Ottawa’s hostility to Ukrainian democracy is a largely ignored element in the tragedy unfolding in that country. While not excusing Russia’s criminal invasion, Canada’s multi-year campaign to subvert an elected government was an important factor in producing the conditions that led to where we are today.
As I previously detailed, the Canadian government encouraged the Maidan protests that toppled president Viktor Yanukovych, leading to an eight-year war that left 14,000 dead. During the November 21, 2013, to February 22, 2014, uprising, foreign minister John Baird attended an antigovernment rally in Kyiv, Ottawa adopted sanctions and activists were given safe haven in the Canadian embassy for a week. “It really was the most blatant coup in history”, explained George Friedman, CEO of the CIA-aligned Stratfor, in describing Yanukovych’s ouster.
Canada didn’t simply support the three-months-long protest against a president who won elections the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe called “an impressive display of democracy”. Ottawa also financed oppositioncivil society groups and encouraged the Maidan protests by constantly criticizing Yanukovych, who opposed Ukraine joining NATO. Months after Yanukovych became president Canada’s prime minister declared, “there are issues that are of concern to Ukrainian-Canadians and to the government of Canada involving issues of human rights and the rule of law, and I’ll be raising those with President Yanukovych.” Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) head Paul Grod and other representatives of the ultranationalist organization accompanied the prime minister during his October 2010 visit. In announcing their participation, the UCC release claimed, “recent steps taken by Ukraine’s political leadership have seriously undermined the country’s constitution, its democratic institutions, the protection of its historical memory and national identity, sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
During the trip Stephen Harper met opposition leaders, including failed presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko. In Lviv, Harper visited a controversial new nationalist museum and met its director who’d recently been accused of passing classified information to third parties. Talking to journalists about Ukraine’s 1932 famine Harper encouraged the public to challenge their government, saying the Holodomor should “remind the Ukrainian people of the importance of their freedom and democracy and independence, and of the necessity of always defending those things.” With Yanukovych refusing to echo Harper’s nationalist interpretation of the 1932 famine, Lubomyr Luciuk, a Royal Military College of Canada professor who participated in Harper’s tour, wrote in the Kingston Whig-Standard, “Yanukovych is slated for the dustbin of history while the honourable Harper can stand proud.”
A year after his trip Harper threatened Yanukovych over legal proceedings against Tymoshenko, who was found guilty of corruption. In an October 2011 letter Canada’s PM wrote, “I cannot overstate the potential negative impact of the current judicial proceedings against Yulia Tymoshenko on both Ukraine’s future relations with Canada and others and on Ukraine’s long-term democratic development.” During an April 2012 visit, international trade minister Beverly Oda said Canada was deeply concerned about human rights abuses and in a highly abnormal diplomatic move, Oda had Ukrainian-Canadian representatives participating in her delegation criticize the government.
In a bid to heighten political tensions and subvert parliamentary elections Harper attacked Yanukovych to a large group of Canadians about to monitor that country’s vote. In October 2012 the PM declared, “we continue to call upon President Yanukovych to respect judicial independence, to cease the harassment of opposition voices, and to conduct an election that is indeed free and fair.” Harper pressed the monitors to raise their voice stating, “never forget, that the vigilant watcher can hold rulers to account, that the one who sees and speaks up is truly the guardian of liberty.”
Further encouraging opposition to the government, Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney announced funding for a project “to strengthen freedom of expression, freedom of information and free media in Ukraine.” Launched during a March 2013 visit, the initiative was designed to boost antigovernment forces. Once the Maidan protests began Canadian officials released a slew of statements critical of the government.
If Yanukovych’s main competitor in the 2010 election, Yulia Tymoshenko, had won and committed five times more rights violations she would’ve received less criticism from Canada. The unconstitutional post-Yanukovych government banned a number of major political parties and empowered far right forces that perpetrated significant violence, including a massacre of 42 individuals at the headquarters of the Odessa federation of trade unions. Ottawa stayed quiet about the massacre in Odessa and the ban on opposition parties. In fact, to shore up support for the unconstitutional change of power Harper visited the authorities in Kyiv twice in under two months.
More recently, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy shuttered numerous media outlets and Viktor Medvedchuk was put under house arrest after polls suggested his party was surpassing Zelenskyy’s Servants of the People party. Additionally, last week the government suspended 11 political parties, including Opposition Platform for Life, which has the second most seats (44) in the Ukraine’s parliament. Ottawa has ignored this political repression.
The media has repeatedly cited Vladimir Putin’s opposition to democracy as a factor in explaining Russia’s criminal invasion. But they’ve refused to assess how Ottawa’s hostility to Ukrainian democracy has contributed to hostilities.
Ottawa’s role in overthrowing an elected president in 2014 doesn’t excuse Russia’s current criminality but it does provide context. And it reveals the gross hypocrisy of Canada decrying ‘foreign interference’ in our elections.