Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly says she and her department were unaware intelligence reports delivered weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in which diplomats in Kyiv learned that Ukrainians working for the Canadian Embassy were likely on lists of people Moscow intended to hold or kill.
The Globe and Mail reported earlier this week that after receiving the intelligence, Canadian diplomats received clear instructions from Ottawa on how to proceed: do not share any information with Ukrainian staff, despite the situation apparently disastrous, and does not help them to flee.
“Morally, we have an obligation to our locally recruited staff,” Ms. Joly said Wednesday at a press conference in Montreal, after being asked about the Globe report. She added that Global Affairs Canada is in the midst of an internal process looking at this and other issues.
“I or the ministry never had any information targeting locally recruited staff,” she said.
“We never got that information. [Not] neither me, nor my team, nor the department.
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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 officials at Global Affairs that Canada had no responsibility – known in political terms as a “duty of care” – to Ukrainian employees in this situation, and that the government did not want to set a precedent by protecting local embassy staff. The Globe does not name the sources as they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
In the weeks following receipt of the information, Canadian embassy staff evacuated first to the city of Lviv in western Ukraine on February 12 and then to Poland on February 24 February, a few hours after the start of the Russian invasion. The Ukrainian staff members were left behind in Kyiv fearing for their lives and angry at the way they were treated, the sources said. Canada continued to pay the personnel, and none of them are known to have died during the war.
At the press conference, Ms. Joly said Global Affairs is examining whether Canada owes the same duty of care to locally hired staff in foreign embassies and consulates that it owes to members of the Canadian foreign service.
“I know there is there have been conversations within the department about whether this duty of care applies to locally engaged staff,” she said.
In a statement, Ms. Joly’s spokesman, Adrien Blanchard, said the minister would have acted had she known of the content of the intelligence. “Had the minister had information about locally recruited staff facing a direct threat, she would have taken the necessary steps to ensure their safety,” 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 be interested in situations where lives are at risk and should ensure that members of her staff involve her in these 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, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, said information should have been on the minister’s desk.
“If the minister claims she was unaware of some of the Five Eyes warnings, that in itself is a terrible bureaucratic failure by her department that needs to be corrected,” he said.
Alarming intelligence that Russia has compiled lists of Ukrainians to be captured or killed is entirely in line with the modus operandi of the Russian security services, he said.
“[It] should have been more than enough to compel a quick decision to offer security to our Ukrainian personnel,” 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 leaders from NATO, the European Union and Ukraine in Europe.
At the end of February, she attended the Munich Security Conference with her NATO and Five Eyes counterparts. During the conference on February 18, US media released intelligence accounts detailing the Russian listings. Ms. Joly returned to Canada on February 20.
On March 2, she traveled to Poland and again met with Ukrainian embassy staff.
In a tweet on Tuesday, Roman Waschuk, Canada’s ambassador to Ukraine from 2014 to 2019, called Global Affairs’ treatment of Ukrainian staff “unbecoming conduct.”
Ukrainian staffers – some of whom have returned to their posts in Kyiv – said they could not respond to requests for comment due to an internal hunt for the Globe’s unnamed sources. Several said they were worried that speaking out would cost them their jobs.
Michael Chong, Conservative foreign affairs critic, said in a statement Wednesday that Canada’s treatment of its Ukrainian staff highlights a worrying trend. “The Minister indicated that she was unaware that locally recruited personnel in Ukraine faced direct threats from Russia. Two months ago, she was unaware that a senior Canadian government official had attended a party at the Russian Embassy. It’s a troubling trend of a lack of awareness of what’s going on in his own service,” he said.
NDP Foreign Affairs Critic Heather McPherson said the situation suggests that, in the face of difficult circumstances, the Liberal government is backing away from its moral responsibilities.
“They did this to the 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 treating local embassy staff in Ukraine. Britain, the United States and Australia, which are members of Five Eyes, also appear to have left local staff at risk. New Zealand, another member of Five Eyes, does not have an embassy in Ukraine.
According to British media, diplomats at the British Embassy in Kyiv were deeply unhappy with the way their Ukrainian colleagues were being treated, and made their feelings clear to officials in London. British staff told The Independent in March they feared some of their Ukrainian colleagues were Russian targets.
Ukrainians who worked at the British Embassy were first told that they would not be eligible for British visas unless they had close connections in the UK. Britain changed its policy on March 30 and offered staff and their families what it called Britain.”
US diplomats have warned some of their Ukrainian staff of the danger they face, sources told The Globe.
But some Ukrainian staff at the U.S. Embassy have accused State Department officials of backtracking on pledges of support as they rush to escape the Russian invasion.
“Our families are separated, lots of shelters in basements to stay alive, some are fighting on battlefields, others are displaced, children are showing signs of stress from trauma…and none of us are able to sleep through the night,” read a letter from the Ukrainian. staffers who had worked with the U.S. Embassy, according to a Foreign Policy report.
Nadia Teriokhina, a Ukrainian member of staff at the Australian Embassy, was pictured with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese near her destroyed home on July 4 as she reunited with her boss, Australian Ambassador Bruce Edwards, reported the Sydney Herald.
“We didn’t know what to do, how or where to run,” Ms Teriokhina told the newspaper.
With reporting by Ian Bailey in Ottawa.
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