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Voting against Ukraine trade bill did 'nothing' to harm Ukraine, Conservatives charge

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OTTAWA -

Federal Conservatives are defending their decision to vote against a bill that implements an update to the Canada-Ukraine trade deal, saying they're allowed to oppose parts of the agreement and doing so brings no harm to the war-torn nation.

Tory members of Parliament mounted that argument as Liberals continued to charge that the Tories' vote signals their abandonment of Ukraine, and two national Ukrainian-Canadian organizations voiced their disappointment.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has insisted that the move to vote against the government legislation had everything to do with language in the negotiated agreement that says both countries will "promote carbon pricing."

He asserts that his MPs were not rejecting the very idea of upgrading the deal with Ukraine, which has been fighting a Russian invasion since 2022.

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet have alleged that the Tories are following in the footsteps of some U.S. Republicans who are signalling less support for assisting the Ukrainian war effort.

The acrimony continued on Tuesday when MPs on the House of Commons trade committee conducted a clause-by-clause study of the bill.

Conservatives took turns trying to amend the legislation to give Ukraine more access to exports of lethal weapons and nuclear equipment.

The attempts were rejected by the committee chair, and when Tories requested recorded votes, Liberal and NDP MPs voted them down.

Kyle Seeback, the Conservatives' international trade critic, said it was "shameful" for Liberals to liken their vote against the bill to support for Russia.

Their dissent "did nothing" to impede the bill's progress, he added. A majority of committee members voted on Tuesday to approve the bill and send it back to the House of Commons, though Tories again voted against it.

"Guess what? It just got out of committee," said Seeback.

"It's causing no harm whatsoever. We get to oppose bad pieces of legislation. We get to oppose your ideological obsession with carbon taxes, carbon prices and the misery they've imposed on Canadians."

Earlier in the meeting, Garnett Genuis, the Tories' international development critic, said it is also reasonable for people to disagree about parts of free-trade agreements.

Genuis accused the Liberals of engaging in "outrageous hyperbole" about the Conservatives' stance, saying their comments speak to the governing party's "desperation."

He and Liberal MP Mark Gerretsen later traded insults as the debate grew increasingly heated, with Genuis calling Gerresten a "partisan hack."

Gerretsen chirped back at the Conservative MP: "Takes one to know one."

Faced with a question about the party's rejection of the bill last week, Poilievre suggested to reporters that the Liberals are seeking to impose a carbon tax on Ukraine.

Canadian officials have said, however, that the language around carbon pricing in the agreement, which Ukraine's president signed during his September visit to Ottawa, is not legally binding.

Ukraine has already had a carbon price in place for more than a decade, and its ambassador is asking that Canada pass the bill.

The national president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, an advocacy organization for local Ukrainian communities, says it hopes the Tories will reconsider their position.

"The Ukrainian Canadian Congress was disappointed that the official Opposition unanimously voted against legislation that would update the Canada Ukraine Free Trade Agreement," Alexandra Chyczij said in a statement.

"We call on the official Opposition to revisit this position before third reading."

On Tuesday, the organization posted on social media to encourage Canadians to contact their MPs to vote in favour of the bill.

"We need your help to make sure free trade modernization passes the House unanimously," it said on its website.

Canada-Ukraine Chamber of Commerce president Zenon Potichny told The Canadian Press on Tuesday that he, too, hopes the Tories will revisit their position, so that Parliament can approve the updated agreement with unanimous support.

The organization promotes business between both nations and represents about 200 companies, with membership almost evenly split between the two nationalities, he said.

Potichny said the group was excited to see a modernized trade agreement being signed.

But he expressed disappointment over the fact that not all parties voted to support it, at a time when he believes the deal will help with Ukraine's future rebuilding efforts.

While he is no lawyer, Potichny said, he reads the reference to carbon pricing as allowing for flexibility around the expectation that both countries will promote the policy. "It's not an imposition."

He also pointed out that Ukraine is in negotiations to become a member of the European Union, which he said takes issues around the environment and sustainable development very seriously.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 28, 2023.

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