In the days since parliamentarians unwittingly applauded a Ukrainian veteran who fought in a Nazi unit, political parties and observers have found one thing to agree on — Canada has embarrassed itself.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has called it the “biggest single diplomatic embarrassment in Canadian history.”
Politicians across party lines have condemned the impact the incident has had on many people in Canada and around the world, including Jews and Poles.
But how does the Yaroslav Hunka incident’s effects on Canada’s reputation compare to the fallout from previous diplomatic pratfalls?
Historians and foreign policy experts say Canada has endured its share of humiliating moments on the world stage. Many of those moments, they add, have had serious real-world consequences for people and policy.
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“I haven’t seen anything quite like [the Hunka incident] but I’ve certainly seen equally embarrassing incidents happen,” Janice Stein, founding director of the Munk School of Global Affairs, said in an interview with CBC’s The House.
“There are a number of incidents. Some just count as boo-boos and some … are perhaps more serious in terms of policy,” said historian Robert Bothwell.
Stein, who has observed Canadian politics for decades, said one incident that comes to mind is the 1997 controversy involving two Israeli spies who — following a failed assassination attempt — were caught with fake Canadian passports.
“It was embarrassing because it was a fraudulent Canadian passport and what came out was that there was a black market in Canadian passports and we had not secured our passports adequately,” Stein said.
Bothwell pointed to another miscalculation that scuttled a major Canadian diplomatic initiative with global significance. In 1935, a Canadian proposal to place oil sanctions on fascist Italy collapsed because the Canadian diplomat who proposed it failed to get the federal government to buy in. Mackenzie King’s government soon disavowed it.
The sanctions regime eventually disintegrated, Bothwell said.
“This is one where dysfunction on the Canadian side, contradiction on the Canadian side, made Canada an international … not laughingstock, because it was too serious for that … but it certainly didn’t contribute to our standing or prestige in the international arena,” he said.
“It shows that Canadians should get their ducks in a row. They should actually know what they’re saying and they should actually have a sense of what the consequences might be.”
Bothwell also cited the example of French President Charles de Gaulle’s 1967 speech in Montreal. The statesman’s use of the phrase “Vive le Québec libre” was seen an endorsement of Quebec’s separatist movement and it sparked a major diplomatic incident. While de Gaulle was not a Canadian, the event had profound consequences for politics in this country.
In a separate interview with The House, journalist Paul Wells pointed to the case of Igor Gouzenko, who bounced around Ottawa for days while attempting to defect from the Soviet Union and bring with him secrets revealing a communist spy ring in Canada.
The embarrassment, Wells said, came from the federal government’s decision to shrug off Gouzenko’s claims before it finally came to realize the significance of the event — often cited by historians as the beginning of the Cold War.
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Stein argued that while the Hunka affair is clearly humiliating for Canada — and for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy personally — it might not be the worst diplomatic gaffe in Canadian history.
“This certainly should not have happened. It was deeply embarrassing. But does it rank among the all-time hits on the Canadian hit parade? I don’t think so,” she said.
Stein and Bothwell both argue that embarrassing diplomatic incidents can also have concrete consequences. Marcus Kolga, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said the world is seeing one of those consequences now — in the form of Russian propaganda.
“I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed anything quite like what we saw on Friday and what we’ve seen over the past number of days,” Kolga told The House.
“I’ve never seen the sort of frenzy that Russian propagandists have gone into over the past number of days, exploiting this situation, to try and intensify the already damaging effects that it’s having, has had, on our reputation abroad, but also the divisions that this could potentially cause within our own society.”
Stein, Bothwell and Kolga all agreed that given Anthony Rota’s resignation as Speaker and Trudeau’s apology on behalf of Parliament, fences likely will be mended with Canadian allies and consequences on the diplomatic front will eventually fade.
But Kolga warned there could still be long-lasting effects beyond Canada’s reputation.
“It is embarrassing for the Canadian government, but I think this is something that will go away relatively quickly when it comes to the international media. But when it comes to Russian media and Russian state propagandists, they are going to continue using this,” he said.
“They will use it for the coming weeks, months and maybe years.”