Russia-Canada: an interrupted dialogue that should be restored

The following letter had been submitted as an Opinion piece to several major Canadian news outlets: the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, The Ottawa Citizen, The Montreal Gazette, The Edmonton Journal, The Vancouver Sun, The Spectator. None of them considered it for publication.


September 7th, 2017

When the Canadian parliament reconvenes in September, one of the main items on its agenda is the final vote for a so-called Magnitsky Act bill, modeled after the American law which punishes Russian officials alleged to be responsible for the death of an accountant and auditor, Sergei Magnitsky,  in a Moscow prison in 2009. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland voiced the Canadian government’s official support for the bill in May 2017. ( ).

Canada’s previous Foreign Minister, Stephane Dion, opposed the bill, rightfully arguing that Canada already has laws in place that deal with foreign corrupt officials (Special Economic Measures Act and the Freezing Assets of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act) and that such a move would endanger the Liberal Government’s plans to re-engage Russia ( ). However, he lost to the powerful anti-Russian lobby within the Liberal Caucus. In January of 2017 Chrystia Freeland, an outspoken critic of Russia’s President Putin, was appointed the new Foreign Affairs Minister. She claims that the Russian leader is ‘a dangerous authoritarian’ who dreams about restoring some sort of Russian Empire and turns Russia into a dictatorship. Even though such stereotypes grossly distort Russian realities, they are shared by many in the Canadian political elite.

Normal, friendly relations with Russia, our Arctic neighbor, are among Canada’s basic national interests. In the first decade and a half after the Cold War, Canadian leaders recognized that, and Canadian-Russian relations entered a period of fruitful, wide-ranging cooperation. Canada actively supported Russia’s admission into G-7 and the World Trade Organization. In 1992, the two countries signed an agreement on cooperation in the Arctic and the North. In 1996, they became founding members of the Arctic Council, which has since grown into a major institution for regional cooperation. Economic ties expanded, as many Canadian companies moved to take advantage of new opportunities of business in Russia.

The relations began to deteriorate in 2006, after Stephen Harper became the Prime Minister. In the words of Christopher Westdal, former Canadian Ambassador to Russia, ‘for Stephen Harper, Vladimir Putin was persona evidently non grata from the start’ ( ). In 2014, Canadian-Russian relations went into a deep freeze as a result of the Ukraine Crisis. Today, more and more observers describe relations between the West and Russia as a second Cold War. And Canada looks like it is keen to wage it. But the new Cold War will not solve any problems of the world. Quite the opposite: it poses great threats to international security and peace. Canada does not need this war.

As Carleton University Professor Paul Robinson notes, Russians want an honest dialogue with the West based on due respect for Russia’s national interests ( ). There is no good reason why Canada should not engage Russia in such a dialogue. That was what Canada did in the first Cold War. Back then, Ottawa advocated relaxation, not exacerbation of tensions with Russia, being in the forefront of constructive dialog between East and West. Prime Minister Pierre Eliot Trudeau visited the Soviet Union and launched important peace and disarmament initiatives.

Instead of engaging in patently futile efforts to punish and isolate Russia, Canada should work with it in the areas where the two countries have common interests. As the two biggest Arctic countries, Russia and Canada are keenly interested in economic development of the region and the preservation of the Arctic natural environment. As members of the G-20, the two countries have common concerns regarding climate change, the state of the world economy, the challenge of international terrorism, the need to assure non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and many other important issues. And Canada will be the loser if it misses out on the great new business opportunities opening up in Eurasia with the new transcontinental regional cooperation projects championed by Russia, China and their partners.