In a way, you can see how a Canadian official could have ended up at a Russia Day celebration at the Russian embassy in Ottawa, even after the Canadian government adopted a motion declaring Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as “genocide.”
Think of it like how after driving the same route to work for years and years the path becomes so embedded in your brain that your drive becomes a reflexive, unthinking exercise. Eventually you arrive at work and don’t even remember how you got there.
This case could have been a symptom of the same autopilot process, where staffers are so used to not thinking – because the minister reflexively follows protocol and procedure, forfeiting independent thought at the altar of centralized PMO control – that someone decides it’s okay to clink glasses with representatives of a country that has slaughtered innocent people by the tens of thousands and are shamelessly lying about committing war crimes. (Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly wouldn’t answer questions Monday about whether she knew of or approved attendance at the event; her office later said the minister did not know.)
This is the kind of thing that Canada’s Department of Global Affairs has always done, so why should things be any different, especially without explicit instruction?
The autopilot process didn’t stop when The Globe first reported that Yasemin Heinbecker, the deputy chief of protocol at Global Affairs, attended the Friday night celebration. As is this government’s practice, the department first defended the decision, saying in a statement: “This is not a business-as-usual situation, but we still maintain a diplomatic relation with Russia on matters of Canadian interests and Global Affairs Canada sent a protocol officer to the reception.”
To a lobotomized brain that has yielded to this government’s deification of all things diplomacy and convention and honest-brokerism, this is perfectly reasonable. Canada is supposed to maintain diplomatic channels with foes and allies alike – so sometimes that means noshing on some fine caviar while feting a country the government recently declared genocidal, right? Refusing an invitation would be rude, and moreover would require the kind of independent, critical thinking discouraged by the PMO.
So in Global Affairs, as in life, one drives to work on autopilot, listening to self-help audiobooks about how to make meaningful friendships, until a cop steps in front of your car one day and bangs on your hood just as you’re about to drive into a sinkhole. Wake up, buddy! Didn’t you notice the signs?
Perhaps it’s asking too much for a minister or a department to exercise judgment when the expectation is that they leave their brains at the door when they serve at the pleasure of this Prime Minister. A Minister of Transport who claims there is science behind maintaining a two-shot vaccine mandate for travellers in June 2022 is one whose brain is melting on the sidewalk as his shell recites politically expedient talking points. A former finance minister who defended his government’s excessive spending while in Ottawa, only to repudiate it not-so-tactfully after he left, seems to be trying to rebuild an image as a sentient, independent being, in contrast to the obedient effigy he embodied while in office. A Public Safety Minister who says the government’s new firearms legislation “doesn’t target law-abiding gun owners,” when the legislation is literally all about restricting legal gun ownership, is one who either doesn’t hear himself speak or wills himself not to, since acknowledging the things that a partisan team player is forced to say is just too painful.
According to follow-up reporting by The Globe, the Prime Minister’s Office had to bang on the hood of Ms. Joly’s car to get her department to issue an apology for sending Ms. Heinbecker to the Russia Day party. Global Affairs obliged, adding that, “No Canadian representative will attend this kind of event in the future.” The apology did not explain, of course, who ultimately gave the sign-off, or why Global Affairs would undermine its own position on Russia so spectacularly as to announce new sanctions Wednesday, saying that, “Canada will not back down in holding those responsible for the devastation in Ukraine to account,” before having a rep celebrate Russia’s history with the people spreading disinformation about that same devastation two days later.
The question this fiasco raises is what on Earth were the minister and those in her department thinking? But the answer should be self-evident to those who have studied this government for the past seven years: They weren’t thinking, which is usually the goal for those who thrive and survive in cabinet – until someone drives into a sinkhole.
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