Ukrainian Canadians and 2015 Federal Elections

For Ukrainian Canadians, more than ever, the 2015 Federal Elections are about the parties’ positions on the Russian aggression in Ukraine and issues related to assistance from the West and Canada in particular. The three leading political parties, the Conservatives, Liberals and the NDP, have their distinctive positions on these issues.

The Conservative government has been vocally supporting the new democratic Ukraine since the Revolution of Dignity in late 2013. The government has reinforced its words with a sizable financial, humanitarian and technical assistance to Ukraine. According to Canada’s Ministry of International Trade, since January 2014, the total amount of the Government of Canada’s assistance for Ukraine has exceeded $703 million. This amount includes $400 million in low-interest loans to help stabilize Ukraine’s economy; $127 million to support economic initiatives in Ukraine; almost $92 million to support Ukraine’s democracy, human rights, rule of law and civil society; and more than $36 million to strengthen the country’s security. In particular, Canada has donated to the Ukrainian military 30,000 coats, 30,000 pairs of pants, 70,000 pairs of Gore-Tex boots and 4,500 pairs of gloves, as well as a mobile hospital, tactical communications systems, explosive ordnance disposal equipment, tactical medical kits, and night and thermal goggles.

The Conservative Party’s candidate Ted Opitz has said that the Canadian-supplied night goggles helped the Ukrainian military win the battle at Marjinka in June 2015, when the Russian forces launched their attack at night. Canada is leading the military police training program in Ukraine and deploying 200 Canadian Armed Forces members to Ukraine for military training. In July 2015, Canada and Ukraine signed a Free Trade Agreement which is expected to facilitate trade and investment between the two countries. The Agreement has also served as an important boost for Ukraine’s position on the global investment and trading markets after this position has been weakened by the ongoing war in the Donbas. On top of all that, Canada has sanctioned 280 Russian individuals and entities for their involvement in the invasion in Ukraine, which the Conservative party calls “the toughest sanctions regime in the world against Putin”.

However, the government’s policies towards Ukraine have met vocal opposition from the Liberal party, particularly from candidates Chrystia Freeland and Borys Wrzesnewskyj. In his recent speech at the Ukrainian Independence Day celebration in Toronto’s Centennial Park, Borys Wrzesnewskyj noted that Canada, along with other Western countries, has effectively imposed a defensive weapons embargo against Ukraine and reminded that President Poroshenko once said “One cannot win the war with blankets”. Mr. Wrzesnewskyj also said that the Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau has committed to a removal of Russia from the system of international banking payments SWIFT, a step, which the Western governments, including Canada’s, have been reluctant to discuss officially.

Chrystia Freeland and Borys Wrzesnewskyj, along with the NDP’s now-candidates Peggy Nash and Paul Dewar, have also been calling the Canadian sanctions against Russia “symbolic” and those that have “exemptions for Russian businesses with Canadian interests”. The mentioned Liberal and NDP candidates have been long and unsuccessfully calling on the Conservative government to implement sanctions on the former head of Russian Railways Vladimir Yakunin and the head of Russia’s state-owned energy company Rosneft Igor Sechin. According to the CBC, Vladimir Yakunin had business relationships with Montreal-based train manufacturer Bombardier Inc., while Igor Sechin owned about 30% of an Exxon Mobil Corp. oilfield in Alberta.

The Conservative government came under fire in Ottawa Citizen’s article in July 2015 where the author David Pugliese said that Canada is scrapping significant amounts of military gear instead of sending it to Ukraine. Later in July, President of Ukrainian Canadian Congress Paul Grod, with reference to the Ministry of Defence, told the New Pathway that most of the gear referenced in the Ottawa Citizen article was already past its due date and that the government was ready to talk to the Ukrainian authorities as to which of the Canadian military equipment could be given to Ukraine.

The Conservative party’s criticism of the Liberal party’s position on Ukraine has also been quite vocal and fell on similar lines as its general criticism of Liberal Party. Many conservatives are saying that Justin Trudeau lacks experience in international politics and is not ready to confront Vladimir Putin with the same vigour as Prime Minister Stephen Harper has shown when he lobbied the exclusion of Russia from G-7 and told the Russian President in the face to “Get out of Ukraine.”

In his recent statement, candidate Ted Opitz, who is Borys Wrzesnewskyj’s main rival in Central Etobicoke, reprimanded the fact that former Prime Minister Jean Chretien will be campaigning for the Liberal Party and reminded that Mr. Chretien held a private meeting with Vladimir Putin a few months ago, and received the Russian ‘Order of Friendship’. In a recent statement, Mr. Opitz said that “Justin demonstrated that he is not ready when he made light of the invasion of Crimea by referencing Russia’s loss in a hockey game” (Mr. Trudeau later apologized for the remark – NP).

The NDP took a clear stance on the war in the Donbas when, in April 2015, Paul Dewar, in his capacity as NDP’s Foreign Affairs Critic, in the Parliament session called “the aggression … from Putin and from the Russian Federation” clearly unacceptable.

Peggy Nash, the NDP candidate in Parkdale-High Park, a long-standing supporter of democratic Ukraine, reiterated in her statement for the New Pathway that New Democrats condemn Russia’s illegal occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea and Russia’s war in Eastern Ukraine. She also said that “It’s important to have a strong Canadian response to the Russian intervention that’s coordinated with our allies – not just tough talk. Stephen Harper’s policy has focused more on rhetoric rather than results.” Peggy Nash said that “Canada’s strong friendship with Ukraine makes it an ideal partner to strengthen political, civil society, and security governance. Canada should show constructive leadership on the diplomatic front, and support continued training of Ukraine’s armed forces.”

At the same time, Paul Dewar’s position on the fact that Canada’s embassy in Kyiv was used as a safe haven for several days by anti-government protesters during the Revolution of Dignity was taken by many Ukrainian Canadians unfavourably. In July 2015, Mr. Dewar was quoted by the CBC to have been “shocked” by the fact. According to the CBC, Mr. Dewar asked in the Parliament session: “And what would have happened had the revolution gone the other way and Yanukovych stayed? If things had gone that way not only would our credibility have been undermined but also the safety and security of our staff.” The CBC provided the Canadian Ambassador to Ukraine Roman Waschuk’s response to that, that Canada’s backing of democracy in Ukraine should surprise no one.

Some Ukrainian Canadians, like Andrij Holovatyj, producer and host of Radio Kontakt’s GlobalMaidan On-Air Roundtable on AM 530 in Toronto, in his recent facebook post, have expressed fears that an NDP government would provide weaker support for Ukraine and would not back weapons supplies to Ukraine in the light of Thomas Mulcair’s plan to withdraw the Canadian military support to the fight with ISIS if the NDP forms the next government.

Many in the Ukrainian community have been saying that the leaders of Liberal Party and the NDP, Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair, have not spoken much publicly on their approach to Ukraine and the war in the Donbas, largely leaving those duties to the MPs and candidates.

In this regard, it should be noted that, as the New Pathway informed in March 2015, Justin Trudeau met with representatives of the Ukrainian Canadian community in Toronto. At the meeting, Mr. Trudeau reaffirmed the Liberal Party’s support for Ukraine and its undisputed sovereignty. “Liberals believe that Canada has a vital role to play in helping to bring an end to this conflict, including supporting the essential institutions of democracy that will place the country on a solid footing,” said Justin Trudeau. “We will continue to consult and work with Ukrainian-Canadians to push for more effective federal government action to restore peace and security in Ukraine.”

Weapons for Ukraine is currently among the main requirements on the part of the Ukrainian Canadian community to the Canadian parties. This requirement is included in the “Ten Questions to your Candidate: Federal Election 2015” by Canadian Group for Democracy in Ukraine. The list of questions also includes such requirements as to put Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and their families on Canada’s sanction list; to repatriate to Ukraine the assets of Ukrainian oligarchs, which have been accused of large-scale corruption; and to facilitate Ukraine’s efforts to join NATO.

In this time of grave danger for their ancestral homeland, Ukrainian Canadians seem to be approaching 2015 federal elections differently. As Andrij Holovatyj put it: “Rather than be (1) Canadian first and (2) Ukrainian second (during the election – NP) – make the choices (1a) and (1b).”

To that, we can only add that it is time for all the Canadian parties and candidates to approach the Ukrainian issue from a general moral standpoint, regardless of the number of Ukrainian Canadian voters in each particular riding. That moral standpoint dictates large-scale military, financial, humanitarian and political support for Ukraine, as a country which has already paid a very dear human and economic price while defending the whole civilised world from the Russian imperialism and aggression.