as discreet as possible. All are men in their 30s and 40s, most of whom hail from the military. With benefits, they earn close to $25,000 a year. Though no Canadian courier has been lost in action – five Americans have died on the job since 1945 – there have been many harrowing moments.

Ron Kaiser recalls several fast take-offs to avoid runway collisions. He was caught in Cairo in 1967 when the Six Day War broke out between Egypt and Israel and was in Cyprus in 1974 when Turkey invaded the island in its war with Greece. More recently, he’s faced danger on his runs into war-torn Lebanon.

Whenever Kaiser made the trip between the Beirut airport and downtown, the car was inevitably stopped at different points by soldiers from both sides of the Moslem and Christian conflict. The facade of his hotel was disfigured by machine-fun fire. Ray Bordeleau has been on two flights during which the plane caught fire. He survived a crash landing in Madrid, plus another in Tehran in which the plane collided with loaded fuel tanks. Gord Campbell was detained by Russian authorities for half a day in Moscow over a visa dispute. A few years ago, another courier found himself in the middle of a hijacking in Latin America.

Sometimes, humour and adventure help offset the routine of travelling. Four years ago, Marc Gerin-Lajolie, Canada’s youngest courier, then 28, boarded a flight in Cairo for what he expected to be a 2-hour flight to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia where he was to drop off a small pouch before returning to Cairo. There was no first class section and as the only Westerner onboard, he was surrounded by more than 300 Moslem pilgrims destined for Mecca.

Shortly after take-off, a mullah took over the plane’s PA system to lead his faithful in a half-hour of solemn prayer. It ended abruptly when the Dutch pilot came on to inform passengers that a severe sandstorm forced a detour to Medina. After an 8-hour wait in the sweltering Medina airport, the flight finally left for Jeddah, arriving at 8 p.m.. Gerin-Lajolie remained on board since the plane was scheduled to leave shortly for Cairo.

The Canadian embassy employee awaiting the pouch boarded the plane and gave Gerin-Lajolie another one for Cairo. He heard commotion outside the plane before being informed that 50 Afghan Moslems who had flown from Cairo to reach Mecca had just been refused entry into Saudi Arabia because their papers were false. Amid considerable agitation, Saudi soldiers were forcibly loading the deportees back on the plane. Meanwhile, without informing the pilots, the cabin crew all marched off the plane with their luggage in protest over having to work more than 14 hours straight.

At this point, Gerin-Lajolie, pouch in hand, walked down the aisle and knocked on the cockpit door. “Excuse me, Captain,” said Gerin-Lajolie, a licensed pilot himself, “but I think you should know you no longer have a crew to fly with. I’m a diplomatic courier and I must get back to Cairo this evening. Frankly, I’m a bit uneasy about what’s going on out there.”

“I understand,” answered the captain. “Sit right behind me. Buckle up. Put your bag on the floor beside you, stay quiet and don’t move.”

He then dispatched his co-pilot to find the cabin crew and persuade them – with money under the table – to come back on board and work longer than they were legally bound. Finally, around 10 p.m. as the engines warmed up, the captain summoned the security agent (disguised as a pilgrim) to the cockpit.

“Do you have a knife?,” he asked in English. “Yes, captain, I do.”

Like the captain, Gerin-Lajolie was afraid the angry deportees might storm the cockpit.

“Good,” replied the captain. “I give you permission to kill if there’s any trouble during the flight. I want you to protect the cockpit. Let only the stewards have access.”

Around midnight, the flight arrived in Cairo without incident save a lot of tension. A week later, the captain received a letter of gratitude from External Affairs in Ottawa based on the customary report filed by Gerin-Lajolie.

“A lot of people think you just get on the plane first-class and that’s it,” says Gord Campbell, a personable 44-year-old grandfather from Vancouver, based in Paris since 1978. “The flying is the easiest part. The problems begin off the plane with the endless airport waits, hassles with ground personnel and security who don’t always understand that you go where the bags go and where you go the bags go. When you’re stuck at an airport with 15 or 20 bags under your care, you don’t go to the john, you don’t go to the cafeteria, you don’t go to sightseeing, you can barely make a phone call. We have no mobility, especially in some airports where they don’t supply carts.”

In the 1960s, when all of Canada’s couriers still operated out of Ottawa, they used to go around the world in eight days – literally. It was an itinerary to jet-lag even the most vigorous traveler: Montreal, Lisbon, Madrid, Paris, Tel Aviv, Tehran, New Delhi, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Toyko, Vancouver, Toronto. Today, the system is better organized. There are 11 routes, each designated by a different colour for a different part of the globe. The couriers in Bangkok handle two routes, those in Ottawa, four, and Paris, six.

“In some countries, ‘courier’ denotes a drug manner,” says Ron Kaiser, over lunch in his Bucharest hotel before catching his next flight to Vienna. “It’s only when you emphasize diplomatic courier that people realize the difference. And when you say Canadian diplomatic courier, you’d be amazed at how many barriers fall and doors open. Which often is not the case for couriers from other countries.”

Unabashedly patriotic, Canadian couriers argue that their job is made much easier thank to the country’s image abroad. “We’re lucky,” says Campbell. “It’s the only word to use. Canada is not seen as the cause of local problems around the world. We’re low-profile, not exerting much influence. We don’t feel the resentment so often directed against the Americans. Most Canadian embassies are regarded as not interfering with the host country.”

Innocent Canada. Inoffensive, loveable Canada. A crowd-pleaser every time. Certainly, that’s how its couriers perceive the world’s perception of Canada.

Once a week, the Paris-based couriers cross trails. From around the globe, these world-weary civil servants converge every Friday afternoon at the “The Annex” – the nickname for the Café des Fountaines Elysées, situated across the street from Christian Dior and Nina Ricci … and the Canadian Embassy in Paris’s eighth district. Jim Wright and Serge Pelletier complete that group of six peripatetic men whose origins span from Vancouver to Halifax and points in between. They swap stories about close calls in Beirut or being held over at an airport in Africa. In winter, they sometimes adjourn for a game of hockey with other expatriate Canadians.

“It all sounds very romantic,” says Campbell, back from a nightmarish 12-day run through Africa, “but it’s the loneliest job on the planet. Still, don’t get me wrong. It beats working any day.”


* Written originally for Canadian Weekend but not published due to the magazine suspending publication

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