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Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with the Ukrainian prime minister in Kyiv Saturday, to discuss ways Canada can assist the troubled European country. Harper says one key issue is to restart suspended free-trade talks.The Canadian Press

The Harper government has hired two agencies with relatively little experience in elections monitoring to organize hundreds of Canadian observers for next month's Ukrainian presidential vote.

The government has hired the Forum of Federations and CUSO International to replace its longtime Ukraine election partner, the non-governmental organization Canadem.

The announcement last week caught veteran election observers, as well as Canadem, off guard. The project will see 338 bilateral, short-term Canadian observers sent to the May 25 vote.

The decision comes two years after internal government assessments recommended Canadem as Ottawa's only option. The government only began consulting with the Forum and CUSO in recent weeks to begin the recruitment of observers.

Canadem has been Canada's main partner in Ukraine election monitoring since it began sending hundreds of observers to the country starting in 2004.

Canada's assignment of such large numbers of bilateral observers — the Liberals did it first in 2004, and the Conservatives have followed suit — has continued despite internal warnings.

One such warning came from Bob Johnston, a regional director general with the former Canadian International Development Agency, in a January 2012 memo.

Johnston recommended Canada channel its election observation efforts through the internationally recognized leader in the field, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE.

However, Johnston noted the government may want to send in short-term bilateral observers "to demonstrate Canada's commitment to Ukraine's democratic development" — a message that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet have repeatedly emphasized.

"If this option is selected, Canadem would again be the only possible partner," Johnston wrote.

Johnston's boss, then CIDA president, Margaret Biggs, agreed.

"Canadem, a Canadian NGO with a long track record of recruiting, training, and deploying election observers, is the proposed implementing organization," Biggs wrote in a July 2012 memo. CIDA has since been merged into Foreign Affairs.

The memos and hundreds of other related documents were obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

Canadem was informed last week it had lost the contract to the Forum of Federations.

The Forum, along with subcontractor CUSO International, will select the observers Canada will send to next month's Ukraine elections. The mission will be managed by a newly created organization called Canadian Election Observation Missions or CEOM.

The Foreign Affairs Department declined to answer specific questions about why the Forum and CUSO were selected over Canadem, or about CEOM.

Rupak Chattopadhyay, CEO of Forum of Federations, told The Canadian Press his organization has never organized a large-scale observer mission such as the current one. He said the government asked the Forum to bid on the election-monitoring mission earlier this month.

His organization sent two monitors to the recent election in Mali, and Chattopadhyay participated in election-observation missions in Bosnia in the 1990s.

Asked whether his organization had ever co-ordinated a large mission, Chattopadhyay replied: "Nothing on this scale. ... The election-observation missions we've done in the past are certainly not on this scale. But in terms of movements like this, we're used to it."

Chattopadhyay said his organization has experience in "moving large groups of people," citing the fact it holds a major conference on federalism every two to three years. "We bring heads of state, heads of constituent units and typically these are conferences that bring together anywhere between 600 and 1,500 people."

Chattopadhyay said the Forum subcontracted the vetting of candidates to CUSO International. CUSO executive director Derek Evans declined an interview.

CUSO spokeswoman Jennifer Lavoie said her organization learned April 17 it would be involved in the Ukrainian observer mission.

"We do the recruitment, screening and selection of volunteers, so not specifically for an election-observer mission but for volunteers that go into specific missions," Lavoie said.

Lavoie said CUSO has "a lot of experience in the recruitment interviewing and selection process" of volunteers for large international projects.

Yaroslav Baran, spokesman for CEOM, said its newly installed management team has experience organizing election-observer missions. Baran cited four members of its board, including himself, who have performed that function in the past.

"With these kinds of missions, with all due respect to all the organizations involved, be it the Forum of Federations, the Canadems or the CUSOs, it's not really the NGO that mounts the mission, it's the core team, the management team, that runs the mission," Baran said in an interview.

"If you look at the individuals that run the mission and the experience they represent, that's ultimately what matters."

Canadem director Paul Larose-Edwards said the CEOM website appears to be using much of the material from his organization.

"I visited it and noticed that the instructions are verbatim copies of Canadem's website and past emails to candidates. This will suggest to many that Canadem is still involved with the bilateral mission, but unfortunately we are not," Larose-Edwards said in a widely distributed email.

Larose-Edwards declined to comment on the suitability of the Forum and CUSO for the larger observer mission.

"Canadem has been doing international election observation for over a decade, and my experience goes back three decades, so I can speak to our suitability," he said. "This is their very first experience, so I have little to judge them on."

A draft Foreign Affairs assessment said Canada sent too many observers to Ukraine's 2012 parliamentary elections. It concluded that the "357 Canadian short-term observers were more than was needed, particularly when other domestic and other international observers were already providing good coverage of polling stations."

The assessment suggested the mission was a strain on the government.

"Neither CIDA nor the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade have the in-house resources, or the required expertise, to perform this function on short timelines."

Veteran Canadian election observers, who have served on numerous international missions, criticized the government for sending such large numbers of bilateral observers when no other country does so. They agreed to speak on the condition they not be identified because all are independent contractors who rely on international work for their livelihoods.

They say the government is sending large numbers of observers to win votes at home because there are an estimated 1.2 million people of Ukrainian descent in Canada.

"You've got the gold standard with the OSCE, and we're sending the maximum contribution we can send anyway. On top of that, for domestic political reasons we're sending another however-many-Canadians for no reason at all," said one observer.

In addition to the 338 observers in the short-term bilateral mission, Canada will also be contributing 135 observers to an OSCE-led mission, the largest number allowed under its regulations.

Canadem has secured the contract for selecting those observers.

Biggs and Johnston, the former CIDA officials, both extolled the virtues of the OSCE.

"It is considered a best practice for international election monitoring to be organized through multilateral observation missions," Biggs wrote in an April 2012 memo.

"Multilateral organizations, such as OSCE/ODIHR in the case of Ukraine, are viewed as the most impartial and trustworthy, and their findings are taken seriously by the host country and the international community."