Home Page Election 2019 News Opinion Foreign Policy Politics Policy Legislation Lobbying Hill Life & People Hill Climbers Heard On The Hill Calendar Archives Classifieds
Hill Times Events Inside Ottawa Directory Hill Times Store Hill Times Careers The Wire Report The Lobby Monitor Parliament Now
Subscribe Free Trial Reuse & Permissions Advertising
Log In

Canada should change course on Russian relations, say critics

By Samantha Wright Allen      

The government approach is 'uncoordinated' when it comes to Russia, says NDP MP Randall Garrison, while Tory critic James Bezan wonders if the PMO is still aiming for Russian 'appeasement.'

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, centre, in late March announced Canada was expelling four Russian diplomats. Conservative MP James Bezan, left, and NDP MP Randall Garrison, right, both critiqued the government's foreign policy on Russia. The Hill Times photographs by Andrew Meade
Share a story
The story link will be added automatically.

Canada should reassess its approach to Russia, say opposition critics who accuse the federal government of not having a plan and taking cues from the international community rather than leading the way.

On March 26, the Liberal government kicked out four Russian diplomats as part of a wave of expulsions in more than 20 countries offering solidarity to the United Kingdom, which blamed Russia for a nerve-agent attack on its soil against a former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury in early March. Last week, the international chemical weapons watchdog backed the U.K.’s findings that a Russia-developed, military-grade nerve agent was the type of chemical used to poison the two.

Conservative defence critic James Bezan said he’d like the government to re-evaluate all Russian diplomats in Canada, though he said that’s not likely to happen.

“I think we probably could have [gone] farther than just the four diplomats,” said Mr. Bezan (Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman, Man.). “They are active in trying to destabilize our electoral process and influence the outcomes.”

He said it’s important Canada’s sanctions “be in step” with its allies.

“If we want to send a loud message as it relates to the Salisbury attack then we need to take an even bigger stick and weed through those diplomats that are here in Canada that may have connection and ties to what happened in the U.K.”

On Monday, Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland (University–Rosedale, Ont.), along with her counterparts in the other G7 nations, called on Russia “to urgently address all questions related to the incident in Salisbury” and the use of the “military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia.”

Her initial statement on March 26 noted the expulsion was in solidarity with the U.K., but that those kicked out had “used their diplomatic status to undermine Canada’s security or interfere in our democracy.”

While most agree it’s “highly likely Russia did it or Russians did [the poisoning],” former diplomat Jeremy Kinsman said, it’s still “entirely hypothetical.”

“You couldn’t convict a criminal on that but everybody feels [the Russians] did it,” said Mr. Kinsman, who was the Canadian ambassador to Russia from 1992 to 1996, as well as in the U.K. and to the European Union.

In announcing that four members of Russia’s diplomatic staff, serving either at the Russian Embassy in Ottawa or the consulate general in Montreal, had been kicked out, Ms. Freeland’s statement said they had been “identified as intelligence officers or individuals,” and that for “similar reasons, three applications by the Russian government for additional diplomatic staff in Canada will now be denied.”

Though Mr. Kinsman said he’s “not absolving” the Russians of responsibility for the attack in England, the reasons given for the expulsion of diplomats in Canada can’t directly be tied to the incident, because of that hypothetical nature.

The Liberals didn’t have to say what they did, Mr. Kinsman said, pointing to security concerns. The government should have used the typical phrase for such matters, that they were being “expelled for activities incompatible with their diplomatic status,” he added.

Instead, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) went with what Mr. Kinsman called a “silly remark,” when he pointed to “Russian propagandists” as working to to discredit Ms. Freeland, against whom Russia has maintained a travel ban since 2014 for advocating for Western sanctions against the country. 

Last year, media reports alleged details of Ms. Freeland’s maternal grandfather’s past as a Nazi propagandist, which she didn’t deny but suggested should be dismissed as part of a Russian disinformation campaign.

“It has nothing to do with that,” said Mr. Kinsman. “I don’t think it’s happening in Canada in dimensions that are going to make a difference to our democracy,” and to the same extent it may have happened in other countries.

Liberal MP Ruby Sahota (Brampton North, Ont.) said as much on CTV’s Question Period in early April, that “the only reason” for the expulsions was to stay in solidarity with the U.K. over the Skripal poisoning.

NDP MP Randall Garrison (Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke, B.C.), his party’s defence critic, also questioned the rationale, calling the March 26 statement a “peculiar press release.”

“If the government had evidence [Russians] were interfering in Canadian democracy and affecting Canadians’ security, then what took so long for them to be expelled? Why wait until it was part of the response to what happened in Britain?”

The Russian Embassy did not respond to request from The Hill Times for an interview with Ambassador Alexander Darchiev. In late March, as CBC reportedwhen Mr. Trudeau said Mr. Putin needs to start playing a more positive role in the world, the embassy fired back, saying “confrontational rhetoric” was prompted by “U.K. slanderous Russophobic hysteria,” calling it “counterproductive.”

In this instance, and others, with Russia, Mr. Garrison said the government “appears to have an uncoordinated approach to the broader international issues,” including with how it responds to Russian provocations.

In response to questions from The Hill Times, Global Affairs Canada referred to the two statements issued on Monday on Russia and from the Prime Minister’s Office supporting actions taken in Syria in the aftermath of chemical weapons used April 7 in eastern Ghouta. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has backed Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad from the beginning of the seven-year civil war that has ravaged the country, with Russia using its United Nations veto to block some international sanctions, and saying the most-recent chemical attack was staged by foreign agents.

In retaliation on April 13, U.S. President Donald Trump approved an American missile strike aimed at alleged Syrian chemical weapons facilities, a move that Mr. Garrison called “a violation of international law” and criticized Mr. Trudeau’s support for.

In a statement the same evening, Mr. Trudeau said “Canada supports the decision by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France to take action to degrade the Assad regime’s ability to launch chemical weapons attacks against its own people.”

“We have a bunch of one-off actions that seem to be responsive to our allies rather than a pursuit of any consistent policy for Canada,” he said, saying Canada has stopped being a leader on the diplomatic front and has instead become “a cheerleader for the United States.”

Mr. Bezan, meanwhile, said Canada should do more than offer verbal support, questioning whether Canada was asked to do more.

Canada has ‘zero’ relationship with Russia: Kinsman

Canada has “zero” relationship with Russia at this point, but needs one given its impact in the Arctic and other key areas on the world stage and as a member of the Security Council, Mr. Kinsman said.

In contrast Mr. Bezan said he thinks some in the PMO still sympathize with former foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion’s approach of “responsible conviction”—which he said is a “code word for appeasement”—and should follow an even stronger path.

“We have to continue to push our allies to do more to isolate and deter Putin’s imperialistic ambitions.”

Mr. Dion’s former adviser Jocelyn Coulon recently penned a book that offered some insight in the frosty relationship with Mr. Trudeau, as news outlets reported, including an anecdote that Mr. Dion wanted a better relationship with Russia, but Mr. Trudeau didn’t want to hear that. 

Mr. Dion’s successor, Ms. Freeland, stands in stark contrast to his way of thinking about Russia. For instance, she’s been blacklisted by Russia from entering the country.

Mr. Kinsman said he tells Ms. Freeland Canada should pursue better ties. But he’s convinced Canada’s well-organized 1.2 million-strong Ukrainian population won’t make that easy. 

“Just because we’re all for Ukraine and against what they did in Crimea doesn’t mean you don’t have the relationship. Unfortunately the [Prime Minister’s Office] thinks having lousy relations with Russia is great for the vote for people in Canada.”


The Hill Times

Explore, analyze, understand
Charting the CBC’s challenging present and uncertain future
Charting the CBC's challenging present and uncertain future: Where it has been and where it is going provides an insider profile of the struggles faced by Canada’s public broadcaster in the 21st century.

Get the book
Democracy, Terrorism and Killer Robots: Embassy News covers the 2015 Halifax International Security Forum
The Halifax International Security Forum is one of the world’s biggest gatherings of defence and security leaders.

Get the book
You Might Be From Canada If…
You Might Be From Canada If . . . is a delightful, illustrated romp through this country as it celebrates its 150th birthday.

Get the book
Related Policy Briefings
Defence Policy Briefing
Short and informative analyses on policy challenges that bring background and recommendations to policymakers, journalists and the general public.

Read policy briefing
Military Procurement Policy Briefing
Short and informative analyses on policy challenges that bring background and recommendations to policymakers, journalists and the general public.

Read policy briefing
Short and informative analyses on policy challenges that bring background and recommendations to policymakers, journalists and the general public.

Read policy briefing

Politics This Morning

Get the latest news from The Hill Times

Politics This Morning

Your email has been added. An email has been sent to your address, please click the link inside of it to confirm your subscription.

Nearly 100 new MPs offer new face of Parliament, including 60 in flipped seats

In many ways the incoming Parliament looks quite similar to its predecessor, with 240 returning MPs, the same number of MPs who are Indigenous or a visible minority, and 10 more women.

Rise of advance voting raising questions about impact on, and of, campaigns: experts

Almost 4.8-million Canadians voted at advance polls this year, according to Elections Canada estimates, a roughly 30.6 per cent increase over 2015, accounting for roughly one-quarter of all ballots cast this election.

Watchdog’s proposed minority Parliament rules ‘appalling,’ says legal expert

News|By Mike Lapointe
Democracy Watch says Governor General should speak with all party leaders before deciding who can try forming government, but Emmett Macfarlane says the confidence convention is the linchpin of the parliamentary system.

McKenna may be moved to new cabinet role after four years implementing Grits’ climate policies, say politicos

News|By Neil Moss
Catherine McKenna's 'tenure in environment would have prepared her well for any other kind of responsibility the prime minister may assign,' says former environment minister Jean Charest.

‘They went with what they knew’: Politicos react to Election 43

'If anybody should've won a majority, it should've been Trudeau. He didn't, and it's his to wear,' says CBC columnist Neil Macdonald of the Oct. 21 election results.

‘A clear mandate’: Trudeau wins second term, with voters handing Liberals a minority

News|By Beatrice Paez
Though not improbable, his victory was not inevitable. It brings an end to a nail-biting, gruelling 40-day slog that has exposed deepening rifts across the country.

McKenna wins re-election in Ottawa Centre, trumpets voters’ support for climate fight

News|By Neil Moss
'I’m so relieved,' Catherine McKenna said, about continuing with the Liberal climate change plan.

Election 2019 was a ‘campaign of fear,’ say pollsters

'There may well be a message to this to the main parties, that slagging each other will only take you so far,' says Greg Lyle.

Election 2019 campaign one of the most ‘uninspiring, disheartening, and dirtiest’ in 40 years, says Savoie

News|By Abbas Rana
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May says she has never seen an election where mudslinging overwhelmingly dominated the campaign, leaving little or no time for policy discussion.
Your group subscription includes premium access to Politics This Morning briefing.