Achieving Sürgünlik recognition, a tribute to Wrzesnewskyj’s tenacity

MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj

Marco Levytsky, Editorial Writer.

After two-and-a-half years and three attempts, it looks like Canada will finally join Ukraine, Latvia and Lithuania in recognizing Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s 1944 deportation of the Crimean Tatars as a genocide.

Last month marked the 75th anniversary of this traumatic event, which has become known as Sürgünlik, the word for exile in the Crimean Tatar language.

Starting on May 18, 1944, 200,000 Crimean Tatars were dragged from their home by NKVD special forces in the dead of night, packed into cattle cars, and shipped thousands of miles away. They were left without food, water or shelter. Thousands died in transit, thousands more in exile. Historical estimates of the dead run from 40,000 to 90,000 in total.

The reason this recognition has taken so long to come to fruition, as we have noted in the past, is that it has been kicked around like a political football by the two major parties. First, in December 2016, MP Kerry Diotte of the opposition Conservatives tried to pass a Private Member’s Bill establishing May 18 as a Memorial Day for Sürgünlik and recognizing it as a genocide. This was voted down 160-137 by the ruling Liberals because then-Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion did not consider the deportation as a genocide and the order came down from the top to oppose that bill. (We should note that Canada has the most restrictive rules regarding party discipline of all the major countries that follow the Westminster parliamentary system – much more so than Australia, New Zealand or even Westminster [United Kingdom] itself). Five Liberals, including Etobicoke-Centre MP Wrzesnewskyj, broke ranks and supported it. Current Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland who, as a member of cabinet (and as Minister of International Trade, Dion’s immediate subordinate) could not vote for it and expect to stay in cabinet, conveniently chose to be absent from parliament on the day of the vote.

But once she took over the Foreign Affairs portfolio from Dion, who subsequently retired from politics, the obstacle to Liberal recognition of Sürgünlik as genocide was removed. As a result, Wrzesnewskyj decided to introduce a motion calling for the same things Diotte’s bill had called for. In order to ease passage, he needed unanimous consent. He got it from the Liberals, the smaller opposition parties and independents. But when push came to shove last month, it was the Conservatives who denied it.

Their rationale was that a motion does not have the same clout as a bill, that there wasn’t enough consultation, and that Wrzesnewskyj’s motivation was “more to do with a desire to draw attention to himself and not to the importance of Sürgünlik commemoration”.

As we noted previously, this was far-fetched to say the least and was primarily dues to the desire of the Conservatives to take credit for this, should they form the next government.

But. Wrzesnewskyj was not deterred. June 10, opportunity presented itself for a third try when Russian pro-democracy opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza testified before the Foreign Affairs Committee about the worsening human rights situation in Russia and increasing numbers of political prisoners incarcerated by the Putin regime. Wrzesnewskyj used the opportunity to put a question to Murza about the plight of the Crimean Tatars and whether he would support a finding of genocide regarding the Sürgünlik. “I think it would be very important to make such a recognition,” answered Kara-Murza.

As a result, Wrzesnewskyj gave “Notice of Motion” on the matter. After the 48-hour wait period, this motion was moved, debated, and passed on June 13, getting unanimous support from all members, including the Conservatives, who, at first tried to drag this matter out in committee hoping it would go away, but finally relented.

June 19, the day before Parliament recessed for the summer, Michael Levitt, the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee tabled its report in the House. Once that was done, the Government has 120 days to respond Wrzesnewskyj, however, stuck in the word “immediately” into the motion, which demands a much sooner response. As an added measure it was passed unanimously, unlike most reports which contain a majority and minority position. The unanimity pretty well guarantees the government should approve. What’s more, Freeland, as Foreign Affairs Minister has been “absolutely supportive,” in Wrzesnewskyj’s own words.

While she has yet to make an official pronouncement as of yet, her media spokesperson, Adam Austen, has responded to this newspaper’s emails with the following statement: “In 1944, hundreds of thousands of Crimean Tatar children, women and men were forcibly deported from the Crimean Peninsula by Soviet authorities. Canada honours the memory of those who lost their lives and those others who suffered so greatly, including by supporting this important motion.”

So, we can assume that Canada’s recognition will finally be forthcoming. While, the tortuous route it has taken to get to this stage does not reflect well upon the performance of Canada’s major parties, it does stand out as a testament to MP Wrzesnewskyj’s tenacity.

Throughout his 12 years of service in the House of Commons, Wrzesnewskyj has consistently championed the Ukrainian community and our community’s interests. As he prepares for retirement in October, getting this recognition finally passed is a fitting finish to an outstanding legacy of service.