On the morning of 18 February 2014, the uprising in Ukraine was about to reach its tipping point.
As the government prepared to meet to discuss opposition demands for a new constitution and fresh elections, some 20,000 protesters began their march on Kiev’s central square, buoyed by the call the day before for a ‘peace offensive’ against then-President Yanukovych and his government.
By the end of that bitter Tuesday, nearly 30 people from both sides of the uprising were dead. Two days later Yanukovych had fled, setting in motion a dramatic series of events, the effects of which continue to colour the conflict between eastern and western Ukraine today.
But in the midst of the tumult of that bloody day, a detail has emerged that has placed fresh pressure on the Canadian government to explain its role in the ongoing crisis.
An investigation by The Canadian Press – Canada’s national newswire service – the findings of which were published this week, has found that the Canadian embassy in Kiev harboured several of the anti-government protesters, fleeing the tumult unfolding in the city’s central square, for several days.
A protester, who was being chased by riot police, the investigation claims, waved a Canadian passport at the doors of the embassy. Once the doors were opened, several other protesters – who were carrying sticks and chunks of stone – followed suit, and remained in the main lobby of the embassy for at least a week.
Canada’s current ambassador to Ukraine has confirmed the incident, something neither Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government, nor the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has done. The opening of the doors, Canada’s current ambassador told The Canadian Press, was a “gesture designed to react and to reach out to the people suffering in the turmoil”. Some of the protesters even left flowers for embassy staff before leaving their encampment there, the ambassador has said.
But several of Canada’s European allies have expressed concern over the incident – stating, off the record, that by giving refuge in this way and allowing the protesters such freedom within the embassy walls, Canada’s diplomatic mission in the country became an active participant in the political upheaval underway.
What Canada’s international role should be has been a key area of focus for the current government here; this past year has seen Canada become an active participant in missions in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine too. This apparent shift away from what many see to be Canada’s traditional role as a peacekeeper in international affairs is popular in some quarters, but is cause for concern for many.
With a general election looming in mid-October and opinion polls tightening over recent weeks, the incident at the Canadian embassy in Kiev on that Tuesday in February a year ago will surely add another question mark to the kind of nation Canada would like to be on the international stage.
Tomos Lewis is Monocle’s Toronto bureau chief.