National Column: Trudeau channels Harper on Ukraine

by Paul Wells

Some days it’s as though Stephen Harper never lost the election. Okay, not most days, but some. That was a hawkish speech Justin Trudeau delivered on Ukraine to a Ukrainian-Canadian audience last week in Toronto. A robust statement of continuity in Canadian policy.

“Allow me to take this opportunity to reiterate that Canada will continue to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty,” the (current!) prime minister said, “in response to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea as well as its support to insurgents in Eastern Ukraine.” The standing ovation, from members of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and a visiting delegation of Ukrainian politicians and business leaders, had begun before he could even finish reading the sentence.

Next week, a senior government source told the Star, the Trudeau government will put Canadian lives and treasure where its mouth is: As NATO heads of government gather in Warsaw, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan will announce Canada is sending several hundred soldiers to lead a multinational force in Latvia.

The Canadian-led force will join a U.S.-led battle group in Poland, one led by the United Kingdom in Estonia, and a German-led deployment to Lithuania.

The senior Canadian source said the deployment of Canadian forces troops to Latvia will be “essentially permanent, unless and until Russia changes its posture in the region.”

Harper used to talk tough on Ukraine, even telling Vladimir Putin to his face that he needs to reverse his annexation of Crimea. Some observers viewed it as knuckle-dragging or base partisan calculus. “Good old political pandering to the sizable diaspora of Ukrainian-Canadian voters,” the military analyst Scott Taylor wrote last year in the Winnipeg Free Press. “Another example of turning foreign policy into a shameless vote collection machine,” Andrew Nikiforuk wrote in The Tyee.

There’s another way to view both Putin’s aggression and the reaction of – say it – successive Canadian governments: that an attack on Ukraine is morally wrong and profoundly destabilizing; that Canada has clear NATO obligations; and that voters who say so needn’t be implicitly dismissed as an ethnic bloc.

I emailed International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland on the assumption she’d take that view. I guessed right. Her mother was born in a displaced-persons camp in Germany, to Ukrainian parents, after the war. Freeland worked in Moscow as a journalist, speaks Ukrainian at home with her children, and she was on the flight from Ottawa to Toronto with Trudeau as he put the finishing touches on his speech.

“It’s important for the country to understand that he’s a strong supporter of Ukraine,” Freeland told me in a telephone interview about her boss. Trudeau will travel to Ukraine after the NATO summit in Warsaw. “Given all the demands on his time,” Freeland said, “it’s coming very early in his mandate. And he’s spending a meaningful amount of time there” – two days.

Freeland was leery of my attempts to compare Trudeau’s deployment of Canadian troops to Harper’s earlier decision to send Canadian Armed Forces trainers to Ukraine. She reminded me the history goes back a fair bit longer than that.

Pierre Trudeau delivered his first speech on his multiculturalism policy outside the House of Commons, in 1971, to the Ukrainian Canadian Congress in Winnipeg. Brian Mulroney made sure Canada was, with Poland, the first country to recognize Ukraine’s independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991.

“Ukraine is a strategic country today for the West,” Freeland said. “Ukraine is standing up for values that are central to Canada.” Well, pretty shakily, I said: Corruption is rampant in Kyiv. Yes, she said, but Canada is helping there, too: Nataliya Shuster, a veteran Montreal police officer, is part of an European Union advisory mission helping clean up policing and courts in Ukraine.

I asked around Ottawa: Is Freeland uniquely hawkish in this government? She doesn’t really sound like Stephane Dion, the foreign minister, on Russia and Ukraine. “I think that might be a fair characterization,” my senior government source said. “With Dion, it’s a bit of a head-shaker to him why this is as big an issue as it is.”

This is not, my source hastened to add, “a fight. There are legitimate differences of opinion on how you operationalize a policy” that Freeland and Dion “both agree with.”

Carrots and sticks. Sajjan will send the sticks. Freeland has the carrots portfolio: while she said Trudeau hasn’t decided whether she’ll accompany him to Ukraine, she has been driving her department hard to complete a free-trade deal with Ukraine, and his visit to the country would seem like the natural moment to announce it’s complete.

Free trade with Ukraine was a priority of Freeland’s predecessor, the Conservative Ed Fast. Some things don’t change.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer. His column appears Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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