The Conservative government says it shut out opposition parties from a historic delegation to Ukraine because one leader made light of the crisis and the other “wouldn’t pick a side” at the outset of the political uprising.
The delegation, led by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and comprised of three Conservative caucus members and four Ukrainian-Canadian community leaders, will rendezvous in Kiev to start their series of meetings Friday morning with the new government, civil society representatives and religious leaders.
Soon after the full delegation list was officially released Wednesday, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said the roster is evidence the Conservatives are playing domestic politics with foreign affairs.
“Unfortunately this government has a pattern of using foreign affairs for domestic political advancement, and I’m disappointed to see them continue to do that with this,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters Wednesday, noting his party had asked to participate in the visit.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s spokesman, Jason MacDonald, responded with a statement saying the two parties hadn’t earned a spot on the delegation.
“This is not a laughing matter. Mr. Trudeau’s comments about Russia and Ukraine were neither helpful nor did they contribute positively to Canada’s efforts to assist the Ukrainian people, and as a result there’s no role for the Liberals in this government mission,” Mr. MacDonald said in an email. “The NDP wouldn’t pick a side, unlike our government, which has been steadfast in its support for the Ukrainian people. Until they decide on what they stand for they, like the Liberals, shouldn’t be a part of the government delegation.”
Mr. MacDonald was referring to Mr. Trudeau’s joke on Radio-Canada’s Tout le Monde en Parle – for which the Quebec MP later apologized – that Russia might vent its Olympic hockey frustration at Ukraine by involving itself in a concerning way. Mr. MacDonald also appeared to allude to a December, 2013, remark by NDP Foreign Affairs Critic Paul Dewar that Mr. Baird had inappropriately taken sides by meeting with protesters in Kiev.
Earlier Wednesday, when asked whether he was concerned the delegation would be used for domestic political gain, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair told reporters that at this point, he simply wishes the delegation success and hopes the visit proves fruitful. He noted his party hadn’t been asked to participate.
Among those heading to Kiev with Mr. Baird is Ted Opitz, a Conservative MP who represents a sizable Ukrainian-Canadian population and who is chair of the Canada-Ukraine Parliamentary Friendship Group. He also narrowly won his seat over former Liberal MP, Borys Wrzesnewskyj. The 2011 results were so tight – within 26 votes – that the Supreme Court of Canada was enlisted to settle the matter.
This country is home to more than 1.2 million Canadians who claim Ukrainian heritage, the largest number outside the boundaries of the former Soviet Union. The community has long had a voice in Ottawa, but while described as cohesive, it doesn’t attach itself to any one political party.
The community, built over four waves of immigration dating back at least to 1891, began on the prairies, but more recently has extended into Ontario and Quebec.
Some in the west with farming and labour roots traditionally vote NDP. Some embraced the Conservative Party, whose prairie-born leader John Diefenbaker appointed the first Ukrainian-Canadian cabinet minister. There are those who have supported the Liberal Party, with some fondly recalling that Pierre Elliott Trudeau delivered a speech to the Ukrainian Canadian Congress just one day after announcing his multiculturalism policy in 1971.
“All of us represent Ukrainians in various ridings across the country,” Mr. Trudeau said Wednesday.
Mr. Baird, who will fly to Ukraine from Australia, will begin the visit by paying his respects to those killed during the violence at the Maiden Memorial in Independence Square, the epicentre of the demonstration that ultimately toppled Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Moscow government.
Ukraine’s main opposition party leader, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, was on Wednesday named the country’s new Prime Minister, drawing lukewarm reaction from the crowd gathered at Independence Square for the announcement. Formal elections, meantime, aren’t scheduled until May.
The Prime Minister’s Office has said the delegation will meet with the “anticipated Ukrainian transitional government and civil society,” but religious leaders and opposition representatives will be on the list as well.
“We’ll continue to talk with our allies and like-minded countries about additional concrete measures, but we’re not in a position to announce anything yet,” Rick Roth, a spokesman for Mr. Baird, said in an email. “Any outside involvement in Ukraine’s democratic aspirations would be a dangerous development.”
The crisis in Ukraine erupted in the fall, after Mr. Yanukovych shunned deeper association with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia. The tumult has since set up a diplomatic tug-of-war between the West, which has expressed support for the demonstrators, and Moscow, which has questioned the legitimacy of the interim government, saying it will find it difficult to work with “Kalashnikov-toting people in black masks.”
On Wednesday, Russian troops assumed control of the main access to Sevastopol, the Ukrainian port city that is home to a major Russian naval base, following orders from Russian President Vladimir Putin that put his country’s military on high alert.
The Canadian delegation will leave for Canada on Saturday morning. Agenda details are still being confirmed.
With reports from Paul Waldie and Mark MacKinnon in Ukraine