OTTAWA — After serving as an official election monitor in Ukraine for the first round of that country’s presidential election, former Liberal foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy is warning Canadians will be vulnerable to Russian disinformation during the federal contest scheduled for this October.
“There’s some lessons to learn for Canadians. I think Ukraine’s on the front line, and there’s a wake-up call that anybody’s election, including ours in six months, could be altered, disrupted or problems could be created in terms of disinformation if you’re not very watchful about it,” he said in an interview with the National Post on Thursday. “I can’t predict what would happen here. I just know that we’re vulnerable.”
Axworthy, who served in the cabinets of Jean Chrétien and Pierre Trudeau and currently chairs the World Refugee Council, led a group of more than a hundred Canadian election observers funded by Global Affairs Canada to meet with Ukrainian officials and report on the integrity of its proceedings this week. “Even against the odds of Russian interference and the conflicts on the east side and so on, they did a very effective job and there weren’t a lot of disruptions,” he said. “There were small glitches but nothing affected the outcome.”
Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan recently announced they were extending a training mission in Ukraine through 2022. About 200 Canadian troops are stationed in the country’s west assisting its military as conflict with Russia-backed separatists continues in eastern Ukraine. The federal budget released last month committed about $100 million to that cause over the next three years.
Of 39 candidates for Ukrainian president, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky won 30 per cent of the vote over incumbent Petro Poroshenko’s 16 per cent. The way the country’s voting system works, the two will face off again in a second run-off election later this month, which Axworthy said will likely be a target of attempted foreign interference.
He said election observation missions are a tangible, relatively low-cost way that Canada can show its presence in the world. Because “elections come around like streetcars,” it is also something that the government can put more planning and energy towards anytime.
“There should be more of it. I think it should be clearly seen as one of the important ways that we can contribute to pushing back on the anti-democratic waves that are out there. And I think that it is a very good way for Canadians to feel they’re participating in these events, they’re not just watching from a doorstep,” he said.
“I think we’re in a very important period, because clearly there’s a lot of governments out there now which are tending towards more authoritarianism and more suppressing votes. And I think having more outside observers, that provides an antidote or a deterrent to that, because they’re going to be called on it.”
Freeland’s office told the Post last May that the minister had become “personally seized” with reversing a general decline in election observation missions. The Ukraine mission, Canada’s first in several years, will be massive, costing $11 million and involving more than 500 observers. Other missions have not been announced.
Documents obtained via an access-to-information request show officials inside GAC were confused, when answering the Post’s questions about election observation, about who in the department was actually responsible for doling out such funding. Between 2013 and 2016, about 850 Canadians travelled to report on about 20 elections. From a high point of $8.2 million in funding in the 2014-15 financial year, only $700,000 had gone towards such programs in 2015-16.
Axworthy said Canada could ramp up its participation not only in election observation but in diplomatic efforts writ large. He acknowledged that after cutbacks under the previous Conservative government, the current Liberals haven’t fleshed their foreign department back out, despite their famous claim that “Canada is back.”
“I think the government needs to put more investment in these sorts of things. I don’t mean massive sums like they did on infrastructure. But we really have to maintain a very active and effective diplomatic network around the world,” he said.
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