The Canadian government said Sunday it was wrong to have sent a senior representative to a recent Russia Day party at the Russian embassy in Ottawa, and vowed officials would not attend festivities with Moscow’s diplomats again.
The apology was issued hours after The Globe and Mail published a story on the incident.
“No Canadian representative should have attended the event hosted at the Russian embassy and no Canadian representative will attend this kind of event in the future,” Christelle Chartrand, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said in a statement.
In the months leading up to the party, the federal government had repeatedly talked of the need to politically and diplomatically isolate Russia over Moscow’s military assault on Ukraine.
The reception took place at the embassy on Charlotte Street – recently rebranded Free Ukraine Street by the City of Ottawa – even as protesters outside the gates decried Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of his country’s smaller neighbour.
Russia Day, which commemorates the adoption of legislation that began Russia’s constitutional reform at the end of the Soviet era, falls on June 12. Moscow’s diplomatic mission in Ottawa held its celebration early Friday with a lavish spread of food and drinks, as well as a speech by Russian ambassador Oleg Stepanov that recalled his country’s long-standing relationship with Canada. Guests included representatives from Pakistan, as well as Egypt and other African countries.
The Canadian representative at the event was Yasemin Heinbecker, the deputy chief of protocol at Canada’s Department of Global Affairs.
“We appreciate Ms. Heinbecker honouring our reception,” Vladimir Proskuryakov, deputy chief of mission at the embassy, said in a statement.
“We believe diplomacy is an all-weather instrument and diplomatic protocol is an important part of upkeeping the bilateral communications.”
Ihor Michalchyshyn, chief executive officer and executive director of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, an advocacy group that represents Canadians of Ukrainian origin, said the government’s presence at the celebration was shocking.
He noted that the House of Commons unanimously adopted a motion in April that declared Russia’s war on Ukraine to be a genocide.
“That our government would send officials to a celebration at the Russian embassy is appalling to us as Canadians and offensive to us as Ukrainians,” Mr. Michalchyshyn said.
“We have long called on the Canadian government to expel the Russian diplomats still in Canada and recognize Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. Thus far, our government has ignored these calls.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly’s department at first defended Canada’s presence at the Russian embassy festivities.
“This is not a business-as-usual situation, but we still maintain a diplomatic relation with Russia on matters of Canadian interests and Global Affairs Canada sent a protocol officer to the reception,” Ms. Chartrand said in a statement issued on Friday.
After The Globe published its story on Ms. Heinbecker’s participation in the event Sunday, Ms. Chartrand sent a second statement, which contained her apology on behalf of the government. She said the department of Global Affairs itself was responsible for the decision to send a protocol officer.
“Russian officials will not be invited to Canada Day events hosted by the department,” Ms. Chartrand added in the second statement.
On Sunday night Ms. Joly herself spoke out via Twitter, distancing herself from the incident, repeating her department’s expression of regret and vowing to not repeat the mistake.
Stephanie Carvin, an associate professor of international relations at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and a former national security analyst, said it was inappropriate and unnecessary for Canada to take part in Russia’s celebrations.
“Maintaining diplomatic relations during a time of armed conflict is important for managing crises and an important tool for the government,” Prof. Carvin said.
“However, given Russia’s aggression, Canada’s strong stance against that aggression and the alleged war crimes being committed in Ukraine by Russian forces, this is ill-timed and inappropriate. Attending the reception goes well beyond what is necessary.”
Interim Conservative Leader Candice Bergen said Russia Day is supposed to be a celebration of the Russian people rejecting authoritarianism and the communist Soviet Union, but has been overshadowed this year by Mr. Putin’s illegal war and occupation of Ukraine.
“Conservatives have long been calling on the Liberal government to do more to isolate the Putin regime in the world, including by expelling Russian diplomats, as our allies have done,” Ms. Bergen said Sunday. “Instead of endorsing the lavish, Kremlin-backed celebration at the Russian embassy, the Liberal government should be working with countries like Egypt, Pakistan and those in Africa to prevent Putin’s illegal war from causing a global food crisis which will hurt developing countries the most.”
NDP foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson called the decision to send a Canadian representative to the party “pretty outrageous.”
Russia’s military assault has lasted more than 15 weeks. Some of the bloodiest battles of the war are now taking place in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said recently that up to 100 Ukrainians are dying every day on the war’s eastern front – an apparent reference to military casualties.
The Canadian government has imposed sanctions on more than 1,070 individuals, companies and organizations in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion began in late February.
In late May, Ms. Joly said the sanctions are intended to “suffocate the Putin regime,” and that the goal of Canada and its allies is to isolate Russia “economically, politically and diplomatically.”
Canada has pledged $500-million in military aid to Ukraine this year and disbursed several hundred million so far. And, in recent months, Canadian diplomats have joined other countries in walking out of international events when Russian representatives are speaking.
With a report from Reuters
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