There is a phrase the Prime Minister likes to use when he wants to emphasize how generous his government is, and how much you should be grateful for it. And because this government exists, essentially, as a thought in the Prime Minister’s head, it pops up in official statements across the government.
The government, that is, “has your back.” It “has Canadians’ backs,” of course, but also “has the backs of” working people, retirees, and so on. Alternatively – another pet phrase – the government will say it is “there for” whomever. The beauty of these breezy declarations is that they convey the appropriate solidarity without committing the government to doing anything in particular.
This applies with even more force in international affairs. So when ministers say, with the same slangy sincerity, that the government “has Ukraine’s back,” or that it is “there for Ukraine,” it should not be taken to mean that it intends to do anything to support it, or nothing hard, as Ukrainians have been discovering.
Thus the rolling farce of Canadian military aid for Ukraine, delivered in instalments: too late, too old, and too little to do much good, but just enough to keep the government from being too visibly offside with the other Western powers.
Thus, too, the decision to poke holes in our own sanctions against Russia, in the matter of the Siemens gas turbine. This was, to be sure, at the Germans’ request, so perhaps the government feels it had no choice – on the principle, I guess, that you should never abandon an ally who is in the process of abandoning another ally.
And thus the latest infamy, the desertion of our embassy in Kyiv, or more particularly the desertion of its Ukrainian staff. Canada has been acquiring a solid reputation for closing its embassies at the first sign of trouble – long before other countries have – which perhaps shows a prudent concern for the lives of Canadian officials.
No similar concern appears to extend to the lives of the local nationals in their employ. In the Ukraine example, as The Globe and Mail reported on Tuesday, Global Affairs was in possession of intelligence that Russia had prepared lists of Ukrainians who worked for Western embassies. In the event of an invasion, they were to be caught, detained, and possibly killed.
Yet not only did embassy officials do nothing, as they prepared to flee in advance of the invasion, to assure the safety of their Ukrainian employees, they did not even tell them their lives were in danger – on the direct instruction, according to three diplomats, of Global Affairs. So even as the Ukrainians were helping Canadian officials pack up and leave, they were in far greater danger themselves, not least because the Canadians were keeping this information from them.
When, further, embassy officials protested to Global Affairs at this callous betrayal of their colleagues, they were told it was government policy not to look after local employees during an embassy shutdown. The government, they were told, “did not want to set a precedent” that they would in future.
Oh gosh, no: God forbid people start to expect the Government of Canada to treat them with common decency. Better to stick with the precedent set last year in Afghanistan, where Canada abandoned thousands of interpreters, guides and others who had provided help to the Canadian Forces, after promising to get them out (though it did, apparently, help embassy staff to emigrate in that example).
Clearly, there is something broken at Global Affairs. This is the department, after all, that sent a high-ranking official to a party at the Russian embassy in Ottawa, even as Vladimir Putin’s army was laying waste to Ukraine. Will anything be done about this latest moral disgrace? Will anyone be held to account? Will we even find out how it happened?
On past evidence, no. Perhaps a committee will attempt to look into it. But it will discover, as previous committees have, that it lacks the power. Documents will be withheld, witnesses will fail to appear on one spurious ground or another: cabinet confidence, national security, take your pick. Eventually it will peter out. And that will be that.
It will be important to partisans to note here that the “policy” of doing nothing to provide for local staff in such situations dates from the previous government. That may deprive the Conservatives of standing to make political hay out of this. But it does nothing to absolve the current government of responsibility for its own actions.
Neither does it absolve the country. A longstanding bipartisan consensus in favour of shirking our international responsibilities – in our NATO commitments, in peacekeeping, in foreign aid, and beyond – ought to be a source of deep national shame. Liberals or Conservatives, we’re the ones who keep electing them.
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