Amid ongoing protests in Ukraine, Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged Canada will “take all appropriate actions necessary” as the country heads towards what he called its “anti-democratic Soviet past.”
The demonstrations prompted the opening query during Question Period on Monday, the first sitting day of the year for Canadian MPs. Mr. Harper was among the many MPs of all political stripes to speak on the subject, though he offered no specifics on what, if anything, Canada may do to intervene.
“This government has been very outspoken with many around the international community in condemning some of the actions of the Ukrainian government. We are very concerned that these actions speak of not moving toward a free and democratic Euro-Atlantic future but very much toward an anti-democratic Soviet past,” Mr. Harper said, when asked about the situation. “We will continue to vocalize our concerns to work with the Ukrainian-Canadian community and our allies to take all appropriate actions necessary to encourage the government of Ukraine to move in a positive direction.”
Mr. Harper’s remarks, and the ensuing House of Commons emergency debate Monday evening, come in the midst of protests sparked by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to shun a deeper association with the European Union in favour of aligning more closely with Russia. The protests escalated after the government passed new, draconian laws limiting the right to protest, and after deadly police clashes in the country’s capital, Kiev.
As the emergency debate was unfolding, Mr. Yanukovych agreed to axe the anti-protest laws. In a statement on the presidential website, Justice Minister Elena Lukash said that in a meeting with top opposition figures and the president Monday night, "a political decision was made to abolish the laws adopted on January 16 that caused multiple discussions."
During the debate in Ottawa, Conservative MP Ted Opitz reiterated the government’s messaging of late: that Canada is collaborating with its allies and that targeted sanctions are “definitely an option” – so long, he added, as they are done with precision. “We want to make sure that any action that we take doesn’t result in any unintended consequences that will hurt the people of Ukraine,” echoed fellow Conservative MP James Bezan, adding that Ukraine “stands at a crossroads.”
Several MPs, including Liberal foreign-affairs critic Marc Garneau, noted Ukraine’s deep links to this country, which in 1991 became the first western nation to recognize Ukraine’s independence and which is today home to an estimated 1.2 million Ukrainian-Canadians.
NDP foreign-affairs critic Paul Dewar remarked on the Ukrainian-Canadian community’s desire for government action, citing the Ukrainian Canadian Congress’s calls for Canada to act as a mediator to bring peaceful resolution, to impose sanctions and travel restrictions against those responsible for human rights abuses, and to roll out expedited visas for vulnerable people seeking to flee.
“It’s important to put forward very concrete measures that we can ask the government to adopt, and that’s why the targeted sanctions are important,” Mr. Dewar said. “What we’re saying is that if you’re going to have good relations with Canada, there are certain standards you have to abide by … We need to speak up, speak out, but we have to act.”
In her first address to Parliament since being elected in a recent Toronto by-election, Liberal MP and Ukrainian-Canadian Chrystia Freeland urged Canada to not only “talk the talk, but walk the walk” – to take action in a situation that, she said, represents a fight between democracy and dictatorship.
“This is an opportunity … for us to do what Lester B. Pearson taught us, which is to punch above our weight in international affairs, by taking the lead on Ukraine,” Ms. Freeland said.
Earlier in the day, during Question Period, Ms. Freeland’s party asked Mr. Harper to send observers to Ukraine; the Conservatives declined to say whether they would. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, meantime, called on Mr. Yanukovych’s government to enter “serious” talks with the opposition to end what he called a “dangerous confrontation.”
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair was largely supportive of the federal government’s response to date. “The government is signaling its strong desire for Canada to play a positive role, and we encourage them in that regard … It is a battle about human rights, it’s a battle about democracy, it’s a battle about the future of that important country,” he said, before brushing aside the Liberal suggestion. “This is going to take a lot more than observers.”
With a report from Associated Press