Canada is unique in terms of Ukrainian community engagement, ambassador says

Roman Waschuk

Marco Levytsky, Western Bureau Chief.

Canada is unique in the world in terms of Ukrainian Canadian community engagement, says the former Canadian Ambassador to Ukraine.

Speaking at a question and answer webinar sponsored by the Ottawa-Gatineau Branch of the Ukrainian National Federation September 10, Roman Waschuk, who served in Kyiv from 2014 to 2019, stated that within 15 years of first arriving in Canada, Ukrainians were already getting elected to local offices, then went on to get elected to provincial legislatures and the federal parliament.

He recalled a visit to Canada by former Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman who was shocked to learn that almost everyone he bumped into had some family connection with Ukraine.

Sitting in the airport lounge on the way home, Groysman told Waschuk that there are only two countries with which Ukraine has such person-to-person relationships – Israel and Canada. But he likes Canada best “which coming from a guy named Groysman is something”.

However, many Ukrainians tend to see Canada through the Diaspora prism, and would have to be told not to ignore all the Canadians who do not have a Ukrainian background.

“Yes, the community connection is important. But both are countries that are bigger than that and we should think of every one of us being an ambassador in the sense of plugging in as many people as possible into the potential of the Canada-Ukraine relationship,” explained Waschuk.

Responding to a question about Operation Unifier, the program under which Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel have trained over 17,000 Ukrainian soldiers since 2015, Waschuk said it has progressed from one-on-one tactical training in the field to things like writing a new military police curriculum, and new ways of training non-commissioned officers.

“Being on the ground so far and being listeners, we found the niches and nodes where Ukrainian officers want change,” he noted

He compared the Canadian approach to training with the American one, recalling “an absolutely disastrous diplomatic dinner” where some U.S. officers tried to browbeat the Ukrainian defense minister into accepting their command and control of the force, which caused a very negative reaction among the Ukrainian.

A Canadian officer provided some of the same advice, but, instead of lecturing, he told them stories how he had to do it.

“A lot of the success we have had is because Canadians have a higher cultural awareness of Ukraine and are naturally less finger-wagging lecturers and listen before they advise,” said Waschuk.

Asked what arguments he found the most convincing when explaining why Canada should care about Ukraine, he said Ukraine is a very large country on the Eastern flank of Euro-Atlantic space and is one of the countries where Canada can punch above its weight due to its strategic interest in engagement with Ukraine.

On the subject of the Canada-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement (CUFTA), Waschuk said it was a political sign of support and Ottawa agreed to terms that were relatively more favourable to Ukraine.

Canada basically provided tariff free access to all Ukrainian products except those that were under supply management in Canada, like dairy and poultry, while Ukraine provided visa free access to 87% of its goods.

The biggest item of contention was salo, or pork fat. Canadian pork producers wanted free access to the Ukrainian market, but Ukrainians resisted contending that salo was a “sacred dish”.

Ultimately, both parties agreed on tariff free access but limited the amount “so we wouldn’t cut off the sacred salo supply,” said Waschuk.

Asked about the progress of educational reform, Waschuk said Ukraine was fortunate in having three-and-a-half years of real reform under Ministers Liliya Hrynevych (served April 14, 2016 to August 29 2019) and Hanna Novosad (August 29, 2019-March 4, 2020)

Hrynevych was the first to focus on primary education and both had very strong Canadian connections, Hrynevych having visited Ukrainian schools in Canada.

However, the current crew are “policy charlatans” and “old school people peddling quick fixes.”

“What’s happening right now is very worrying. It’s worrying in education, it’s worrying in health care in Ukraine,” Waschuk said.

As for democratic reform, Waschuk pointed to the landslide victory of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the sweep his party enjoyed in the subsequent parliamentary elections as signs of democracy in action.

However, Ukrainians have not yet had the “sustainable political party development that gives a country policy-based parties and a leadership that allow it to thrive.”

Ukrainians are not used to working cooperatively in politics and keep breaking up into factions.

Regarding cooperation in the field of Information Technology (IT), he singled out Eugene Roman who, as Executive Vice-President, Digital Excellence and Technology Advisor for the Canadian Tire Corporation from 2012 to 2018, channeled his own company’s work to IT specialists in Ukraine and sold Ukraine as an outsourcing location to other Canadian and American IT technicians.

Waschuk said Roman “has probably done more for the economic benefit of Ukraine than any other person.”

He commended the work of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) and the Ukrainian World Congress (UWC) for their diplomatic approach to maintaining dialogue with Ukraine and the way the UCC has managed to work constructively with Canadian governments run by both major parties and with all parties in parliament.