Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly says she and her department were unaware of intelligence reports delivered weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in which diplomats in Kyiv were told Ukrainians who worked for the Canadian embassy there were likely on lists of people Moscow intended to detain or kill.
The Globe and Mail reported earlier this week that, after receiving the intelligence, the Canadian diplomats were given clear instructions from Ottawa on how to proceed: Don’t share any of the information with the Ukrainian staff members, despite the apparently dire situation, and don’t help them flee.
“Morally, we have an obligation toward our locally engaged staff,” Ms. Joly said on Wednesday at a news conference in Montreal, after being asked about The Globe’s report. She added that Global Affairs Canada is in the midst of an internal process that is examining this and other issues.
“Never did I or the department have any information targeting locally engaged staff,” she said.
“We never got that information. [Not] me, nor my team, nor the department.”
After receiving the intelligence in January, according to three diplomatic sources, embassy officials raised concerns about the Russian threat with their superiors in Ottawa, only to be told by senior civil servants at Global Affairs that Canada had no responsibility – known in policy terms as a “duty of care” – to Ukrainian employees in this situation, and that the government did not want to set a precedent of protecting local embassy staff. The Globe is not naming the sources because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
In the weeks after receiving the intelligence, Canadian staff members at the embassy evacuated first to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, on Feb. 12, and then to Poland on Feb. 24, hours after the start of the Russian invasion. The Ukrainian staff members were left behind in Kyiv, fearful for their lives and angry at how they had been treated, the sources said. Canada continued to pay the staff members, and none of them are known to have died in the war.
At the news conference, Ms. Joly said Global Affairs is examining whether Canada has the same duty of care to locally hired staff at foreign embassies and consulates as it owes to members of the Canadian foreign service.
“I know there have been conversations within the department whether that duty of care applies to locally engaged staff,” she said.
In a statement, Ms. Joly’s spokesperson Adrien Blanchard said the minister would have acted had she known of the content of the intelligence. “Should the Minister have had information of locally engaged staff facing direct threat, she would have taken the necessary actions to keep them safe,” he said.
It is plausible that Ms. Joly was unaware of Global Affairs’ decision to abandon its Ukrainian staff, according to one of the diplomatic sources.
But the minister should take an interest in situations in which lives are at risk, and should have staff members involve her in those issues, the diplomat said.
The intelligence came from the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, which includes Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Britain. Wesley Wark, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, said the information should have been on the minister’s desk.
“If the minister claims that she was unaware of some Five Eyes warnings, that in itself is a terrible bureaucratic failure by her department that must be corrected,” he said.
The alarming intelligence that Russia had compiled lists of Ukrainians to capture or kill is entirely in keeping with the modus operandi of Russian security services, he said.
“[It] should have been more than enough to compel a quick decision to offer safety to our Ukrainian staff,” he added.
“But instead we abandoned them, to our shame.”
Ms. Joly was in Kyiv in January, and she met with Canadian embassy staff. That same month, she also met with NATO, European Union and Ukrainian leaders in Europe.
In late February, she attended the Munich Security Conference with her NATO and Five Eyes counterparts. During the conference, on Feb. 18, the U.S. news media published accounts of the intelligence detailing the Russian lists. Ms. Joly returned to Canada on Feb. 20.
On March 2, she travelled to Poland and met with staff from the Ukrainian embassy again.
In a tweet on Tuesday, Roman Waschuk, Canada’s ambassador to Ukraine from 2014 to 2019, called Global Affairs’ treatment of the Ukrainian staff members “conduct unbecoming.”
The Ukrainian staff members – some of whom have returned to their posts in Kyiv – said that they could not respond to requests for comment because of an internal hunt to find The Globe’s unnamed sources. Several said they were afraid speaking out would cost them their jobs.
Michael Chong, the Conservative foreign affairs critic, said in a statement on Wednesday that Canada’s treatment of its Ukrainian staff highlights a disturbing trend. “The minister has indicated she was unaware locally engaged staff in Ukraine face direct threats from Russia. Two months ago, she was unaware that a senior Canadian government official attended a party at the Russian embassy. It’s a troubling pattern of a lack of awareness about what is going on in her own department,” he said.
NDP foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson said the situation suggests that, when faced with difficult circumstances, the Liberal government shrinks from moral responsibilities.
“They’ve done this to Ukrainians, and when Kabul fell, they left Afghans who worked as interpreters for the Canadian government to face the Taliban,” she said in a statement.
Canada is not alone in its treatment of local embassy staff in Ukraine. Britain, the U.S. and Australia, who are Five Eyes members, also appear to have left local staff in danger. New Zealand, another Five Eyes member, does not have an embassy in Ukraine.
Diplomats at Britain’s embassy in Kyiv were deeply unhappy with the way their Ukrainian colleagues were treated, according to British media reports, and made their feelings clear to officials in London. British staff told The Independent in March that they feared some of their Ukrainian colleagues may be Russian targets.
Ukrainians who worked at the British embassy were initially told that they would not qualify for British visas unless they had close relations in the U.K. Britain changed its policy on March 30, and offered the staff and their families what it called “a route to safety in the U.K.”
U.S. diplomats warned some of their Ukrainian staff members of the danger they faced, The Globe’s sources said.
But some Ukrainian staff at the U.S. embassy accused State Department officials of backtracking on promises of support as they scrambled to escape the Russian invasion.
“Our families are separated, many shelter in basements to stay alive, some fighting in the battlefields, others displaced, children are showing signs of stress from the trauma … and none of us able to sleep through the night,” read a letter from Ukrainian staff members who had been working with the U.S. embassy, according to a report by Foreign Policy.
Nadia Teriokhina, a Ukrainian member of Australia’s embassy staff, was pictured with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese near her destroyed house on July 4 while reuniting with her boss, Australian Ambassador Bruce Edwards, the Sydney Herald reported.
“We didn’t know what to do, how or where to run,” Ms. Teriokhina told the paper.
With reports from Ian Bailey in Ottawa.
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