Cutting Through Canada’s War Propaganda

Image of Canadian flag.

Image by Jp Valery.

Twenty years ago I helped set up a small activist collective called Block the Empire to oppose Canada’s contribution to the invasion of Iraq. I participated in many protests against Canada’s occupation of Afghanistan and Haiti as well as Canadian complicity in Israeli violence. I’ve written critically about the NATO war on Libya and many other foreign-policy issues including a book on how the propaganda system works in Canadian foreign policy.

While there are parallels from the first half of the 20th century, the political climate over the past year and a half is remarkable. Easily demonstratable facts and history are all but expunged from a media sphere devoting extensive attention to the war in Ukraine. Every MP in the House of Commons walks in lockstep and unlike the US no politicians with profile questions any element of official policy. Long-standing peace organizers’ efforts to host small public meetings that challenge the stunningly simplistic dominant narrative face aggressive, often successful, bids for them to be shut down.

Russia’s actions violate international law and are brutal. Its forces are responsible for thousands of Ukrainians civilian and tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers’ deaths. The damage to infrastructure and environment is also staggering. But that is well detailed in the Canadian media.

What is ignored in the dominant discussion is the context that could prompt Canadians to push Ottawa towards a contribution to ending, rather than escalating, the horrors. Stated bluntly, Canada helped provoke the conflict and is prolonging the horrors.

Four months ago, foreign minister Joly opposed the peace initiative presented by China. She’s also ignored recent peace initiatives proposed by Brazil and the African Union as well as the peace deal nearly struck in the first month of the war. Concurrently, Joly has suggested that Canada’s aim is to precipitate regime change in Moscow. Ottawa is prolonging the fighting in support of Washington’s bid to weaken Russia and further subordinate central Europe to its agenda.

Ukrainians are the ones dying but Canada is effectively at war with Russia. Over the past 17 months Canada has given $2 billion in arms, provided significant intelligence assistance, promoted former Canadian soldiers fighting, trained thousands of Ukrainian troops and dispatched special forces. Ottawa has sent troops and vessels throughout Eastern Europe and is spending $2.6 billion over three years to more than double its force in Latvia to 2,200 personnel. Canada has been leading a NATO battle group on Russia’s border since 2017.

As part of the alliance’s belligerence Minister Joly went to Kyiv in mid-January 2022 to promote Ukraine’s adhesion to NATO. She did so while more than one hundred thousand Russian troops were stationed on the border as part of Moscow’s bid to pressure Washington, Kyiv and NATO over the alliance. Joly knew full well her move would increase the likelihood of the horrors we are currently witnessing.

In 1990 Soviet/Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev agreed not to obstruct German reunification, to withdraw tens of thousands of troops from the east and for the new Germany to be part of NATO in return for assurances that the alliance wouldn’t expand “one inch eastward”.

Soon after taking office in 1993 Prime Minister Jean Chretien began promoting Poland’s adhesion to NATO even complaining the US wasn’t moving “fast enough” to incorporate that and other countries into the military alliance. Throughout this period major media outlets reported on Moscow’s opposition to NATO expansion yet Ottawa pushed to double the size of the alliance.

More provocatively, Chretien expressed support for Ukraine joining NATO in 1996 and in the lead-up to the controversial 2008 summit Prime Minister Harper joined George W. Bush in pressing for Ukraine’s adhesion to NATO. At the time most Ukrainians opposed joining the alliance and US officials recognized it could split the country in two.

In 2010 Victor Yanukovych, who opposed joining NATO, won presidential elections overseen by Canadian observers. That didn’t stop the Harper government from pursuing a multi-year campaign to weaken and ultimately help overthrow the elected president.

Not long after Yanukovych took office, Harper visited Ukraine with ultranationalist Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) head Paul Grod. During the trip Harper met opposition leaders and visited a controversial new nationalist museum. Canadian officials’ criticism of Yanukovych would grow, and early in the three-month Maidan protest movement foreign minister John Baird visited Maidan square with Grod to support the demonstrators.

At the height of the protests opposition forces, including the far-right C14, used the Canadian Embassy in Kyiv, which was immediately adjacent to Maidan square, as a staging ground for a week in their bid to topple Yanukovych.

After Yanukovych was ousted, Baird immediately “welcomed the appointment of a new government”, saying, “the appointment of a legitimate government is a vital step forward in restoring democracy and normalcy to Ukraine.” But the country’s constitutional provisions dealing with impeachment or replacing a president were flagrantly violated.

Days later Baird led a delegation of Conservative Party MPs and Ukrainian-Canadian representatives to meet the acting president and new prime minister. Ottawa announced $220 million in aid to the interim government and Harper was the first G7 leader to visit the interim government, telling the acting president, “you have provided inspiration and a new chapter in humanity’s ongoing story of the struggle for freedom, democracy and justice.”

The coup spurred right wing violence, Russia’s intervention in Crimea and a war that left 14,000 dead in the east. In February 2015 France and Germany oversaw a peace accord.

Two months after the Minsk II accord was concluded to end fighting in the east, Canada instigated a military mission in Ukraine, which the Russian Embassy in Ottawa labeled “deplorable.” It noted, “it would be much more reasonable to concentrate on diplomacy and encourage authorities in Kiev to finally enter into a genuine political dialogue with Donetsk and Lugansk Republics as it was agreed upon in ‘Minsk-2’ accords in February.”

Through Operation Unifier Canada effectively entered into a low-level proxy war with Russia, which Moscow massively expanded 17 months ago. Before Russia’s invasion Canada trained over 30,000 Ukrainian soldiers as part of Unifier, which cost $900 million.

The US and UK also began to train and equip Ukrainian forces as part of bringing it closer to NATO.

As part of UNIFIER Canadians trained far right forces including the Azov Battalion, which used the Nazi “Wolfsangel” symbol and praised officials who helped slaughter Poles, Russians and Jews during World War II. Ottawa has had a long dalliance with Ukrainian fascists.

After World War II Canada opened its door to tens of thousands of Ukrainian nationalists, many of whom had fought with the Nazis against the Soviets. A few years earlier McKenzie King’s government facilitated the creation of the UCC to undercut more socialist and internationalist elements within the community.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland provides a stark example of the influence of nationalist, anti-socialist and anti-Russian Ukrainian Canadians. Her grandfather was the editor of a pro-Nazi publication and Freeland’s mother helped write Ukraine’s centralizing post-independence constitution. In 1989 Freeland represented the UCC and Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at a congress of the Ukrainian People’s Front “delivering cash, video- and audio-recording equipment, and even a personal computer to her contacts” as part of efforts to undermine the Soviet Union.

Canadian support for nationalist, anti-socialist, forces in Ukraine has a long history. As part of the “psychological war against communism” External Affairs launched a Ukrainian section of Radio Canada International in 1952 to stoke opposition to the Soviet Union.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union Ottawa has spent tens, probably hundreds, of millions of dollars assisting anti-Russian Ukrainian civil society groups. It’s part of Canada’s effort to turn Ukraine into an anti-Russian bulwark.

Canada’s policy towards Ukraine is rooted in the centuries-old Great Game struggle over Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Much of the British garrison in Canada left for Crimea during the 1853-56 war and many Canadians also volunteered for British units fighting Russia. Between 1917 and 1920 six thousand Canadian troops invaded Russia and throughout the 1920s and 1930s Ottawa worked to isolate Moscow. After World War II an Iron Curtain descended over Europe with one hundred thousand Canadian troops stationed there from 1951 to 1993. Since 2017 a growing number of Canadian troops have been based on Russia’s border in Latvia.

Denying the geostrategic dynamic, Canadian officials claim the conflict is about democracy. But the Liberals work with many dictatorships and in 2019 the Trudeau government supported the ouster of Bolivia’s first Indigenous president Evo Morales. In December Ottawa backed the ouster of elected leftist Peruvian president Pedro Castillo.

The war in eastern Ukraine started with the Canadian-backed ouster of an elected president, which led to the banning of political parties and some media. A year before Russia’s illegal invasion Zelenskyy shuttered three television networks that criticized his failure to fulfill his election platform of ending the war in the east. He then detained the leader of his party’s biggest rival and after Russia’s invasion Ukraine imposed martial law. In Canada those pushing to expand Ottawa’s role in the fight often seek to suppress debate and civil liberties. It’s absurd to suggest that the war in Ukraine, or Canada’s role in it, is about advancing democracy. Rather than simplistic good vs evil, this is a multilayered geopolitical conflict that includes a significant internal Ukrainian conflict.

Unfortunately, there’s no simple solution to ending it. But Ottawa shouldn’t escalate it further. Nuclear Armageddon remains a possibility. If Canada was a force for good in the world, it would, at a minimum, begin talking about the need for peace negotiations and a truce.

Yves Engler’s latest book is Stand on Guard for Whom?: A People’s History of the Canadian Military.