Before pulling Canadian diplomats out of Ukraine weeks ahead of the Russian invasion, Global Affairs Canada received intelligence confirming that Russia intended to wage war against its neighbour, and that Ukrainians who worked for the Canadian embassy were likely on lists of people Moscow intended to hunt down.
Despite the apparently dire situation, Ottawa told Canadian embassy leaders in Kyiv to withhold this information from those Ukrainian staff members and leave them behind.
These events were described to The Globe and Mail by three Canadian diplomats with direct knowledge of what happened, who say they are troubled by the way Canada left its Ukrainian employees at risk. The Globe is not naming the diplomats because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
The revelations highlight the inconsistency of Canada’s treatment of local workers at its embassies, who have at times been offered federal assistance in crises, and at other times left to find their own escape routes.
In January, the sources said, diplomats working at the embassy in Kyiv received a secret briefing from the intelligence alliance known as the Five Eyes (the other members are the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand) in which they were told Russia was not bluffing about its intention to invade Ukraine.
But there was something else: Russia had prepared lists of Ukrainians whom the alliance believed Moscow intended to pursue, detain or perhaps even kill. Although it was unclear exactly whose names appeared on the lists, the diplomats were told Ukrainians who worked for Western embassies in Kyiv were likely to be included.
At the time, most international observers expected that Russia would quickly overrun Kyiv and take control of the Ukrainian government within days of the start of an invasion, putting anyone on the Russian lists in immediate danger.
Before Canadian staff members were withdrawn from the embassy ahead of the Feb. 24 invasion, they received instructions from Ottawa about what to do with the warning that their Ukrainian colleagues could face arrest or execution.
The instructions were clear: Don’t tell them.
The 50 or so Ukrainian employees, many of whom had worked with Canadians in the embassy for years, were left to fend for themselves, unaware of the risk.
The sources told The Globe that, after the briefing, several embassy officials raised concerns about the Ukrainian staff members to their senior managers in Ottawa.
They were told by two senior Global Affairs civil servants that Canada had no responsibility – known in policy terms as a “duty of care” – to local employees in this situation, and that Ottawa did not want to set a precedent of protecting local embassy staff.
No evacuation plans were made for the Ukrainian staff members who were likely to be on the lists. Instead, they were told to shelter in their homes if Russia attacked Kyiv.
Canadian diplomats at the embassy left for the relative safety of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on Feb. 12, and then fled to Poland on Feb. 24, hours after the Russian invasion began. Ukrainian staff members asked if they could work remotely from Lviv or Poland as Canadian staff were planning to evacuate, one source said, but Global Affairs officials denied their request.
The Ukrainian embassy staff members were terrified and angry after the Canadians left, the three sources said. They had learned about the threat to their lives because the United States’ embassy staff had told some of their local employees about the Russian target lists and helped some of them to flee Ukraine.
None of the Ukrainians who worked for the Canadian embassy in Kyiv have been killed in the war so far, the sources said, but many remain angry.
Canada has since returned its ambassador, Larisa Galadza, to Kyiv, along with several other top diplomats on a rotating basis, though the embassy has not yet reopened. Most Canadian embassy staff members remain in Poland, which is where consular services previously offered by the Kyiv embassy are still being provided.
Ukrainian staff members are still being paid, according to the sources, although many are not working, and most of the women have left Ukraine.
The decision to leave without informing local staff members or providing for their safety was based on a Canadian policy articulated in a Harper government memorandum in 2014. According to one of the diplomats who spoke to The Globe, the document said there should be no duty of care for locally engaged staff when an embassy is abandoned. Another of the diplomatic sources said the memo was drawn up as justification for Canada’s 2012 decision to close its embassy in Iran without evacuating local staff there.
When asked about this policy and the events at the embassy in Ukraine, Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Sabrina Williams said in an e-mail that the department’s staff “take all appropriate measures to ensure the safety and security of our personnel and operations abroad.” Ms. Williams also said Global Affairs does not “discuss operational details of missions abroad out of security considerations.”
Ms. Galadza did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly at the time of publication.
The duty of care diplomatic personnel have toward local staff members has been interpreted in different ways by Canada over time. Halvard Leira, a fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, wrote in a recent article in The Hague Journal of Diplomacy that, during the fall of Saigon in 1975, while the United States evacuated thousands of Vietnamese personnel and their families, including embassy staff, “the Canadian Embassy in Saigon evacuated with souvenirs and cars, but without the local staff.”
By contrast, when the Canadian embassy in Beirut was evacuated in 1985, local staff members were given the option of immigrating to Canada.
The United States, Mr. Leira noted, has often created special visa programs for local embassy staff in potential danger.
When Canada evacuated its embassy in Kabul as the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in August, 2021, the federal government offered locally engaged staff members resettlement through a special immigration program for Afghan nationals who had assisted the Canadian mission there.
In Ukraine, locally employed male embassy staff members became stuck in the country once the war began, because Ukrainian men of fighting age were forbidden from leaving. Several Ukrainian staff members have high public profiles, one source said, which puts them at continued risk of persecution if they are captured by invading Russian forces.
The Ukrainian staff members told the diplomatic sources that they found it particularly galling to watch the efforts of Canadian embassy staff to evacuate their pets while local employees were left behind.
Although the Ukrainian employees were not officially assisted by the Canadian government, their Canadian colleagues have helped informally. An online fundraising initiative by Canadian embassy staff member Alexandra Formanek, circulated mostly among Canadians who had worked in Ukraine, raised almost $90,000 for local staff. The fund helped many evacuate from the country on their own.
One of the listed donors is Oksana Smerechuk, wife of a former ambassador to Ukraine, Roman Waschuk.
“Some of these employees have been working for Canada since the early 1990s,” she wrote on the fundraising website, “often going above and beyond to help Canadians. Now is the time to step up and help them.”
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