The office of Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly knew a senior department official would be attending a party at the Russian embassy in Ottawa last Friday and was pressed to apologize by the Prime Minister’s Office.
Two senior government sources said Ms. Joly’s office was informed before the party that Yasemin Heinbecker, Global Affairs’ deputy chief of protocol, would be attending the event to celebrate Russia Day. But a spokesperson for the minister said Ms. Joly herself did not know and only learned after The Globe’s story came out.
The federal government has been under fire over having a representative at the Russian embassy since Ottawa has repeatedly talked of the need to politically and diplomatically isolate Moscow after its military assault on Ukraine began in February.
The Globe is not identifying the two sources as they were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.
One of the sources said it was only after the intervention of top officials at the Privy Council and Prime Minister’s Office that Ms. Joly and Global Affairs were told to issue an apology and to not attend another Russian event as long as the war in Ukraine continues.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his top team of political and bureaucratic advisers were in Los Angeles for the Summit of the Americas and were caught off guard by Global Affairs’ decision to send an official the Russian embassy event, the source said.
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 Sunday after condemnation from the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and the main opposition parties.
Global Affairs in a statement on Friday had defended sending Ms. Heinbecker to attend the event hosted by Russian Ambassador Oleg Stepanov.
Hours later after The Globe first published the story on Sunday, Ms. Joly’s department issued an apology for sending a representative to the party in celebration of a country that has been accused of war crimes in Ukraine.
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.”
Ms. Joly’s office said the minister herself did not know about Canada’s participation in the Russian embassy party. “I can guarantee you she did not know, and did not sign off,” Maéva Proteau, director of communications for Ms. Joly, said Monday.
Retired Canadian diplomat Dennis Horak said during his time in government, Canadian missions abroad would be given a list of foreign national day events they should not be attending. He said this was normally developed in consultation with the foreign minister’s office.
He said, ultimately, Ms. Joly as minister is responsible for the actions of her ministry and what happened “shouldn’t be fobbed off on Global Affairs.”
During Question Period on Monday, Ms. Joly accepted responsibility for the mishap in response to a question from NDP foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson.
“I am as mad as she is, because this should never have happened, and of course, this will not happen again,” she said, referring to Ms. McPherson. “Of course, I am the minister and the buck stops here, but what I can tell members is .... we need to make sure to send a strong message to Vladimir Putin’s regime. We need to suffocate it diplomatically, economically and politically,” she said.
Ms. McPherson said Ms. Joly should have warned off her department’s officials from attending parties at the Russian embassy. “Instead of apologizing after the fact, why did the minister not tell her staff to not attend events at the Russian embassy?” the NDP MP asked.
Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said this incident reveals a gap between what the Liberal government says and does.
“Russia has attacked a European democracy and has killed thousands of Ukrainians in the last few months,” Mr. Chong said. “The minister clearly failed in her responsibility to ensure that departmental officials did not go to national day celebrations at embassies that are working in direction opposition to Canada’s interests.
“The government says it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Ukraine but fails to act like it.”
The Russian embassy in Ottawa said in a statement Monday that its Russia Day reception attracted ambassadors and diplomatic corps representatives 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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