Canadian multiculturalism

Arif VIRANI: “I believe in supporting Ukraine and I advocate Ukraine”

Mr. Arif Virani, member of the Canadian Parliament, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Canadian Heritage (Multiculturalism), recently visited Ukraine for the first time. He had talks with the Ombudsman, Minister of Defense, and met with Crimean Tatar leaders Mustafa Jemilev and Refat Chubarov. He watched the military parade on Independence Day. Mr. Virani is known to have addressed parliament, sporting a Ukrainian vyshyvanka embroidered shirt. There is a Ukrainian flag in his Toronto office, so my first question was when he had installed it.

“I put it there shortly after being elected because I believe in supporting Ukraine, I advocate this country, and I have about nine thousand Ukrainian constituents. They often visit my office in Toronto. Among my guests was your Minister of Culture Yevhen Nyshchuk during his visit to Canada.”

When did you learn about Ukraine and understand what it is all about?

“Over the past five years. I had good tutors, among them [Foreign Minister] Chrystia Freeland. She taught me the difference between varenyky and pyrohy, and it was very important for me (laughing).

“I think that the work I do in Canada, promoting multiculturalism, is very important. This means supporting our diversity, our religious, cultural, and ethnic relationships here in Canada. I think that when you have some language facility, it helps break the ice, to know the relationships between various communities. I try to speak some Tibetan with my Tibetan constituents, some Polish with my Polish constituents, some Hindi with my South Asian constituents.”

How many languages do you speak?

“I speak English and French fluently, practice some Hindi, Swahili, and I know a few words in Polish, Ukrainian, and Tibetan.”


How did you succeed in integrating into the Canadian cultural environment? From what I know, you were born in Uganda and then emigrated to Canada.

“That’s right. Like many Canadians, I came from somewhere else – as was the case with the first Ukrainians who came there 170 years ago. Canada continues to settle refugees. I was exiled when I was a baby and we were forced out of Uganda, and Canada opened its arms to me and my family, also to thousands of other Ugandan South Asians. My ancestry is in India. There were many Indians living in Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda when they were expelled in 1972 by the government. Some went to India, others to Pakistan, England, America. Seven thousand went to Canada. I was among them.

“I think the beauty of Canada is that it’s very much a land of opportunity. Yes, I’m a brown-skin Muslim South Asian refugee, but I also went to public schools, I went to two universities and became a human rights lawyer when I got elected [to the Canadian Parliament] in 2015. That wasn’t uncommon as four refugees were elected at the same time. There were 41 members of parliament of whom not one was born in Canada. They were born all over the world. This is a great testimony to Canada. It’s a land of opportunity where you can prove what you want.

“I had some meetings here and it’s interesting to see how Ukrainians are evolving and modernizing, becoming more integrated to Euro-Atlantic Region. With that comes openness, which is good, but it also comes with some nuances. I had a good meeting with Mustafa Jemilev and some [Crimean] Tatar leaders. We talked about Canadian approaches to cultural diversity, how what we do can be applied by Ukrainians now in the process of doing it. I see it as a great possibility.”


Mr. Virani, I came across your discussion with Mr. Bernier on Twitter. What was it about?

“You’re very attentive to Canadian policy. That is good. I think the issue with Mr. Bernier is that he left the Conservative Party of Canada a few days ago. But over the last three weeks he was making a lot of criticism about what he called extreme multiculturalism. The government of Justin Trudeau is fostering cultural diversity in a free society. He [Bernier] doesn’t share that view. I believe that our diversity and multiculturalism don’t constitute a partisan issue and certainly not a political one. This is a national issue. It’s existed since the 1960s when the Ukrainian Canadian MP, Paul Yuzyk, said Canada isn’t just about indigenous people, it is not to select English or French; it’s about multiple cultures all over the world – the Polish people, German people, Ukrainian people, and so on. They have contributed so much to the development of our economy over the hundred years. That’s the policy all Canadians still believe in. Because Canada is about diversity, openness, and a possibility for people like me to take advantage of opportunity to contribute to the nation.”


In your tweet marking the 75th anniversary of your mother Sul you said she wanted you to read newspaper starting from page one, not just sports columns and that you had started doing just that. Any comment?

“(Laughing) I see you did a research. Like most people, I think your mother has a special place in your heart. I think that’s a privilege of everyone. My mother is an incredible woman. She always wanted me to read. At some point – I was in Grade 4 or 5, nine or ten years old – she said, ‘All you’re reading about is ice hockey, tennis, and soccer. Maybe you should try reading the front page.’ She exposed me to things like politics, government, current issues, and current affairs. This was an eye-opener. After that I started reading a lot, I started reading books about Pierre Trudeau, the former Prime Minister. I started studying politics at McGill University and 20 years later I ran for office. Running for office in Canada, you must have a strong campaign. You have to talk to a lot of people and knock on a lot of doors. Even then my mother was by my side, knocking on people’s doors. Today, when I see Ukrainian Canadians, they ask not how I’m doing, but how my mother is doing (laughing). She left the constituents impressed.”

The relations between your country and Saudi Arabia have been strained of late. Did you discuss the subject here in Ukraine to ascertain our stand in the matter?

“Not directly, but I think you don’t doubt our foreign policy and our diplomacy. Three or four weeks after the incident with the Saudis and the strong statements made by the Prime Minister and Minister Freeland there was an equally strong statement on Oleh Sentsov and his unjustified detention by the Russians. I think this shows that we’re being consistent, strong and sticking to our principles. Obviously, what happened to the Saudis – there were repercussions for us, but we wouldn’t back down in our principled position with respect to the Badawi family that we have shown for many years. We discussed this with [Ombudsman] Ms. Denysova during my first visit. I came from the airport and we spent several hours in her office, discussing Oleh Sentsov and Volodymyr Balukh. The next day we met with [Crimean] Tatar leaders Jemilev and Chubarov, we talked about their struggle for basic freedoms and civil rights for dissidents.”


What about practical cooperation between our countries? Were any new agreements discussed in Kyiv?

“As Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Cultural Heritage, I discussed an agreement on audio-visual production that would enable television production in both countries, providing for preferential treatment for economic and tax purposes. Thus, Ukrainians working in Canada would be treated like a domestic production and Canadians in Ukraine would be treated likewise. We have more than 50 such agreements around the world. We’re pursuing one just now. I just met with [the Minister of Culture] Mr. Nyshchuk, the Ukrainian side is apparently interested.

“I want to emphasize that we are proud to be here with troops on the ground and Operation UNIFIER. I think it’s the second largest number of troops in any country. There are many ways for Ukraine to develop, ways to support civil society, governance, rule of law, training. There is also just basic economic development and telling Ukrainian stories.

“There is something that came up in the discussion between Americans and Ukrainians yesterday [this interview took place on August 25. – Author]. It is the issue of the 2019 federal and national elections in your country and my country and the specter of influence, cyber attacks, digital interference in the elections is very, very scary, particularly here – Ukraine is a kind of a laboratory. People I’ve met explained to me that the Russians would test their cyber techniques in Ukraine before using those techniques in the West. You know that interferences have already happened in Western countries, so I think it’s important to ensure that the elections in Ukraine are fair because that helps Ukraine, but it also helps Western nations and Canada. I’m preparing for potential interferences that might occur here and this is what’ve been talking about for the last two days.”

Did you discuss the possibility of Canadian weapons supplies to Ukraine or joint arms manufacture? You met with Defense Minister Poltorak on August 23 in the evening, didn’t you?

“Yes, I met with Minister Poltorak and also Lieutenant General Petrenko. What we discussed was support and appreciation of what Canada’s doing. It is important what we’ve done. In December of last year we changed the status of Ukraine, in terms of its classification for arms exports, which allows now Canadian manufacturers to export arms to Ukraine. The supply of sniper rifles is in process, we renewed Operation UNIFIER...”


Summing up, what do you think the West, the United States, and the European Union should do to make Putin withdraw from Crimea and Donbas, as envisaged by Western sanctions which President Barack Obama initiated in 2014?

“I think it’s going to be done on many levels. We have to keep insuring that Mr. Putin knows that the West is watching, the West hasn’t forgotten him, the West is going to pass the decision that allows it to apply tougher sanctions; that the West is going to support Ukraine and defend its solidarity; and that the West will speak out for the political prisoners. This is something I’m worried about. In a conversation with Ms. Denysova and Mr. Jemilev I said that if we don’t keep that focus when a strong man believes that the world is watching, there would be even more evil things. Naturally, we should be watching, the entire world. And also we need to assure other allies they are also protected; that the British, Germans, and Americans will ensure the freedom of the Baltic States and protect Ukraine.”

Do you think that the Trump Administration will persuade Putin to change his conduct, considering the increasingly tougher sanctions against Russia, the sale of Javelin anti-tank missiles and increased military aid to Ukraine?

“I can’t comment much on the US administration, but the Americans I’ve met the last two days are engaged, their troops are here, they believe in supporting Ukraine together with other Western allies. This is a very good, very strong sign. It’s a beauty that Canada is supporting Ukraine and ours are like a family relationship.”