Ihor OSTASH: The attitude to the Ukrainian language in Canada is fantastic

30.06.2011, 16:21
Two megaprojects and a “door to America”

Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych recently decreed that Ihor Ostash be relieved from his current positions as Ukraine’s ambassador to Canada and representative at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which he has held since September 2006. The Day called Ostash and asked him to tell us what he had managed to do over this time, how the Canadian diaspora and Ottawa officials assess the democratic processes in our country, and what lessons Ukraine should draw from Canadian multiculturalism.


When I called you yesterday [the interview was recorded on June 17. —Ed.], you said you had not seen the president’s decree on your dismissal. So how did you come to know this?

“I learned this from the Internet. But, to tell the truth, the decree was followed by a letter from the minister, which I think is normal practice.”

And may this decision have been caused by the Canadian diaspora’s attitude to the current leadership and to what is going on in Ukraine?

“I would not exaggerate this factor, although, naturally, the diaspora in Canada is rather powerful and exerts influence on the overall situation in Canada and on the decisions the Canadian government makes, especially regarding Ukraine. There have been an extremely large number of statements and appeals from the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and the Ukrainian World Congress about the situation in Ukraine. I think the relations between Ukraine and Canada will further depend on which way Ukraine will be developing. This is beyond any doubt. Canada has been repeatedly emphasizing in its statements that it is really important for it that Ukraine develop as a European, democratic, and rule-of-law state. In my opinion, these issues will continue to be of paramount importance for the Canadian government.”

Could you forecast the attitude of the recently formed government of Canada to Ukraine?

“The conservative government still remains in power after the elections. Clearly, there still is quite a strong desire for cooperation. The only change is that it is a majority government this time. This will allow ministers, including the head of government and the minister of foreign affairs, to pay more attention to foreign policy matters. Obviously, the number of foreign visits will be on the rise. So we can say that, to some extent, there will be more interest in the foreign political strategy. Indeed, Canada will be trying to project the image of a world leader — also in such matters as democratic development.”

But it seems that neither Canada’s parliament, nor its government have made statements this year about “selective justice” and a worsened situation with democracy in Ukraine, while such messages have been coming from France, Germany, and the US.

“The Canadian parliament was in fact in an election race in April and May. For this reason, many foreign policy issues remained untouched. Now the Cabinet has been formed and ministers have been appointed. I think in this situation the government of Canada will be far more active in these matters.”


To sum up your work in Canada, what were your main achievements in these four and a half years?

“We managed to do very much. We managed to raise bilateral Ukrainian-Canadian relations to a much higher level. And, unlike previously, the two countries continue to hold a highest-level political dialog.

“Of paramount importance for me are negotiations on a free trade area. We recently finished a third round of the talks, with a fourth to take place in October in Ottawa. All this brings us closer to the establishment of a free trade area or what may be called a door to America.

“It was also extremely important for us to thrash out differences in the question of visa requirements. Exchange also remained a top-priority issue for us last year during the visit of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, when we signed a memorandum on the exchange of young people. This memorandum came into force last April. This means that under-35 Ukrainians and Canadians can travel for as long as a year to Canada and Ukraine, respectively, to study, work, or just see this country. It is a very powerful mechanism indeed for educating serious specialists, politicians, etc.

“Canadian experience in this field is invaluable for us. Still in progress is the Ukrainian-Canadian Parliamentary Program, whereby almost 30 young Ukrainian students are training as assistants to Canadian MPs. Many graduates of this program now work at various international organizations, diplomatic corps, and political bodies. This is our untapped resource for the future.”

This is what has already been done, and what is planned for this year?

“It is a special year, for the first Ukrainian settlers came to Canada 120 years ago. This event will be actively marked both in Canada and Ukraine, with the activity reaching the peak in June and July. We are preparing such an important project as unveiling a monument to Taras Shevchenko in Ottawa. Thus our Bard will come at last onto the metropolitan soil. Participants will include ministers, the speaker of the Canadian parliament’s Senate, MPs, and local government representatives. [Verkhovna Rada] Vice-Speaker Mykola Tomenko and a delegation from Kaniv are expected to see the monument unveiled on the Ukrainian part. I think this will be a historic landmark for Ukrainian Canadians.

“June 23 will see the launching of another serious project — the departure of the Historic Train of Ukrainian Pioneers from Halifax. The first Ukrainians arrived in Halifax. [Incidentally, one of the passengers of this train will be The Day’s journalist Mykola Khriienko. — Ed.] We will travel from this point to Western Canada, stopping over in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, and Edmonton. We will hold festive events all along the way, in which the Ukrainian community, Canadian politicians, local government officials, and entertainers will be involved. I think this will promote information about the difficult 120-year-long history of Canadian Ukrainians, which we can regard as great political experience. Ukrainians in Canada have been extremely successful as an ethnic community.

“Getting this project ready, we studied archives and found a lot of information about the Ukrainians in Canada, which we want to share with the whole world. I would advise all Ukrainians to visit Facebook’s page ‘Canadian Train of Ukrainian Pioneers’ and see the historical materials that radically change your idea of this 120-year-long history.”


You spent four and a half years in Canada, where you, naturally, took interest in the experience of Canada’s multiculturalism. What Canada’s lessons do you think our country should take into account as far as preservation of multiculturalism is concerned?

“The father of multiculturalism in Canada was Paul Yuzyk, a senator of Ukrainian origin. Indeed, this was quite an exalted political idea for Canada at the time. After all, one of Canada’s topmost governmental bodies, the Ministry for Immigration, Multiculturalism and Citizenship, instituted the Paul Yuzyk Prize two years ago for achievements in the field of multiculturalism. That was further proof of the considerable contribution Senator Yuzyk had made to Canadian history. Naturally, we should learn the extremely interesting Canadian experience. This especially applies to the tolerance to and respect for people of different ethnicities. In my view, Canada is perhaps a showpiece in this respect. I think this would be the main experience for Ukrainians.

“First of all, it is high tolerance. Naturally, the attitude to Ukrainians in Canada is very respectful. It is a very eloquent fact that there are fulltime English-Ukrainian schools in some Canadian provinces. On the whole, there are over a hundred schools that teach the Ukrainian language and culture. And, in my view, the attitude to the Ukrainian language in Canada is fantastic. I would like Ukraine to know this — especially against the backdrop of what we have seen lately, for example, attempts to close some Ukrainian schools. In my opinion, this is absolutely inadmissible.”

What do you plan to do next?

“Now I would like to relax a little (laughs). Then we will think over our further prospects. For, indeed, it was a very tense, albeit extremely interesting, year. I hope our plans will be fulfilled and there will be very interesting and breathtaking projects.

“But, as for me. I made a very interesting observation: when I arrived in Ottawa, I was told that, in weather terms, it was the world’s coldest capital. This scared us a little in the beginning. Indeed, in Ottawa everybody measures time by winters, not years. I could really see how long a winter is in Canada. But now, four years later, I can say it was one of the world’s warmest capitals for me and I will only keep warm memories of it.

“The date of my comeback to Ukraine is to be fixed by Ukraine’s foreign minister. All I still have to do is carry out two megaprojects scheduled for June and July.”

Mykola SIRUK

30 June 2011 The Day