Above: Consulate General Québec City staff members gather in front of the consulate building on a beautiful fall afternoon in Vieux Québec. Photo by Isaac D. Pacheco
By Isaac D. Pacheco
In 1834, more than three decades before the founding of the Canadian Confederation, the United States established its first consular presence in Québec—then part of the British colony of Lower Canada. The consulate was only the second U.S. diplomatic outpost in the territory that would eventually become Canada. The mission played a vital role in establishing and nurturing the special relationship that America has maintained with its northern neighbor ever since. This year, Consulate General Québec City is commemorating the 185th anniversary of its diplomatic engagement in the heart of Francophone Canada by reflecting on the shared history and enduring partnership between the U.S. and one of its most ardent allies.
“From some of the earliest years of our own foundation as colonies and then a nation, the United States has had commercial, political, cultural and educational links with Québec and Canada, and we need to keep building those ties,” said Allison Areias-Vogel, who served as consul general at the U.S. Consulate General in Québec City until this past summer. “People sometimes assume that Canada is always going to be there as an ally and that the relationship will always be stable, but we should never take it for granted. We want to continue to enrich our bilateral relations through our partnership with Québec Province and the Arctic Territory of Nunavut.”
Operating from a historic building in the core of Vieux Québec, or Old Québec, that overlooks the Saint Lawrence River, the consulate boasts one of the city’s most enviable panoramas. The choice location also provides consulate staff with proximal access to lawmakers and government officials in the nearby National Assembly of Québec. However, the consulate’s picturesque setting amid colonial-era row houses and quaint cobblestone streets belies a much broader mission, which stretches far beyond the provincial capital
“It’s a beautiful city, and the region of Charlevoix is gorgeous. But part of the challenge is that people come here and they see our location. They see [Le Château] Frontenac. They see [Quartier du] Petit Champlain, and they say, ‘Oh, how lovely, how sweet.’ People underestimate the amount of work that we do and the critical issues we cover,” said Areias-Vogel. “No one has any idea how big our consular district really is and just how much we’re juggling.”
While the southern region of Québec surrounding Montréal is covered by the U.S. Consulate General in Montréal, Consulate General Québec City covers one of the largest consular districts in the world, including the majority of the enormous province of Québec as well as the vast Territory of Nunavut, stretching from Greenland to the Beaufort Sea off the coast of Alaska. The two regions are very different.
“Québec is one of America’s oldest trading partners and still is the heart of Francophone Canada,” said Areias-Vogel. “Identity issues remain very important to the Francophone population, and tracking that topic remains critical for a region right on the U.S. border.”
Québec also has a low-profile but thriving manufacturing center, and it imports many raw materials, like steel, from the United States for use in the production of high-precision mechanical, structural and architectural components. Consulate General Québec City, in tandem with Consulate General Montréal, works with provincial government and business leaders to sustain and enhance the already robust economic partnership between the United States and Québec Province, which includes approximately $78 billion in annual bilateral trade of goods. In addition, Québec’s central and northern regions include dynamic First Nation and Inuit populations, and the province’s massive hydroelectric facilities supply energy to parts of New England. Outreach in Nunavut is another important aspect of the consulate’s engagement.
“The United States is an Arctic nation, and everywhere I travel in the north, people ask me for more connections to Alaska. They see Alaska as a model for northern development in terms of public-private partnerships, indigenous governance and cultural preservation, and cold-climate technology,” said Areias-Vogel. “We want to help build north-south connections, of course, but also north-north connections with Alaska.”
The changing Arctic climate has brought new challenges and opportunities to the region’s resilient First Nations and Inuit populations, who face cultural change on a massive scale.
“It’s important to remember that while we have a tendency to look at the Arctic from a two-dimensional perspective—latitude and longitude—there’s a third, human, dimension. The human landscape is just as important as the incredible natural landscape, and both are critical for the protection of the North American Arctic,” Areias-Vogel stressed. “While the Canadian Arctic is home to two-thirds of the world’s wild polar bears and beautiful scenery, northern peoples are also there … living, working and maintaining their way of life. They are looking for northern solutions to their challenges. The United States, with our Arctic experience, is an excellent partner, and we want to help facilitate business and cultural exchange that will support our respective polar regions.”
In addition to the consulate general’s economic and political work, consular issues remain a core focus. Nearly 2.5 million Americans visit the province annually, many of whom arrive for port calls in Québec City during the busy summer cruise season. Hunters and outdoor enthusiasts make up a smaller, but sometimes trickier, portion of the consulate’s American Citizen Services workload, given the logistical challenge of reaching them in the remote locales where they sometimes require assistance.
Along with providing support services to visiting and resident Americans, the issuance of nonimmigrant visas to “new Canadians” makes up the bulk of the consulate team’s daily engagement with the public. While Canadian citizens do not generally require visas for short-term travel to the United States, a growing population of recently arrived immigrants to Canada—and international students at Québec’s prestigious research institutions—presents a challenge for consular officers, who interview applicants from many different countries on a daily basis.
“It’s a very diverse third-country population, and they all have very different stories on how they came to Canada and what they’re doing here,” said Management and Consular Officer Michael Agner, who joined the consulate in 2018.
The consulate also provides information to “snowbirds,” Québec residents who seek relief from Québec’s frigid winters in the surf and sunshine of American beaches. This influx of northern visitors sometimes doubles the populations of small coastal communities in states as far away as Florida.
“The snowbird population that migrates south for six months each year is another major economic link between our two countries,” said Agner. “Snowbirds can stay six months without a visa, and without losing their health care in Québec. They pump money into our small towns.”
Last year, the consulate general’s attention was turned to the international stage, as Charlevoix, Québec, hosted the 44th G7 summit in June 2018. As world leaders and their entourages descended on the small resort town 150 kilometers northeast of Québec City, the consulate’s two American employees and six Canadian locally employed (LE) staff members leapt into action, leading the logistical effort and supporting the significant U.S. government presence during the summit.
According to Areias-Vogel, LE professionals are the consulate’s institutional backbone, and a major factor behind its ongoing success in all areas. With its steadily increasing workload that has continued to outpace staffing, the consulate recently relaunched an internship program aimed at attracting additional talented individuals to assist with new projects.
“I’ve heard officers who come here on a consular TDY say, ‘Oh, it’s so nice here. It’s such an easy little provincial pace.’ And I’m thinking, ‘You’re only doing one-third of the job,’ because our consular officer is the consular chief, the management chief and the post security officer,” said Areias-Vogel. “We have an ‘admirably lean’ platform.”
Agner added to this, “The Deputy position in Quebec City is a challenging, career-enhancing experience for any officer. You not only get incredible representational and reporting opportunities in a Francophone environment, but you work daily with management, consular and security issues that impact the consulate and Mission Canada as a whole.”
Québec’s motto, Je me souviens, or, I remember, reflects its inhabitants’ desire to retain their unique cultural identities despite internal and external forces having reshaped the province throughout history. In working with the Québec portion of its consular district, the consulate general has adopted a matching motto, nous nous souvenons, or, we remember, as a way of expressing solidarity with its Québécois’ counterparts, while also recognizing the shared history that underpins the lasting friendship between the United States and Canada. Despite staffing hurdles and the challenges of conducting outreach in such an immense district, the consulate is doing more than simply maintaining this essential bilateral relationship. Building upon the solid foundation that its predecessors have laid down over nearly two centuries, Consulate General Québec City is forging new connections and investing in critical issues that citizens of both nations hold dear.
“Topics that are important to Québecers are often unknown to the rest of Canada. Everything is very Francophone. What is reflected in the Québec press is often not reflected in the Anglophone press and vice versa,” said Areias-Vogel. “And, as a senior Canadian official told me once, ‘[I]f you don’t understand Québec, you don’t understand Canada. And if you don’t have a presence in Québec City, you don’t understand Québec.’ Now with the Arctic becoming a strategic space, our consular district feels more relevant than ever in terms of supporting America’s long and positive relationship with our northern partner.”
Isaac D. Pacheco is the editor-in-chief of State Magazine.