Harper foreign policy: All gesture, no action

Canadian troop deployment in Ukraine is to secure votes for Harper’s Conservatives in next election.

Harper and General Thomas Lawson, Chief of the Defence Staff, talk before making an announcement in Ottawa [AP]
Canadians are more concerned with 'poking the Russian bear', writes Zerbisias [AP]

Nobody should be surprised that Canada is getting directly involved in Ukraine on the side of Kiev.

On Tuesday, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that he was deploying “significant additional military resources to help train and build the capacity of Ukrainian forces personnel”.

These will be in the form of approximately 200 unarmed Canadian Armed Forces members who, until March 31, 2017, will be training Ukrainian fighters in, among other things, the disposal of explosive ordnance, flight safety, and logistics modernisation.

All this in the wake of deliveries of all sorts of “non-lethal military supplies”, from Gore-Tex boots to goggles, plus pledges of $400m in loans.

Ukraine military and rebels accused of breaching ceasefire

Nothing in the way of humanitarian assistance for the besieged people in the Donbas where they are being starved, deprived of medical supplies and remain under attack. But then, Canada is no longer the “honest broker” and “peacekeeper” it used to be, as the world is reminded every time Harper declares his unequivocal support for Israel, even as it rains down bombs on Gaza.

Carefully timed

“Canada continues to stand with the people of Ukraine in the face of the [Russian President Vladimir] Putin regime’s ongoing aggression,” said Harper at a photo opportunity carefully timed to distract from the trial of his erstwhile favourite Senate appointment, Mike Duffy, and a Supreme Court decision that struck down yet another government bill as unconstitutional.  

Not that Canada’s mainstream media have been paying close attention to Ukraine. There’s scarcely been mention of the far right fringe groups linked to the government’s forces, or the neo-Nazi elements in Kiev. Still, on Tuesday, Defence Minister Jason Kenney did admit to reporters that concerns about extremists had been raised within the military.

“We’re not going to be in the business of training ad hoc militias,” he insisted. “We will only be training units of the Ukrainian National Guard and army recognised by the government of Ukraine.”

But, according to numerous reports, Dmitri Yarosh, leader of the Right Sector party, recently was appointed as an adviser to Ukraine’s military – and self-proclaimed Nazis are among the fighters.

Yet Canadians are more concerned with “poking the Russian bear”.

Which is why Kenney reassured citizens that our boys and girls will be so far west of the fighting that they can hop over to Poland should things heat up.

Not that Canada’s mainstream media have been paying close attention to Ukraine. There’s scarcely been mention of the far right fringe groups linked to the government’s forces, or the neo-Nazi element in Kiev.


Indeed, Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland, whose leader Justin Trudeau supports the deployment, told the CBC that the area is so safe, she’s planning to send her children to summer camp there. Meanwhile, opposition leader Thomas Mulcair of the New Democratic Party, emphasised that the Harper government had not brought up the mission for debate in Parliament, a move which “sets a dangerous precedent”.

But this fall, Canada is headed for a federal election and citizens of Ukrainian heritage are crucial to a Conservative victory.

Critical constituency

Numbering 1.2 million, it constitutes the biggest Ukrainian population outside Ukraine and Russia. More to the point, it’s concentrated in critical districts, including some where Conservative candidates barely squeaked by in the 2011 election.  

For example, in Toronto’s Etobicoke Centre, Conservative MP Ted Opitz edged out the Liberal incumbent Borys Wrzesnewskyj, himself of Ukrainian descent, by just 26 votes.  

Harper’s Conservatives have been courting the Ukrainian votes in a number of ways, including the establishment in 2008 of National Holodomor Awareness Week, marking the Stalinist-imposed famine in Ukraine in the 1930s. It is also contributing $3m towards a $5.5m Memorial to the Victims of Communism to be built in Ottawa.

What’s more, last year, the prime minister, along with the most famous Ukrainian Canadian, hockey star Wayne Gretzky, attended the “United for Ukraine Gala“. There Harper warned that Putin seeks “to destabilise and demoralise the people of Ukraine. To pull them back into a dark era of fear and of dependence on an aggressive expansionist and authoritarian Russian regime”.

As for Opitz, both on his Facebook page and his website, he proudly displays a photo of himself standing alongside Andriy Parubiy, the controversial First Deputy Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian Parliament) who visited Canada in February. Opitz again flanked Parubiy, cofounder of  the  extreme right Social National Party, when they appeared at a Ukrainian Canadian Congress fundraiser in Opitz’s district.

Intemperate speech

There they shared the stage with Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander who gave what critics say was an intemperate speech during which he railed, “This is the biggest issue facing the world today. In my view, I think in the view of our prime minister, and our team. Yes, there is terrorism. Vladimir Putin is behaving like a terrorist…”

But, so far anyway, Canada is all talk, no real action – either military or humanitarian.

The eye is on the electoral prize.

As Paul Heinbecker, Canada’s former ambassador to the United Nations and a foreign adviser to both Liberal and Conservative governments, recently said, Harper’s government is one “given to gestures. It’s foreign policy by declaration and by gesture, all calculated with an eye on the next election”.

Which is why this latest move was so very predictable.

Antonia Zerbisias is an award-winning Canadian journalist. She has been a reporter and TV host for the Toronto Star, the CBC, as well as the Montreal correspondent for Variety trade paper.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.