Skip to main content

Michael Bociurkiw is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a global affairs analyst.

On Aug. 24, Ukraine will be observing the six-month mark since Russia invaded, as well as the 31st year of independence.

Although Ukrainians are expected to mark the anniversary of gaining independence from the Soviet Union in a celebratory fashion, the continuing war and threat of attacks will likely temper the day over concerns that Russia will launch long-range missiles onto Ukrainian towns and cities.

Sadly, Canada – the first Western country to recognize Ukraine as an independent country in 1991 – will be largely absent during the celebrations in Ukraine this year.

But this appears to be par for the course for Canada.

From the very start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has bungled its response to the crisis on almost every step of the way: from the inexplicable tardiness to send lethal weaponry to circumventing its own sanctions on Russia by approving the release of repaired turbines for that country’s Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline.

Ottawa’s lack of leadership doesn’t end there. Earlier this month, The Globe and Mail revealed that bureaucrats at Global Affairs Canada directed diplomats in Kyiv to withhold intelligence from Ukrainian staff that could be targeted by Russians should an invasion take place. As Canadian diplomats evacuated themselves and their pets, Global Affairs refused a request from Ukrainian staffers to relocate to safer ground in Lviv or Poland.

This lack of resolve by the Trudeau government has tarnished Canada’s reputation among Ukrainians here and also with members of the Ukrainian community in Canada.

Attempts by Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly to smooth over the embassy evacuation debacle did little to help. Using carefully parsed language, her insistence that Ottawa exercised its duty of care responsibilities in Kyiv scored about as high on the smell test as Trudeau explaining away his relationship with the Kielburger brothers in the WE Charity scandal.

That said, it is difficult to understand how Ms. Joly could have been totally unaware of her department’s decision on the treatment of local staff in Kyiv – men and women who have served with the highest standards of professionalism over many years. Other diplomatic missions, such as the European Union, evacuated local staff.

Aug. 15 marks one year after the fall of Kabul. There, too, Global Affairs failed Afghan staff at the Canadian embassy, who were left behind or forced into hiding. As far back as 2012 they had asked for a special immigration program “in recognition of the dangers they face in Kabul as a result of their employment with the government of Canada in Afghanistan.”

Ms. Joly claims that the safety and security of local staff “is of utmost importance.” But the cowardice and indifference toward them displayed by Global Affairs in both Kabul and Kyiv could make it very difficult for Ottawa to attract highly qualified local staff in the future.

Ahead of Aug. 24th, there is a tangible way in which Mr. Trudeau can show, in his words, that Canada “stands shoulder to shoulder” with Ukraine.

I visited the embassy in Kyiv last week and, despite Mr. Trudeau having declared it reopened as far back as May, it remains firmly shut. A sign directs visitors to call Ottawa for assistance. Other embassies here have been fully operational for quite some time. The U.S. ambassador Bridget Brink is out meeting members of the government and civil society so there’s no obvious reason for Canada’s post to remain closed.

Ms. Joly has said that “you can’t negotiate when you have a gun to your head.” While that may be true, Ottawa’s over-reliance on sanctions to deter Russia, followed by its decision to tinker with its own sanctions, is like sending an ally into a war zone armed with a knife.

As Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine nears the half-year mark, it is high time for the Trudeau government to do away with any ambiguity in its relationship with Kyiv. A first decisive move would be the full reopening of the embassy – including for walk-in traffic for both Ukrainians and for the growing number of Canadians returning to the country to resume business and humanitarian work. This would show the world that in their time of need, Canada truly stands with Ukraine.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.