PM accepts the Shevchenko Medal

Toronto, Ontario
14 October 2011

Thank you very much for that warm welcome.

Greetings to everyone here - to the Most Reverend Bishop Stephen Chmilar, and Your Grace Bishop Andriy. Thank you Paul Grod, Ivan Fecan and Senator Raynell Andreychuk for your kind words of introduction, and thank you to the Ukranian Canadian Congress. This organization does tremendous work to promote the Ukrainian cause in Canada, so I want to thank all distinguished guests who are here tonight, but in particular, to Paul and to Lida Kulish of the Toronto Branch, and to the whole team who has put this on tonight. Thank you very much everyone. 

You know, it’s a pleasure to see so many familiar faces here tonight, especially those who joined us on our visit to Ukraine, last year. I’m really delighted to see such a great turnout, not only from Eugene Czolij and the Ukrainian World Congress, but also from groups like the Ukrainian Catholic Women’s League of Canada, the Canadian Friends of Ukraine, the Canada-Ukraine Chamber of Commerce and many others that contribute in so many important ways to this community and to this country.

I’m proud of the strong contingent of my parliamentary colleagues here tonight - in particular, I’d be remiss if I did not give particular praise to Senator Andreychuk, who has been such a strong voice for the Ukrainian community in Ottawa for almost 20 years. She has been joined by a number of our Members of Parliament who are working closely with the community here in the GTA – especially, to name just a few, Ted Opitz, Wladyslaw Lizon, and Bernard Trottier.

Friends, for 120 years the Ukrainian community has played an important role in the growth of this country. From East to West, Ukrainian-Canadians have made outstanding contributions throughout our society, in every area: in business, academia, the arts, sport, politics, and many different fields, and Canada is stronger for it.

This award has been presented to many distinguished Ukrainian-Canadians, as well as friends of Ukraine. Among those friends was John Diefenbaker, the first Prime Minister to receive it. I am honoured to follow in his footsteps, for Diefenbaker personified the distinctly Canadian reality that people from all backgrounds can and do succeed in this great country.

Of course, what really makes this presentation special is the fact it pays tribute to the legacy of Taras Shevchenko. His words provided the inspiration for Ukrainian independence. He said, and I quote: “Strive and you will triumph for God is on your side. The rewards are glory, truth, and that most sacred of things, freedom.”

Shevchenko was a brilliant artist and a renowned poet. But most important, his was a voice for freedom. As a consequence, Tsar Nicholas the First condemned him to live in exile “Under the strictest surveillance, without a right to write or paint.” But even that cruel sentence could not silence Shevchenko, or dissuade his many followers. In the decades that followed his spirit would inspire Ukrainians to fight for liberty against not only the Tsars, but also the totalitarian ideologies of the Nazis and the Soviets, and we know from history, nothing can put down the freedom of the Ukranian people.

You know, here in Canada, with our deep Parliamentary traditions and our comparatively benign history, democracy sometimes gets taken for granted. We often need to be reminded of how long and hard the struggle for basic freedoms has been, and that it remains to be fought for so many of our fellow human beings. The Ukrainian-Canadian community has always provided that perspective and always reflected the voice of the oppressed here and around the world.

I remember in the latter days of the Cold War, when some so-called experts talked of a middle way in global affairs, as if there were some kind of moral equivalence between the imperfections of our democratic societies and the totalitarian tyranny of the Soviet empire.

Of course, Ukrainian-Canadians would have none of that kind of thinking. You reminded us of the realities Ukrainians lived under, not just denial of basic rights, but of imprisonment, brutality and even, almost unbelievably, the imposition of mass starvation. Of course, I am speaking of the Holodomor, of which I will say more in a moment.

But, the important thing is this, I’m here to tell you that as long as I am Prime Minister our government always will speak out for those things that elevate the human spirit – freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law - for all nations and peoples of this world.

For, if we are not blind to the dark points in Ukraine’s past, neither are we forgetful of our own. This Conservative government was the first to formally recognize Canada’s own black mark - the injustice of World War One internment, and we’ve established a recognition fund to make sure that everyone learns from that event. We will never sweep history under the carpet - not Canada’s history, and not Ukraine’s history.

That’s why, when I visited Ukraine last year I made a special point of visiting historic sites to pay my respects, on behalf of all Canadians. I started by laying a wreath at the Sad Memory of Childhood statue in honour of the many millions who died in the Holodomor. In that quiet wooded place, surrounded by those of our delegation - for whom it was intensely personal - and asked to place bread and salt before the monument – a simple act of remembrance – I was deeply moved.

The magnitude of the tragedy that the Ukrainian people suffered is exceeded only by the bitter recognition that it was inflicted upon them by the government that ruled their land. And it is a great sadness to me that for decades official Ottawa was afraid to call it what it was - a genocide. But in 2008, at the initiative of my colleague, MP James Bezan, we had the chance to finally do something about it - and we did. Our government adopted the bill in Parliament, declaring Holodomor to be genocide. From now on, in our eyes at least, those who took the lives of so many Ukrainians, must take the guilt as well.

In that same spirit of solemn remembrance I went to the museum at the infamous Lonsky Street Prison. There, I came face-to-face with the reminders of Soviet-era oppression and I also saw Babyn Yar, where the Nazis slaughtered literally tens of thousands of people.

I made these stops because we must all understand Ukraine’s past to appreciate the challenges and the promises of its future, and how central the desire of freedom is for that future. To see the faces of Ukraine’s future, I met with students at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. It was an opportunity to speak openly about the freedom that generations of Ukrainians have longed for.

I was tremendously impressed by these young men and women, their knowledge, their idealism their eagerness to hear of the past and to create a better future. They are the embodiment of Ukraine’s aspirations. Through this trip, our government hopes to build on the personal ties that have long connected Canada and Ukraine. During that visit, we signed a youth mobility agreement to make it easier for young people to get life experience in both countries, and I announced new programs to provide expert Canadian advice and training in areas like economic development.

While I was in Kiev, as you remember I also raised issues that are of concern to the Government of Canada. I took particular care to show Canada’s support for democratic debate, by meeting with Yulia Tymoshenko. Like many of you, I am seriously concerned about her situation.

I have written directly to President Yanukovych to let him know that I am deeply concerned that the conduct of Tymoshenko’s trial does not reflect accepted norms of due process or fairness. Friends, we all know that a vigorous political opposition and judicial independence are vital to building a democratic and prosperous Ukraine. Canada will support Ukraine whenever it moves towards freedom, democracy and justice, and I said that before President Yanukovych. However, our foreign policy is rooted in principle, and in the defence of freedom.

So to be clear, our government is very concerned about the path the government of Ukraine appears to be taking, and as Minister Baird says, Tuesday's developments may have serious consequences for the bilateral relationship between our governments.

The Ukrainian people can count on Canada to stand-up for their liberty. Canada is always ready to help, to help democratic institutions take root, in Ukraine and around the world, and I know that each and every person here tonight shares that cause, which is why I am so honoured to be here.

So thank you once again for your hospitality and for the honour that you have presented, and for the work you do, day in and day out, to preserve the proud heritage of Ukrainian-Canadians and to build our great country.

Slava Ukraini. Slava Kanadi.