Ukrainian Canadian Congress, the politician’s sounding board

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Wednesday February 5, 2014
Peter Mazereeuw

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Ukrainian Canadian Congress, the politician’s sounding board

A half-hour into a House of Commons emergency debate on Ukraine on Jan. 27, Conservative member of Parliament James Bezan stood and told his peers that “a lot of ideas are coming forward from the Ukrainian Canadian Congress” on how to address the violence and unrest in that country. 

Five minutes later, NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar listed a half-dozen of those ideas he said came from a brief sent to him and other parliamentarians by the diaspora group, including the imposition of visa restrictions and travel bans “for those who are responsible for these horrific crackdowns,” according to Mr. Dewar. 

The UCC was mentioned 16 times in the debate by seven MPs from all major parties. The next day, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander told reporters the government would ban travel to Canada for “key Ukrainian government officials that have been responsible for the oppression and silencing of opposition voices,” and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said it would take further action if required.

On Jan. 30, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Mr. Bezan, Ted Opitz—who chairs the Canada Ukraine interparliamentary friendship group—and Senator Raynell Andreychuk—who helped lead a Canadian election observation in Ukraine—sat down with leaders from Canada’s Ukrainian community, including the UCC, to discuss the situation further. 

That meeting, in addition to others with government ministers, “will give you the scale of the influence” the UCC and Ukrainian diaspora have cultivated with the federal government in recent years, Ukrainian ambassador Vadym Prystaiko said in a phone interview. 

The UCC is an umbrella group that, through its member organizations, represents one of the larger diasporas in Canada. More than 1.2 million individuals identify themselves as Ukrainian-Canadian. However, the UCC manages to organize better than comparably sized diaspora groups, and punch above its weight in terms of lobbying the federal government, experts suggested, thanks largely to historical and political factors.

The UCC has been organizing members for more than 70 years. Ukrainian immigrants flooded to Canada over the past century fleeing poverty and oppression from Soviet and Nazi invaders, and those hardships kept the community together, said Yaroslav Baran, a political consultant at Earnscliffe Strategy Group and former chief of staff in the Harper government with roots in the Ukrainian community.

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