Ignatieff alienates many Ukrainian-Canadians

By Oksana Bashuk Hepburn,

The Edmonton Journal, March 11, 2009

Is Russia’s neo-colonial thinking creeping into Canada? Russia’s nasty tactics to corral its “near abroad” are well-known globally. Its strong-arm tactics to reassert power over Ukraine - the largest country in Europe - by interfering in elections and threatening nuclear attacks if it moves closer to the West by joining NATO are not lost on Canada and some of its 1.3 million Canadians of Ukrainian descent, including the 125,000 strong in Edmonton. Russia’s neo-colonial thinking allowed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to inform former President George W. Bush that Ukraine is not a nation. He’s not alone.

In his little book Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism, Michael Ignatieff, now leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, belittles Ukrainians: “Ukrainian independence conjures up images of embroidered peasant shirts, the nasal whine of ethnic instruments ...” and reverts to historic self-aggrandisement of the oppressor over the hoi polloi.

“My difficulty in taking Ukraine (its sovereignty) seriously goes deeper ... I’m also what Ukrainians call a Great Russian, and there is a trace of old Russian disdain for these ‘little Russians.’ ”

Such chauvinism, couched in redneck language coming from a Canadian as late as 1995, is shocking, particularly in light of exposed genocides of Ukrainians under imperialism from Moscow - czarist or Communist. What makes matters worse, they were penned by an author who aspires to lead Canada - a country steeped in commitments to multiculturalism, human rights and equality.

Ignatieff’s “great Russia” syndrome echoes Moscow’s official line. It is ever-present in the high-handed way Russia’s Ambassador to Ukraine, Viktor Chernomyrdin, behaves there. During the recent gas war, he called Ukrainian political leaders “buffoons.” Last month’s widely reported references to “dog-fights” and “muzhyk” - an insult directed at Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko approximating invective hurled at African-Americans prior to desegregation or at French-Canadians prior to the Quiet Revolution - caused Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Volodymyr Ohryzko, to warn Chernomyrdin of possible expulsion as a persona non grata for “unfriendly and extremely undiplomatic comments regarding Ukraine and its leadership.”

Rather than apologize, Russia’s foreign ministry blamed Ukraine: “It is amazing how consistent the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has been in its attempts to damage Russian-Ukrainian co-operation.”

Other than underscore the belligerent nature of Russia’s neo-colonialism, what does this have to do with Canada?

Instead of mending fences with the Ukrainian Canadian community and, for that matter, most liberal-minded Canadians, who would squirm at the tone and content of his little tome’s messages were they familiar with it, Ignatieff has made things worse.

A few weeks ago, he turfed Borys Wrzesnewskyj, Liberal MP for Etobicoke Centre and Critic for Citizenship and Immigration and Multiculturalism, from the shadow cabinet. Wrzesnewskyj was the only voice of Ukrainian-Canadians in the group. Now they have none.

It is the leader’s prerogative to make appointments, a determination based on many factors. Appeal to voters, past performance, regard in the party and favours owing all figure in the decisions, but regional representation and equal access of Canadians to power sharing is not to be overlooked lightly.

In his decision, Ignatieff seems to have let his “blood and belonging” to the Great Russian syndrome get in the way. He dismissed not just an MP but, once again, the entire Ukrainian-Canadian community as being unworthy of serious treatment, and with it their contribution to making Canada an agricultural powerhouse; their present numbers and influence in the West; and a winsome Liberal emissary with access to Canada’s Central and East European communities.

Not a prescient start of a winner. Ignatieff might have done better by asking Wrzesnewskyj to organize a meeting with the leaders of the Ukrainian Canadian community and admitting the Russian “colonial-speak” in his monogram is outdated and dangerous.

This would have done more to mend fences with Canadians who abhor Soviet crimes against humanity. More, it would have shown the Liberal leader is steeped in Canada’s liberal tradition, rather than linked to dated colonial views of his Russian forebears. Or linked to the current Russian neo-imperialism aggressively sowing unrest in today’s charged world, be it Chechnya, Georgia, Iran, Venezuela and, closer to home, unilaterally claiming that the Arctic Shelf, part of Canada’s North, belongs to Russia.

But Ignatieff chose differently. Unlike America’s President Barack Obama, whose electoral campaign and formulation of cabinet are exemplary in attempting to unify, reach for the best qualified, and heal in troubled times - Hillary Clinton and Republicans in his cabinet come to mind - Ignatieff excluded and disqualified a competent MP and with him an entire body of Canadians.

This behaviour has more in common with the arrogant Russian rather than Canadian politician. This should worry Liberals and all Canadians.

Oksana Bashuk Hepburn is the retired president of U*CAN Ukraine Canada Relations Inc. and a political commentator.