Unity at risk: The domestic strife testing Canada’s commitment to Ukraine

Canada’s support for Ukraine is becoming intertwined with domestic political competition, raising questions about the steadfastness of one of Kyiv’s main supporters

Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky, European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen and Prime Minister Alexander De Croo pictured during a joint press conference, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday 24 February 2024. Belgian Prime Minister and European Commission President are on a visit in Ukraine, on the day of the second year’ anniversary of the start of the conflict with Russia. BELGA PHOTO BENOIT DOPPAGNE
PM of Canada Justin Trudeau, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky, EC president Ursula Von der Leyen pictured during a joint press conference, in Kyiv

Until very recently, Ukraine enjoyed widespread bipartisan support in Canada. During President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to Ottawa in September 2023, he received a hero’s welcome. This stood in stark contrast to his visit to the United States during the days before, made after cracks in Washington’s Ukraine policy had started to emerge. However, over the last few months, Canada’s policy on Ukraine has also become much less unanimous and is increasingly instrumentalised in domestic politics. Canada is currently the second-strongest non-European donor to Ukraine after the US, and the fourth-strongest overall (after the EU institutions, the US, and the United Kingdom). As Europeans watch and worry about the developments in the US policy on Ukraine, they should keep an eye on Canada too.

Zelensky’s first call of the year was with the liberal Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau. Zelensky expressed his gratitude for the reassurance that Canada’s support to his country would continue and stressed that Ukraine values this cooperation. This followed a period of Ukraine controversy in Canada, during which the opposition Conservative party made several unexpected and controversial decisions regarding its Ukraine policy.

First, in November, the Conservatives voted against an updated free trade agreement with Ukraine, which Trudeau and Zelensky had proudly signed during the latter’s visit in September 2023. The Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre claimed that the agreement would impose a carbon tax on the people of Ukraine, “betraying” the war-torn country, and rejected the deal. Ukraine noted that the carbon provisions in the text were non-binding and do not include taxation instruments, but this did not change the Conservatives’ stance. The carbon tax had become a major issue in domestic Canadian politics, and the Ukraine trade agreement was just one chapter of that fight. The free trade agreement finally passed through the House of Commons in February, despite the Conservatives retaining their objection.

Then, in December, the Conservatives voted against spending estimates for the Department of National Defence, including for the Canadian military training mission in Ukraine, Operation Unifier. The non-profit political organisation, Ukrainian Canadian Congress, responded by recalling that Canada’s support for Ukraine should be exempt from political games. But this Conservative move provided a great deal of fodder for those very games: the Liberals used this occasion to present the Conservatives as enemies of Ukraine, and their actions as disgraceful. When Poilievre referred to Ukraine as a “far away foreign land”, the Liberals again expressed outrage, accusing Poilievre of showing his true colours.

While the federal elections in Canada are still far away – they must take place before October 2025, though could happen sooner – the Conservative opposition is in full campaign mode, and has impressive results to show for it: it is currently leading in the polls with 41 per cent support, compared to the ruling Liberal party’s 24 per cent. Until recently, the Conservatives had focused on domestic policies like the affordability crisis and lack of housing, on which they have presented the Liberals as out of touch. Poilievre had mostly steered clear of foreign policy issues, making it difficult to gauge his stance.

But now the domestic fight has extended to the international. The Liberals have begun sounding the alarm that the Conservatives, once in power, would throw Ukraine under the bus, and Trudeau has even suggested that they are influenced by the right-wing “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) movement from across the border. He believes that if elected, a Conservative government would not work with Canada’s European allies and would turn its back on the rules-based international order.

The Liberals have begun sounding the alarm that the Conservatives, once in power, would throw Ukraine under the bus

Several Conservative members of parliament have countered these accusations and presented the Conservatives’ historically strong pro-Ukrainian and pro-NATO credentials. However, few dispute that in the past Conservatives were strong defenders of Ukraine. The future is the problem – and the Conservative party’s future foreign policy is not obvious. Poilievre mostly equivocates when asked to take a clear stand on support for Ukraine. Admittedly, he marked the second anniversary of the invasion by attending a pro-Ukraine rally and promising that “Canada will always stand with Ukraine in the fight for freedom and democracy against Putin’s tyranny”. However, given the recent Conservative votes it is not clear whether he means it.

Moreover, it remains to be seen whether Conservative voters approve of this message.

New polls from early February shows that the number of Canadians that believe Canada is offering “too much support” to Ukraine has grown significantly since 2022. It is mostly Conservative voters who hold this sentiment: 43 per cent, compared to 10 per cent of Liberal voters.

So far, Canada’s support for Ukraine has been substantial. With nearly 1.4 million people of Ukrainian descent, Canada has the world’s second-largest Ukrainian diaspora after Russia. But as Ukraine becomes a domestic policy issue, it is likely to become increasingly contentious. The Liberals insist on strengthening support for Ukraine, and Trudeau has just returned from Kyiv, where he signed a security cooperation agreement with Ukraine (making Canada the first non-European country to do so). But the Conservative party seems to be hedging its bets in case Donald Trump is re-elected as US president again.

Europeans are currently anxiously discussing the possibility of a second Trump presidency and its consequences for Ukraine’s defence. Canada, meanwhile, is still perceived as the reliable, stable partner across the Atlantic: one EU diplomat described the recent Canada-EU summit – where the topic of Trump unsurprisingly dominated – as “boring” because of its lack of disagreements. But a change of guard in Canada looks increasingly likely and could produce a government that is much less supportive of Ukraine and may, in the event of a Trump presidency, choose to work more closely with the US rather than ally with Europe.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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