Prior to withdrawing Canadian diplomats from Ukraine weeks before the Russian invasion, Global Affairs Canada received intelligence confirming that Russia intended to wage war on its neighbor and that Ukrainians working for the Embassy of Canada were likely on lists of people Moscow intended to hunt down. .
Despite the seemingly dire situation, Ottawa has told officials at the Canadian Embassy in Kyiv not to release this information to these Ukrainian staff and leave it behind.
These events were described to The Globe and Mail by three Canadian diplomats with first-hand knowledge of what happened, who say they are disturbed by the way Canada left its Ukrainian employees in danger. The Globe does not name the diplomats because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.
The revelations highlight the inconsistency of Canada’s treatment of local workers at its embassies, who were sometimes offered federal crisis aid, 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 (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 which names were on the lists, diplomats were told that Ukrainians who worked for Western embassies in Kyiv were likely to be included.
At the time, most international observers expected Russia to quickly invade Kyiv and take over the Ukrainian government within days of an invasion, putting anyone on Russian lists in immediate danger.
Before the Canadian staff members were withdrawn from the embassy ahead of the Feb. 24 invasion, they received instructions from Ottawa on how to act on the warning that their Ukrainian colleagues might be arrested or executed.
The instructions were clear: don’t tell them anything.
The fifty or so Ukrainian employees, many of whom had worked with Canadians at 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 Ukrainian staff members with their senior managers in Ottawa.
Two senior Global Affairs officials told them that Canada had no responsibility – known as “duty of care” – to local employees in this situation, and that Ottawa did not want to set a precedent by protecting local embassy staff. .
No evacuation plan has been drawn up for Ukrainian personnel who may be on the lists. Instead, they were told to take shelter at home if Russia attacked Kyiv.
Canadian diplomats at the embassy left for the relative safety of the city of Lviv in western Ukraine on February 12, then fled to Poland on February 24, hours after the Russian invasion has begun. Ukrainian staff members asked if they could work remotely from Lviv or Poland as Canadian staff planned to evacuate, a source said, but Global Affairs officials denied their request.
Ukrainian embassy staff were terrified and angry after the Canadians left, the three sources said. They had learned that their lives were in danger because US Embassy personnel informed some of their local employees of Russian target lists and helped some of them 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 senior diplomats in turn, although the embassy has not yet reopened. Most Canadian embassy staff remain in Poland, where consular services previously offered by Kyiv Embassy are still provided.
Ukrainian staff members are still paid, the sources say, although many are not working and most women have left Ukraine.
The decision to leave without informing local staff or ensuring their safety was based on a Canadian policy set out in a memorandum from the Harper government in 2014. According to one of the diplomats who spoke to The Globe, the document said there should be no obligation due diligence for locally recruited staff when an embassy is abandoned. Another of the diplomatic sources said the memo was written to justify Canada’s decision in 2012 to close its embassy in Iran without evacuating local staff there.
Asked about this policy and events at the embassy in Ukraine, Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Sabrina Williams said in an email that department staff are “taking all appropriate measures to ensure the safety and security of our staff and our operations abroad”. Ms Williams also said Global Affairs does not “discuss operational details of overseas missions for security reasons”.
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 of diplomatic personnel to 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 Hague Journal of Diplomacy article that during the fall of Saigon in 1975, as the United States evacuated thousands of Vietnamese and their families, including embassy staff, “Canadian Embassy in Saigon evacuated with souvenirs and cars, but without local staff.”
In contrast, when the Canadian Embassy in Beirut was evacuated in 1985, local staff members were given the opportunity to immigrate to Canada.
The United States, Leira noted, has often created special visa programs for local embassy staff in potential danger.
When Canada evacuated its embassy in Kabul when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021, the federal government offered locally engaged staff resettlement under a special immigration program to Afghan nationals who had assisted the Canadian mission there.
In Ukraine, locally employed male embassy staff remained stuck in the country once the war began, as Ukrainian males of military age were barred from leaving. According to one source, several Ukrainian personnel have high public notoriety, which puts them at continued risk of persecution if captured by invading Russian forces.
Ukrainian staff told diplomatic sources that they found it particularly infuriating to see 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 assisted informally. An online fundraising initiative by Canadian Embassy staff member Alexandra Formanek, circulated primarily among Canadians who had worked in Ukraine, raised nearly $90,000 for local staff. The fund has helped many people evacuate the country on their own.
One of the donors listed is Oksana Smerechuk, wife of a former ambassador to Ukraine, Roman Waschuk.
“Some of these employees have worked 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 in and help them.
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