Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy Comes To Canada
3 July, 2019

In his first trip to North America as Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to kick off the Ukraine Reform Conference in Toronto. The conference, co-hosted by Canada and Ukraine, is taking place on July 2-4. 

Ahead of a bilateral meeting on July 2, Prime Minister Trudeau emphasized the importance of the Canadian-Ukrainian friendship and told reporters that Canada will“continue to stand with Ukraine against Russian interference and aggression, and work to create a greater future – a better future – for all of our friends in Ukraine.” 

During the meeting, the two leaders signed an expansion of the Canada-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement, and discussed Ukraine’s efforts to advance democratic reforms needed for Euro-Atlantic integration. They also talked about the security situation in the region, given the ongoing war in Donbas, and Canadian arms exports to Ukraine, made possible after Global Affairs Canada lifted restrictions on Canadian companies selling weapons there in December 2017.

“Canada will always stand with the people of Ukraine, and will continue to support its efforts on the path to greater democracy, security, and prosperity,” the Prime Minister said.

“Ukraine’s comedian-turned-president” is an interesting political figure for Canadians, especially given the strong ties between Canada and Ukraine. Canada’s support for Ukraine dates back to 1991, when it became the first Western country to recognize Ukrainian independence after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Canada is also home to over 1.3 million people of Ukrainian heritage, including the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland.

“Delighted to welcome Ukraine’s President [Zelenskyy] to Canada,” the Foreign Affairs Minister wrote on Twitter after meeting with the Ukrainian president. “Canada stands with the people of Ukraine and their ambitious reform agenda.” 

Minister Freeland was one of the first Western politicians to visit Zelenskyy in Ukraine after he was elected president. She will be hosting the third Ukraine Reform Conference and is set to give a major speech there, as well. 

As Canadian media follows the events of the conference and President Zelenskyy’s visit, his fame as an actor and comedian has drawn the attention of reporters – along with his lack of political experience. But a senior Canadian official, who was present during the meeting and spoke with The Canadian Press anonymously, said that although the president and his team may be inexperienced, Canada is not worried that they will reorient Ukraine towards Russia and away from Canada and its other western allies.

In fact, the official described Zelenskyy’s former role playing the president of Ukraine on the television show “Servant of the People” in positive terms, saying the show “demonstrated a well-researched and sophisticated understanding of political and corruption,” The Canadian Press reported. 

The three-day reform conference, which will help Ukraine’s President set his agenda for his term in office, will host representatives from 30 countries and a number of major international organizations like the International Monetary Fund, NATO and the World Bank. 

U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations, Kurt Volker, is also among the conference attendees. In conversation with The Star, Volker said that the weak judicial system is hindering Ukraine’s reforms, which are vital for overcoming Russian aggression.

“You have a judiciary that has been subject to political influences from various directions for a long time,” Volker told The Star. “Investors do not have that confidence right now. Some terrible things are holding the Ukrainian economy back because it keeps foreign investment away.”

Zelenskyy is also planning to visit the United States next month, but as Ukrainian ambassador Andriy Shevchenko told CBC, the decision to come to Canada first was a deliberate indication of how important the Ukrainian President considers the ties between Canada and Ukraine. 

“[Zelenskyy] wants to have this personal connection, this personal touch. He wants to reassure this very important connection between the countries,” Shevchenko said. 

The Ukrainian diaspora is seen as an influential political force in Canada, especially ahead of the federal election in October. Representatives of the Progressive Conservative opposition have even criticized the Liberal government for not showing enough support for Ukraine. 

On July 2, Conservative Party representatives issued a statement calling on the Prime Minister Trudeau and the Liberal government to expand sanctions against Russia and increase military and development assistance to Ukraine. They also claimed that a Conservative government would advocate for sending Canadian troops to lead a peacekeeping mission along the Ukraine-Russia border. 

The Canadian Armed Forces are currently carrying out Operation UNIFIER in Ukraine, a mission focused on training to improve and build the capability and capacity of the country’s Security Forces. 

“It’s a very demonstrative gesture of support, but it’s also very practical support,” ambassador Shevchenko told Global News. “It means that less Ukrainian men and women in uniform die in the east of the country.” 

Canada also sent a special delegation of election monitors to oversee the March 2019 Ukrainian presidential election, in which Zelenskyy claimed a landslide 73% victory over incumbent president Petro Poroshenko. Canada is set to deploy more than 300 observers for the Parliamentary elections set for July 21.

Canadian media also underscored that in addition to the personal ties between the two countries, Canada has supplied $785 million worth of aid to Ukraine in the form of military, development, humanitarian, financial and other assistance since January 2014. 

During a press conference after his meeting with President Zelenskyy, Prime Minister Trudeau announced an additional $25 million in assistance for Ukraine to support democratic development reforms over the next six years.  

READ MORE: Canadian Troops Assist Ukraine In Military Transformation​

/Written by Eilish Hart