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Invoking history, Baird calls on Canada to be a ‘player’ in Ukraine crisis

Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird, centre, walks in Kiev's Independence Square, during a visit to Ukraine on Feb. 28, 2014.

Emilio Morenatti/AP

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is invoking the legacy of Canada's 13th prime minister to back up his government's approach to the crisis in Ukraine.

Mr. Baird told a group of foreign-service officers on Thursday that former prime minister John Diefenbaker was "on the right side" of history when he fought back against Soviet communism. He said Mr. Diefenbaker, a Progressive Conservative who was Canada's prime minister from 1957 to 1963, stood for the kind of principled values that today's Conservative government is working to promote abroad.

Speaking at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa, Mr. Baird quoted directly from a 1960 speech Mr. Diefenbaker gave at the United Nations, saying the comments "resonate strongly" with recent events.

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Historians say Mr. Diefenbaker was the first to respond to a provocative speech by former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. In his speech to the UN, the former prime minister spoke about the "freedom-loving" people of Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Ukraine and called on Mr. Khrushchev to allow free elections in those states. Historians say Mr. Diefenbaker ignored bureaucrats' advice to take a more cautious and diplomatic tone.

Mr. Baird's comments come one day after Prime Minister Stephen Harper accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of continuing to think in terms of the Cold War in his dealings with Ukraine – and denied that Canada has done the same. The Conservative government has thrown its support behind Ukraine's interim government and sought to isolate Russia from the West over its actions in Crimea.

The minister later told reporters that he plans to travel to Moldova next week to show support to the former Soviet state, which is wedged between Ukraine and Romania. Moldova has a separatist movement of its own to contend with in Trans-Dniester and has expressed fears that Russia could annex the region as it did in Crimea.

Mr. Baird said Canada should be actively fighting for what's right and avoid shying away from taking a strong position on what he called universal principles. Both Mr. Baird and Mr. Harper have faced criticism from those who say Canada has abandoned an "honest broker" approach to diplomacy in favour of picking sides.

"Sometimes you have to be a referee and a rule-setter, but if you want to get a certain result, you have to be a player," Mr. Baird said. "When it comes to promoting Canadian values and interests, we can't afford not to be a player."

The Foreign Affairs Minister cited Mr. Harper's recent visit to Ukraine as evidence of the government's solidarity with the former Soviet country. He added that Canada had stood up for Israel even when doing so was unpopular and would continue to judge Iran by its deeds rather than its words.

Mr. Baird's speech coincided with the release of a final volume of documents detailing Mr. Diefenbaker's approach on foreign policy. He acknowledged that Mr. Diefenbaker didn't get all of his policies right, citing "too frosty" relations with the United States, but said he believes that, over all, history would judge the former prime minister well.

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