Marking Ukraine’s Independence Day on August 24, 2015, Toronto-based NGO Highway Liberty organized a rally they called ‘Putin Must Pay’ at the Russian Embassy in Ottawa, Canada. The rally called for the return of Crimea to Ukraine, an end to fighting in the east, reparations to be paid to those displaced by violence by the Putin government, as well as calling for President Putin’s trial by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Organizer Maxim Tyulenin said, “war, xenophobic and homophobic legislation have forced many to abandon their homes to survive.” He called on the Kremlin to compensate those who have had to flee violence, not just in Ukraine, but also in Russia. It was highlighted that the reparations should not be at the expense of the Russian taxpayers, but rather at the expense of Putin and his inner circle, which the group accused of corruption. In doing so, the participants seem to hold the Russian government, not the Russian people, responsible for the crisis.
As part of the event, an open letter to President Vladimir Putin was read in Russian, and English, addressing Alexander Darchiev, the Russian Ambassador to Canada, to pass on to President Putin.
In a show of solidarity with Ukraine and the Ukrainian-Canadian community, members of the Russian-Canadian, Baltic-Canadian and LGBT communities participated in the rally.
Speaking at the event, President of the Baltic Federation of Canada, Andris Ķesteris, talked about the decades of demonstrations at this same embassy under the Soviet regime, all with the same goal: an end to occupation.
During the rally, embassy staff appeared to make no acknowledgment of the rally, and all windows at the front of the embassy were shut. However, when asked after the rally, the embassy offered its perspective. They acknowledged that the group was exercising their freedom of speech, and so long as they remained within the bounds of Canadian law, had no issue with the rally. Diplomats at the Russian Embassy however have said that since events in Ukraine began unfolding, Canada has become a hostile environment for them, more than in other countries. The embassy stressed that fact checking should be a priority and that through EuroMaidan, Ukraine had replaced one oligarch with another.
The embassy spokesman said that they followed the activities occurring outside the embassy online, but has no knowledge of the letter that was addressed to Ambassador Darchiev.
While a small demonstration, many in Ottawa supported their message, with passersby honking horns and encouraging those involved. Many in Canada, including the government, advocate a strong stance towards Russia over its actions.
Expressing ideas through peaceful demonstration like this is important to ensure the government is aware of the views of its citizens and if in the majority’s interest, act accordingly. As a large group within Canada, the Ukrainian-Canadian community does just that, advocating for closer ties between Ottawa and Kiev, particularly since the crisis in Ukraine began.
Ottawa has listened, taking every chance it can to tell Russia to get out of Ukraine, as well as strongly supporting the Poroshenko government. However, this has come at the expense of dialogue with Russia, as they note. The Canadian government has heard the outcry over human rights issues as a result of this conflict. Continuing to remind them through further rallies is important, particularly as Canada heads to the polls in October and no candidate has said much on Ukraine. Reminding them of the need for constructive dialogue is the next step.