Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly’s office staff did not read an e-mail that said her department was sending a representative to a Russian embassy party – missing a chance to avert an incident that has embarrassed Canada at home and abroad, two senior government sources say.
Global Affairs Canada sent the e-mail to Ms. Joly’s chief of staff, Sandra Aubé, and four other staff members before last Friday’s Russia Day embassy party informing them that deputy chief of protocol Yasemin Heinbecker would join the festivities, the sources said.
None of Ms. Joly’s senior staff read the department e-mail, because they were busy assisting Ms. Joly, who was attending the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, the sources said. The Globe is not identifying the officials as they were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.
The e-mail to Ms. Joly’s senior staff was not marked urgent, and the two sources cited this as one of the reasons they failed to read it. If they had seen it, the sources said, they could have prevented Ms. Heinbecker from going to the event.
The e-mail went through the department’s liaison office and was approved by several high-level Global Affairs officials, including deputy minister Marta Morgan, the sources said. Ms. Morgan did not respond to a request for comment.
Ms. Joly learned about Ms. Heinbecker’s visit to the Russian embassy after The Globe and Mail reported it on Sunday. In its first statement on the matter to The Globe last Friday, Global Affairs defended sending Ms. Heinbecker to the Russia Day event hosted by Ambassador Oleg Stepanov.
The reception took place at the embassy on Charlotte Street – recently rebranded Free Ukraine Street by the City of Ottawa – as protesters outside the gates decried Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Russia Day, which commemorates the adoption of legislation that began Russia’s constitutional reform at the end of the Soviet era, falls on June 12. Moscow’s diplomatic mission in Ottawa held its celebration two days early, with a lavish spread of food and drinks, and a speech from Mr. Stepanov that recalled his country’s long-standing relationship with Canada.
Ms. Heinbecker attended even though the Canadian government had repeatedly talked of the need to politically and diplomatically isolate Russia over Moscow’s military assault on Ukraine and was at the forefront of countries imposing sanctions on Russia. Canada has also sent hundreds of millions of dollars worth of weapons intended to help Kyiv defeat the Russian onslaught.
The two sources said Ms. Joly immediately ordered Global Affairs to issue an apology on Sunday, and said she was not compelled to do so by the Prime Minister’s Office. Later Sunday evening, Ms. Joly said on Twitter that the department should not have sent someone to the event and that “no Canadian representative will attend this kind of event again.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau told the House of Commons Canadian attendance at the Russian celebration was “absolutely unacceptable.”
The two sources said Ms. Joly was furious with her staff for not reading the e-mail, but that no one will be fired or disciplined. Ms. Joly also had stern words for Ms. Morgan, who had judged it acceptable to dispatch a Canadian representative to the Russian embassy, a country accused of war crimes in Ukraine.
The sources said that during that conversation, Ms. Morgan justified the department’s decision by citing security concerns about Canadian diplomats in Russia.
In February, Russia threatened Canada’s ambassador to Moscow with retaliation if the Canadian government did not ensure the safety of its diplomats in Ottawa. The Russians lodged an official complaint over what they said were hostile protests outside their embassy.
Ms. Morgan argued that sending a protocol official to the embassy party would help assuage the Russians, the sources said.
The sources said Ms. Joly told her deputy the incident hurt the department’s reputation with the PMO at a time when she has been pushing to hire more diplomats and beef up resources. Ms. Joly said it also undermined the department’s task force on Ukraine, which draws up and imposes sanctions on Russia, the sources said.
Ms. Joly told reporters on Tuesday she didn’t know in advance that Ms. Heinbecker was attending the party and that she did not seek an explanation from her office about why it was approved, because “I would never have approved it, so there’s no explanation.”
On Monday, the minister told reporters she had a “tough conversation” with her staff and Ms. Morgan.
The Globe reported on Tuesday that Mr. Trudeau’s national security and intelligence adviser, Jody Thomas, foreign and defence policy adviser Dan Costello and senior PMO adviser Patrick Travers were all drawn into the matter on Sunday after condemnation from the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and opposition parties.
The Russian embassy in Ottawa has said it was pleased to have Canada attend.
It said the Russia Day reception attracted ambassadors and other diplomats from around the world, including the Commonwealth of Independent States, Europe, Africa, South and East Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, as well as Russian compatriots and what it called representatives of civil society in Canada.
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