What Does Canada’s Opening to Dialogue with Russia Signal?

A shift in the attitude of the Canadian government towards Russia has been announced by Minister of Foreign Affairs Stéphane Dion.

On Wednesday, January 27, Dion announced to the House of Commons in Ottawa that he would visit Ukraine in the coming days. Under opposition party haranguing, he restated views expressed to journalists one day earlier that it was time for a shift in relations with Russia, specifically that at minimum, his government will reopen communication with Russian counterparts.

Dion told the House, “Our foreign policy will stop being ideological and irrational and will be effective for our allies and for Canadians.”

Time for a shift

Dion began his comments to journalists on Tuesday with a predictable, rote affirmation that ‘Canada would always stand with Ukraine’, but then went on to say it was time to start working with Russia “when we have common interests”.​

“Canada was speaking to the Russians even during the tough times of the Cold War. And now we are not speaking … because of the former policy, of the former government. In what way is it helping our interests in the Arctic?”

“We have a lot of disagreements with the government of Russia,” he went on, “but it’s certainly not the way to stop speaking with them when the Americans speak with them and all the Europeans, the Japanese, everybody [does so] except Canada. ”

Dion’s comments followed those of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Tuesday at a press conference surveying Russia’s view of the multiple conflicts and tensions in the world. Turning to Canada, Lavrov said Russia “was stunned by the absence of pragmatism” by the previous government of Stephen Harper in its policy concerning Russia and the conflict in Ukraine.

The foreign minister accused the Harper government of following the “blatant interests of the Ukrainian diaspora [while] ignoring Canada’s national interests.” There are about 1.3 million Canadians of Ukrainian descent. Their journeys to Canada began more than 100 years ago and a majority would be born here.

Russia looks forward to new relations with Canada, Lavrov said.[1]

This was the same press conference where Lavrov made clear that Russia will not negotiate with any country about Crimea’s future status. Shifts in relations with the United States due to recent accomplishments of Russian diplomacy over the war in Syria has led to a lot of idle speculation in Western media that maybe Russia could be pressured to soften its support of the March 2014 vote by the Crimean people to secede from Ukraine and rejoin the Russian Federation.

Lavrov said, “We have nothing to give back. We are not holding any talks with anyone on returning Crimea,” he said. “Crimea is a territory of the Russian Federation in full accordance with the expression of the will of its peoples.”

Still early days in whether Canada will end its hostility to Russia

Canada has played a leading, provocative role in the military threats by the NATO military alliance against Russia during the past two years. It has encouraged and joined the economic and political sanctions of its fellow imperialist countries against the Russian economy and politicians and businessmen.

Canada has been a leading voice describing the 2014 referendum vote of the Crimean people as a Russian “annexation”. It condemns Russia for assisting the people of eastern Ukraine in resisting the military onslaught against them begun in April 2014 by the right-wing government that came to power in a coup in February 2014. That onslaught is spearheaded by extremist and fascist paramilitary battalions with which the government is allied but which Western media blacks out of its reporting.

It gets worse. Canada, along with the United States and Britain, has soldiers and police on Ukrainian soil in ‘training missions’ whose ultimate goal is not disclosed but which gravely threaten and destabilize the entire border region between Russia and eastern Europe. Ukraine’s constitution expressly prohibits the presence of foreign soldiers on its soil, but the country’s Parliament happily agreed to waive that last April in order to welcome the Western troops.[2]

Canada also participates in the ongoing NATO military exercises on land and sea in eastern and western Europe whose goal is to send Russia the message: ‘obey our diktats, or else’.

Unknown to Canadians and Americans, Arctic cooperation is a model

Foreign Minister Dion cited Arctic cooperation as an area where Canada has lost out during the past two years of Anti-Russia policy. Indeed, Canadians (and Americans) don’t know the half of what Dion was referring to.

It turns out that scientific as well as economic cooperation among the eight countries that border the Arctic region has been stellar for decades and, fortunately, has not suffered much from the NATO-led folly and confrontations of the past two years. Given that the Arctic is ground zero of the visible, calamitous consequences of global warming, it’s good news that Arctic cooperation is surviving. (The bad news, of course, is that this is not, and now cannot, stop the inexorable melting of Arctic ice, but that’s another story.)

Canadians, for one, will be utterly in the dark over the record of Arctic cooperation because the chosen angle of reportage of this subject in mainstream media in Canada is, surprise!, that Russia is a threat to Canada’s interests and ambitions in the region.

For example, the sub-headline to an article by Scott Gilmore in Maclean’s magazine on November 15, 2015, reads, “All of Moscow’s effort and attention, combined with Canada’s neglect, has effectively turned the Arctic Ocean into Putin’s Lake.” He writes:

Justin Trudeau recently promised to push back “the bully that is Vladimir Putin”. Supporters may enthusiastically imagine the tall boxer staring down the short black belt. [Editor’s note: Justin Trudeau is an accomplished boxer.] Unfortunately, the more accurate picture would have Trudeau sitting on a battered snowmobile, craning his neck to see Putin standing far above him on the bridge of a nuclear-powered icebreaker.

Brian Stewart, an eminence grise of the CBC state broadcaster wrote earlier the same month:

An oddity of Canada’s foreign policy of late is how gravely we viewed Russia’s expanding power in distant Eastern Europe and Syria, yet took scarce note of Moscow’s actions closer to our own Arctic and Asia-Pacific interests.

Even allowing for the vast distances involved, Vladimir Putin’s strategic thrusts are almost on our doorstep and may well require far more serious attention from the incoming Liberal government.

A common theme of the scare-mongering reporting is that Canada needs to boost its military spending and presence in the Arctic in order to confront an aggressive Russia.

A very different view of the Arctic is provided by Dr. Michael Byers of the University of British Columbia, an expert on all things Arctic. He spoke at a public forum attended by this writer in Vancouver last November 18. The theme of the forum was ‘ Russia, the Arctic and crisis in Ukraine’.

Dr. Byers is a professor in UBC’s Department of Political Science. He holds a Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law. His work focuses on Arctic sovereignty, climate change, the law of the sea and Canadian foreign and defence policy. He has written several books on the Arctic, including the 2013 ‘International Law and the Arctic’.

Perhaps to the surprise of many in the audience on November 18 (given the title of the event), Byers explained that Russia’s scientific cooperation in the Arctic has been stellar for decades and remains so. He cited a string of scientific, political and transport treaties and agreements going back decades between the eight member countries of the Arctic Council–Russia, The United States, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Finland and Sweden.

Worse news for the war party in Canada was Byer’s claim that Canada is the laggard among Arctic countries on matters scientific, social and otherwise. The most glaring example of Canada’s neglect and abuse of its Arctic territory is the scandalous social and economic conditions of the Indigenous peoples of Canada’s north. A great many live in Third World conditions.[3]

Canada’s search and rescue capacity in the north is scant. Most of it is located thousands of kilometres away to the south.

Concerning Canada’s scientific capacity in the north, Byers reported its shortcomings as well as the cuts and the silencing of scientists during the Harper government years that made things worse. He reported the embarrassing fact that the lead vessel in the Canadian expedition that in September 2014 located one of the two lost ships from Britain’s 1845 Franklin Expedition was Russian! (This fact was utterly unreported in all the Canadian government and media hoopla that accompanied the finding.)

Earlier, in September 2014, Michael Byers took part in a public forum at UBC titled, Arctic War or Arctic Peace? The Stakes for Canada’. The forum was a debate between him and a pro-military ideologue arguing for more confrontation with Russia.

Byers told the forum, “On Arctic security, in my view, the overriding issue is climate change.” He argued that competing states, including Russia, are no threat to Canada’s ambitions in the Arctic, outside of the normal waxing and waning of international politics.

“There is a tendency in the media to ‘hype up’ the threats from other states [in the Arctic],” he said.

Byers argued that the positive attitude towards cooperation in the Arctic by Russia has remained unchanged since the events in Ukraine. He repeated that claim at the November 2015 forum. (He says, perhaps cynically, that Russia’s cooperation stems from the fact that Russia has benefitted economically and otherwise for decades from a cooperative rather than confrontational Arctic arrangement.)

All the more remarkable in Byers’ comments is that he counts himself among the Russia-bashers in Canada. He argues for a big military expansion of Canada in the Arctic, in part to counter Russian influence. At the November 2015 forum, he told the audience, “Let’s be clear, I believe Vladimir Putin is a thug.” He said that Russia staged a brutal “annexation” of Crimea in early 2014.

He told the Sept 2014 forum, “There are reasons to be concerned about the Putin regime, serious reasons to be concerned about the Putin regime.” He called Russia “a dangerous and dark regime”.

At the November 2015 forum, Byers made his standard pitch for increased military spending. “We are the second largest country in the world, we need a larger military.”

Where is Canadian policy headed?

What does the shift in Canadian tone towards Russia herald? That’s tough to answer because first of all, policy will ultimately be decided by Washington, upon which time Canada will sign up.[4] The question to be answered in this regard, then, is where U.S. policy is headed.

Secondly, as Dion has signalled, there will be no change in Canada’s support to the right-wing regime in power in Kyiv. Too many years of coddling and support to Ukraine’s ultra-nationalists have passed. The three large parties in Parliament are unanimous on the matter. Too many lead voices in the anti-Russia bandwagon in Canada, beginning with lead attacker and now Minister of International Trade Chrystia Freeland, are comfortably at the center of power in the new government of Justin Trudeau.

Turning to the question of where U.S. policy is headed (with Canada and its other allies in tow), that’s a complicated one. At least three major issues are

determining the U.S. course:

  • Russia’s diplomatic initiatives with respect to the war in Syria begun last October are reshaping the Middle East by eroding U.S. diktat over the region. The emerging, de facto alliance between Russia, Iran, forces of the Kurdish people, the Syrian government and progressive forces in Turkey has already weakened the U.S.-EU-Israel-Saudi-right wing Islamist nexus and is likely to continue to do so.
  • In Ukraine, the Kyiv’s government’s economic and political crisis is profound and renders it an unstable pawn in the NATO threats and buildup against Russia. Furthermore, the shifts towards dialogue if not cooperation with Russia in the Middle East open uncomfortable questions about the situation in Ukraine. Russia has been relentlessly painted as a big, bad wolf for the past two years. Now there is dialogue opening up, yet Crimea remains “annexed” while the “separatists” (pro-autonomy) political forces in Donbass (eastern Ukraine) are as “separatist” as ever with continued Russian backing. So what has all the fuss of the last two years been about? Is there something we were not told? Have we been fed stories of “Russian aggression” in order to sell an anti-Russia political agenda by the NATO countries?
  • All the industrial countries of the world are under intense pressure to respond to the rising awareness among the world’s population of global warming. Demands are growing louder for radical, political and economic measures to forestall the worst consequences of global environmental and climactic degradation.

Stay tuned for how this all ends. And settle in. 2016 promises to be a year of many surprises and, if we’re lucky, some reversal of the crazed descent into war, austerity and climate emergency. Then the real work of salvaging our planet and futures may begin.

[1] The full text of Lavrov’s comments on Russia-Canada relations is here.

[2] See ‘West Ukraine is now a permanent playground for NATO forces‘, by Ulrich Heyden, published in German on Telepolis, Nov 26, 2015, translated to English for New Cold War.org.

[3] Aboriginal people make up the majority of the population in Canada’s north. They suffer multiple times higher rates of poverty, illness and disease, including scandalously high rates of youth suicide, compared to the rest of the country.

The very high cost of food in the north is one of the reasons for the overall public health emergency. A Nov 4, 2014 Globe and Mail article series reported, “About 13 per cent of Canadian households – that’s about four million people, including 1.15 million children – experienced some level of food insecurity in 2012, according to a 2014 report by PROOF, an interdisciplinary team of researchers focused on issues of food insecurity. In Nunavut [comprising most of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago], the figure was 45.2 per cent.”

[4] Canada-U.S. (Alaska) relations in the Arctic sometimes conflict. The U.S., for example, does not recognize Canada’s claim to exclusive jurisdiction over and under waters adjacent to Canada’s Arctic coastlines.

Roger Annis is a retired aerospace worker in Vancouver BC. He writes regularly for Counterpunch and compiles his writings on a ‘A Socialist in Canada’. He is an editor of the website The New Cold War: Ukraine and beyond. He can be reached at rogerannis@hotmail.com.