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A Tribute to Brian Mulroney. The leadership he demonstrated in mobilizing international recognition of Independent Ukraine serves as a magnificent example for today’s leaders to follow

Mar 7, 2024 | Editorials, Featured

Brian Mulroney

Marco Levytsky, Editorial Writer.

The date was August 30, 1991. The site was the Edmonton Convention Centre. The event was the National Opening Ceremonies of the Centennial of Ukrainians in Canada. It was a cultural extravaganza marking an historic milestone. But six days earlier an even more momentous event took place. Ukraine’s Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, had declared Ukraine’s independence, pending approval in a popular referendum. The keynote speaker at the Opening Ceremonies was Canada’s Prime Minister Brian Mulroney who, two days earlier, at a press conference with U.S. President George H. W. Bush, pledged to recognize Ukraine’s independence should it be approved by the referendum. That evening he re-iterated his pledge.

“It’s important… that Canada’s position be set out clearly. Canada believes that the pace of change in Ukraine will be established by the Ukrainian people themselves and by nobody else. And Canada pledges to respect and respect fully, the free and democratically expressed will of the Ukrainian people whatever their decisions may be,” he announced to the thunderous applause of over 4,100 people present.

“Moreover, as I assured your leadership this afternoon, Canada will carefully monitor developments in Ukraine to ensure that the will of the Ukrainian people is carefully respected. In the meantime, we will continue to work with your community to devising an approach to what are very sensitive issues,” he added.
Mulroney was true to his word. When Ukrainians opted for independence with a resounding 91 per cent of the vote on December 1, Canada became the first Western country and the second in the world after Poland, to recognize Ukraine as an independent state. In what seems unbelievable today, the third country to do so on December 2 was the Russian Federation, still technically a part of the Soviet Union, but virtually independent under President Boris Yeltsin.

But, aside from that historic step, Mulroney, who passed away on February 29, did much more for our community. He named his former Justice Minister Ramon Hnatyshyn as Canada’s first (and to-date-only) Governor General of Ukrainian descent. His Deputy Prime Minister Don Mazankowski, who was of Polish descent, but married to a Canadian of Ukrainian descent and represented Vegreville, a constituency with one of the largest if not the largest concentration of Ukrainian Canadians in the country, giving our community the strongest voice in cabinet that we had up to that time. Mazankowski’s connection with Mulroney was instrumental in funding the Ukrainian Resource and Development Centre at Grant MacEwan College (now University) with a $500,000 donation that, together with a three for one matching grant from the province, established the $2 million financial foundation for the Centre thereafter. Just before his retirement as Prime Minister, Mulroney nominated Saskatchewan Justice Raynell Andreychuk to the Senate. She turned out to be a tireless advocate for issues important to our community. Sen. Andreychuk sponsored both Bill C-459, an act to establish a Holodomor Memorial Day and to recognize the Ukrainian famine as genocide, and Bill S-226, the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act (Sergei Magnitsky Law). Mulroney’s very first public appearance after he took his seat in the House of Commons as the new Leader of the Opposition in 1983 was at Ukrainian Day, held at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village before a record crowd of 10,000 attendees.
But what makes his recognition of Ukraine so significant was not only what it meant for Ukraine, but what it meant for Canada on a global scale. Historians often refer to Canada’s role as “linchpin” of the English-speaking world. This stems from a 1941 speech at a luncheon in honour of Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King by Sir Winston Churchill (who also coined the term “Iron Curtain”) in which he stated: “Canada is the linchpin of the English-speaking world. Canada, with those relations of friendly, affectionate intimacy with the United States on the one hand and with her unswerving fidelity to the British Commonwealth and the Motherland on the other, is the link which joins together these great branches of the human family.”

Although it is praiseworthy, the term is somewhat paternalistic as it implies that Canada occupies a junior position with the two major powers. But on the issue of Ukrainian independence, as with Apartheid, Mulroney took Canada far beyond its “linchpin” designation and established our country as the moral leader of the English-speaking world.

In the 1980s, Mulroney supported the liberation movement in South Africa, which opposed colonialism and white-minority rule in that country. He called for the release of Nelson Mandela and imposed sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid regime, while pushing U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to do the same. When Mandela was released from prison, he called Mulroney and reportedly said, “We regard you as one of our great friends because of the solid support we have received from you and Canada over the years.”

It was a very similar case with Ukraine. Deferring to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, U.S. President George H.W. Bush was initially opposed to Ukrainian independence. Speaking to the Verkhovna Rada of the then Ukrainian SSR on August 1, 1991, Bush cautioned against “suicidal nationalism”. This outraged Ukrainian nationalists and American conservatives, with the conservative New York Times columnist William Safire calling it the “Chicken Kiev speech”. Both the United States and the United Kingdom took much longer to recognize independent Ukraine – the U.S. on December 25 – 23 days after Canada’s lead and 17 days after Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, Yeltsin and Belarusian President Stanislav Shushkevich, signed the Belovezh Accords, which declared that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. The United Kingdom was even later, not recognizing Ukraine until December 31. For his role in cementing Canada as the first Western Nation to formally recognize Ukrainian independence, only a day after the referendum, Mulroney was awarded the Grand Cross with Collar of the Order of Kniaz Yaroslav the Wise by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in 2007.

“Ukrainians will always remember that Brian Mulroney’s government was the first in the Western Hemisphere to recognize Ukraine’s independence in 1991. This laid a solid foundation for Ukraine and Canada to continue their true friendship,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote on social media.

As the tributes to Mulroney come in, most concentrate on such accomplishments as the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement which led to the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the Acid Rain agreement. But the leadership role he took recognizing Ukraine’s independence is not only a tribute to the man, but a reflection of Canada’s potential to affect real change in defence of democracy and human rights that serves as a magnificent example for today’s leaders to follow.

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