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Judging by the reception the Ukrainian President received in Parliament on Wednesday, Canadians are unanimous in their love for his country and his government.
All members and senators, from all parties, got to their feet to applaud repeatedly and enthusiastically before and during Ukrainian President Poroshenko’s speech.
But Canadians are not unanimous on Ukraine. You only have to read the widely divergent views expressed on rabble.ca to get a sense of that.
Both those who sympathize with the Maidan uprising in Ukraine and its aftermath and those who are skeptical can agree, though, that Poroshenko’s visit to Ottawa was 99 per cent political theatre and one per cent substantive discussion.
On Wednesday afternoon, Poroshenko did not even pretend to make a serious policy speech to the Canadian Parliament, but nobody seemed to mind.
The billionaire Ukrainian President spent his time evoking great Ukrainian Canadians from Roy Romanow to Roberta Bondar to Wayne Gretzky, and quoted Winston Churchill (who apparently visited Canada seven times) to find words to express his love for Canada.
He did talk briefly about how signing a treaty with the European Union was “crossing the Rubicon” for Ukraine, and evoked a possible trade deal with Canada. But Poroshenko did not go very far in dealing with the difficult issues Ukraine faces — with its minorities and in its relations with Russia.
The day was mostly about the mutual admiration of Ukraine and Canada for each other. Privately it is said that the Canadian Prime Minister and the Ukrainian President had a good exchange. In this case, as in many others, Stephen Harper seems to prefer tough and uncompromising talk to major material commitment. Harper, apparently, demurred when Poroshenko asked for more robust military aid.
Publicly, what both Harper and Poroshenko had to say seemed not so much aimed at world opinion as at an exclusively Canadian audience.
When Prime Minister Harper visited Israel and expressed his unyielding support for that country, he justified it on the supposedly disinterested basis of a moral imperative, not on Canadian politics. The Israelis are the democratic good guys in a dangerous neighbourhood, Harper said (more than once), and we Canadians do not practice ethical relativism. We support the good guys.
In fact, when discussing Israel, Harper never refers to domestic considerations. He does not talk about the crucial support his pro-Israel stance helped him win from a small-c conservative and very pro-Israel contingent of the Canadian Jewish community. That support was key in delivering some urban ridings to Harper in 2011 — ridings, in some cases, no Conservative had won in decades. Finance Minister Joe Oliver’s Eglinton-Lawrence riding in Toronto is among those.
In the case of Ukraine, however, the Prime Minister is much more transparent. He opened his welcoming address to the Ukrainian President on Wednesday by referring to the 1.2 million Canadians of Ukrainian descent, the largest Ukrainian diaspora outside of Russia.
The Ukrainian-Canadian vote is big, much bigger than the “pro-Israel” vote, and it is spread broadly across both rural and urban Canada. There are seats in the west where the Ukrainian vote in important, and there are also seats in the Greater Toronto Area.
But Ukrainian Canadians are most definitely not all Conservative. They cover the map politically, which is one reason why, today, all parties enthusiastically support the Harper government’s pro-Ukraine position.
NDP Foreign Affairs Critic Paul Dewar’s only quibble with Harper on Ukraine is that his sanctions against Russia are not tough enough. Those sanctions have left untouched some key Russian business community players, Dewar told reporters earlier this week.
On previous occasions, Harper has called Canada the “most Ukrainian country outside Ukraine.”
On Wednesday, Poroshenko returned the compliment and called his country the “most Canadian country outside of Canada.” That is a fairly disputable claim, but it got a hearty round of applause from all sides.
It was that kind of a day.
On Thursday, Poroshenko is in Washington to meet the real heavy hitter in international affairs, while in Ottawa Parliament gets back to the partisan business of politics.