Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Honourable John Baird weighs in on the crisis in Ukraine, strong ties with Israel, growing ties with Kazakhstan and his priorities as the MP for Ottawa West-Nepean
OLM: Can you comment on your impressions on the Ukraine situation after your visit with members from Canada’s Ukrainian diaspora?
My visit to Kyiv was a very sobering one. Just last December, I was in the Maidan speaking with Ukrainians about their aspirations for a better, brighter future, one that embraced not only the values of their Euro-Atlantic aspirations but also their westward economic interests. Visiting just a few months later brought a very different feeling. Just days after more than a hundred people were gunned down and brutally killed by the regime, the destruction and sorrow in the Maidan was palpable. My goal in visiting was to convey our support for the new government in Kyiv, and to the Ukrainian people who have suffered deep losses. The situation in Ukraine is very concerning for Canada. It’s concerning for a few reasons. First, the military occupation of Crimea by Russian forces is absolutely unacceptable. We believe, along with our G7 partners, that Ukraine’s territorial integrity must be respected, and the Ukrainian people must be free to determine their own future. We continue to call on President Putin to immediately withdraw his military forces. Secondly, the crisis in Ukraine demands stability from years of corruption. In my recent trip to Kyiv, I had the opportunity to meet with the new government, and raise with them the need for elections to move forward as planned. Obviously the economic situation in Ukraine will need to be addressed by the international community, and we continue to work with the IMF to address those needs. The Ukrainian-Canadian community plays an invaluable role in the insights and views our government holds. It has a deep connection to its country, and that is why Prime Minister Harper and I have been meeting with Ukrainian-Canadians right across our country to hear their views, and their hopes for their native land.
OLM: What is the main message you’re getting from Canadians of Ukrainian heritage regarding this situation?
Ukrainian-Canadians are obviously very worried. The long shadow cast over Ukraine by Russia is something that is all too familiar to the Ukrainian people. So they have spoken out loudly, and our government has listened, and we continue to look for more ways in which we can support the Ukrainian people in their time of need.
OLM: If Canada and other like-minded countries were to impose sanctions against Russia, could this adversely affect Canadian companies doing business in Russia? If so, what is your advice to these companies at this time?
I think that’s speculative at this point. We will continue to work closely with our allies and G7 partners. Canada has already frozen the assets and applied travel bans to members of the Yanukovych regime, and we have other measures at our disposal to pressure the Russian Federation to take another course, and immediately withdraw their forces.
OLM: What is the most significant thing Canadians can do to show its support for the people of Ukraine?
I think Ukrainian-Canadians have done a wonderful job in rallying their friends and family to condemn Russia’s actions and convey their hopes for a democratic and prosperous Ukraine. Their message is being heard by all political leaders, and I hope they remain engaged moving forward.
OLM: Previously you have spoken out against the incarceration of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. As you know, she was recently released from prison. Did you see her on your recent visit and can you provide us with an update on her current condition?
I did have the chance to meet with Yulia Tymoshenko. We had a good discussion about the future of Ukraine, and her well-being. She has been through a very trying ordeal, and she’s obviously suffered from it. While she seemed frail, her spirit and drive was very strong for the country she cares so passionately about.
OLM: Under your leadership the Canadian government has shown very strong support for Israel. Can you make a general comment on Canada’s policy towards Israel? Can you also comment on Canada’s policy towards Palestinians in the region?
We believe that Israel, the lone liberal democracy in the Middle East should have our unwavering support. The leadership that the Prime Minister has shown in the Middle East is inspiring. While we support the state of Israel, and believe in the Jewish state’s right to exist, we also support the aspirations of the Palestinian people. I’ve had many discussions with my counterpart in the Palestinian Authority, and have always maintained the position that the only way for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East, is for the two sides to negotiate a settlement. Canada is very pleased that a dialogue is maintained, under the leadership of Secretary of State John Kerry, and we fundamentally support this process. There can be no substitute of direct negotiations.
OLM: As Foreign Affairs Minister your duties take you to many countries. Late last year you visited Kazakhstan, as a guest of Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Erlan A. Idrissov and Konstantin V. Zhigalov, Kazakhstan Ambassador to Canada. Do you ever think when you’re on such travels so far away from home, “This is such a different reality from where I grew up in Ottawa?” Please comment.
I am truly blessed to represent Canada on the world stage, and I do it with a great amount of respect and humility. This job has kept me on the road quite regularly, and it is wonderful to see some of the most amazing cities, countries and people. While these places are different, there is no doubt that there is no place like home in Ottawa. It has been a real honour to serve in Stephen Harper’s cabinet, but there is no greater honour than serving the people of Ottawa in the House of Commons.
OLM: What were your general impressions of Kazakhstan and is there potential for Canadian companies to do business in Kazakhstan?
I was quite impressed at the state of economic growth in Kazakhstan. I had an opportunity to meet with a variety of government officials during my visit to talk about how Canada and Kazakhstan can cooperate more closely on a variety of fronts. We had a chance to sign a Nuclear Cooperation Agreement during my visit, which will be huge for jobs here in Canada. Our nuclear industry in Canada generates well over $5 billion in electricity annually, and accounts for $1 billion a year in uranium exports.
Little known as well, but Kazakhstan is Canada’s leading merchandise trade partner among Central Asian and Eastern European countries, while Canada is Kazakhstan’s leading merchandise trade partner in the Americas. So there is a good foundation of economic cooperation that I think we can continue to build on.
OLM: You’ve received high marks from both the government and the opposition as Minister of Foreign Affairs. You’ve also managed to be a very effective MP for your riding of Ottawa West-Nepean. How do you balance the requirements of serving your constituents and your duties as Foreign Affairs Minister?
It’s obviously more difficult when you’re on the road as much as I have been, but I always keep in touch with my constituency office, keep I am truly blessed to represent Canada on the world stage, and I do it with a great amount of respect and humility. a close eye on local news, and have been known to listen to CFRA no matter where I am in the world. It’s not uncommon that some mornings my staff wakes up in Ottawa to hear me calling into CFRA from China, or somewhere in the Middle East. Also, having the National Capital Commission under my portfolio has helped me keep up with local issues. As a politician, you can never forget those who placed their trust in you, so being an effective Member of Parliament is my first and most important job.
OLM: On a local level can you tell us in your opinion what are the top priorities in your riding at this time and what are the top priorities for the federal government for the city of Ottawa?
I’ve stated for a long time now that cleaning up the Ottawa River remains my greatest priority. I’m proud of the work we have done to date, but there is still more to do. In this day and age, it is not acceptable to dump what amounts to raw sewage in our waterways. This is a moral issue, and we have to ensure the city we leave behind for future generations is better than the one we inherited. I am also proud of the level of infrastructure money we have been able to secure for the city. I think we’d have to back a long way to find another time in history where Ottawa has received more federal support than under the leadership of Prime Minister Harper. All of these local priorities fit our government’s agenda, and our priority to create jobs and economic growth. And when I’m on trips to other countries they often marvel at the Canadian economy, and how well we have been able to weather the economic storm.