Published: Wednesday, 02/10/2016 12:00 am EST
Andriy Shevchenko comes to Canada as a new diplomat with a story to tell.
The ambassador of Ukraine to Canada, a political appointee who officially took up the job in December, is putting his communication expertise as a journalist and politician to use.
Standing tall, the 39-year-old former editor-in-chief of Ukraine’s first 24-hour news channel is at ease when the tables are turned and he’s the interviewee, talking to Embassy about his new diplomatic mission on Jan. 25.
“I think my mission is to find proper words to tell the truth about what has been happening in Ukraine, what we are going to do in the future, how the country is changing...and what kind of help we need in this situation and how together we can make this world a safer place.”
His Ukraine is one still in conflict with Russia in the east, and one reforming a corruption-soaked bureaucracy after the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in early 2014. Though that view of Ukraine is contested, especially after the country’s economic minister resigned last week because he didn’t want to serve as “cover-up” for “covert corruption” he compared to the old government.
Ten ambassadors including Canada’s top representative in Kyiv wrote a joint letter urging Ukrainian politicians to “press forward on vital reforms.”
Mr. Shevchenko, speaking to the Ottawa Citizen said the Ukrainian president has taken seriously the minister’s arguments, and the country is working to fight corruption.
“The country has changed,” the ambassador told Embassy on Jan. 25. “The country has become much more mature. Now we understand that freedom is not something which you can...once make, and then it stays forever.”
He knows the high price of freedom firsthand, he indicated. His relative went missing in the eastern city of Donetsk in July 2014 and has not been heard from since, he said. His wife and three kids were forced to move to Kyiv and stay with Mr. Shevchenko’s family, the envoy said.
As a three-term member of Ukrainian parliament, he also participated in the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv against the Yanukovych government in the winter of 2013-14.
At times, that meant going to court hearings to defend the protesters, physically taking them from police hands or helping to identify the dead.
“On Feb. 20, when the snipers started shooting, you take a dead person and you check the pockets. If you’re lucky you will find an ID which will help you to understand who this person is.”
If you’re not that lucky, he said, you could find the person’s cell phone. “You scroll down numbers and you don’t call mom, you don’t call honey or darling, but you would find someone’s name and you dial,” and ask them to come to help take care of their friend’s body, he said.
By the end of Feb. 20, 2014, more than 50 people would die, including many protesters and a few police officers, according to BBC News.
Though Mr. Shevchenko served his country as a politician and reporter, when he got the call to do it as ambassador to Canada, he and his family initially said no. His life in the media and politics meant he was attached to his city and country. But after more exploration, he said, his family realized it was an opportunity and they shouldn’t be afraid to try something new.
Though he once worked for an Edmonton-based Ukrainian newspaper, he said he’d never been to Canada. His wife, Hanna Homonai, took a break from her job as a TV presenter and they moved along with their 11-year-old daughter, Maria.
Different words, same substance
Mr. Shevchenko expects to use his communications and coalition-building skills to advance a busy agenda.
Canada, he said, was one of the first countries to slap sanctions on Russia for its actions related to Ukraine, and to provide the Ukrainian military with resources like boots and training, for which his country is grateful.
The Ukrainian government has for months been pushing Canada to take that help a step further to give weapons to help fight the Russians. The previous Conservative government looked into it, going as far as to consult Canadians on putting Ukraine on an arms-export country list. But NATO members have also feared that arming Ukraine could escalate the conflict, and a Conservative defence minister spoke of acting only with allies.
“If the situation requires further steps, and if it requires defensive weapons, then we would expect Canada to be among the leaders in that,” said Mr. Shevchenko.
Pressed by Conservatives about giving more military aid, Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion has not committed to it, but emphasized that under his government “Canada’s support for Ukraine is solid and will remain.”
He was in the country earlier this month to show that support, meeting with the prime minister and foreign minister. Mr. Dion’s visit came only days after showing his willingness to open the lines of communication with Russia again after the Conservatives virtually stopped talking to its officials. The Tories have accused the Liberals of putting engagement with Russia above strong support for Ukraine. There are around 1.2 million Canadians of Ukrainian origin, making it a strong political constituency.
“I see some different words and different packaging. But I think on the substance, Canada is very committed to supporting Ukraine across party lines,” said Mr. Shevchenko.
One strong supporter of Ukraine in the Liberal camp is Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland, whom Mr. Shevchenko has known since the 1990s when they were both journalists. “I really keep my fingers crossed for her personal success,” he said.
He expected to soon meet with her in her new job, where they are both tasked with helping to implement a free trade agreement Ukraine and Canada concluded talks on last summer. Mr. Shevchenko said he hoped it would be signed and ratified in 2016. He’s planning a big business forum in Toronto in May to boost trade.
Other priorities he hopes to push include continued Canadian technical assistance to Ukraine on issues like judicial and police reform.
Visa-free travel for Ukrainians to Canada is also a goal. While a few years ago talking about visa liberalization was like a “science fiction conversation,” he pointed to the European Union’s recent move to lift visas on Ukrainians as a good sign that it could happen in Canada too.