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How former Liberal MP and bakery owner is pushing federal cabinet friends for Ukraine action


Borys Wrzesnewskyj wants Canada to sanction a further 1,000 Russian oligarchs, ship more arms to Ukrainian fighters and promote the idea of a no-fly zone over Ukraine

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It was an audacious swipe at the Soviet Union, even if the Russian-led empire was on the brink of collapse.

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The evening of Nov. 30, 1991, Borys Wrzesnewskyj and several other young Ukrainian Canadians propped a ladder against the huge Lenin statue in Kyiv’s central square, climbed up and painted the words “Freedom for Ukraine” across the Communist icon’s body.

A swarm of police soon arrested Wrzesnewskyj, he related in a 2013 op-ed for the National Post, but two days later Ukraine did, in fact, win its independence. Another 30 years later, the Toronto businessman is fighting to uphold that freedom from Russian control, only this time with much of his focus on Ottawa.

As one of the most prominent members of Canada’s Ukrainian community and a three-term former Liberal MP, he is in a unique position to lobby the federal government on behalf of Ukraine.

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And Wrzesnewskyj says he’s been taking full advantage of that access, pestering former colleagues in the Liberal cabinet to take a tougher stance against Russia and funnel more aid to Ukraine, whose halting democratic advances he’s helped foster for decades.

Official Ukrainian-Canadian groups and the country’s diplomats have obviously been pressing Ukraine’s case in Ottawa, too, but the owner of Future Bakery, a well-known local fixture, has added an outspoken private voice to the cause.

“I’ve been in constant contact, continue to be in constant contact (with MPs and ministers),” he said Monday. “These are my friends and colleagues but I am not shy about not only briefing them but also telling them when their responses have fallen short.”

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And, he said, “former colleagues have regularly been calling me to ask for advice, ask for what next steps should be looked at. It’s highly appreciated.”

With 1.4 million citizens of Ukrainian background and a special link to the country, Canada should actually be leading its allies in their response, Wrzesnewskyj argues.

To that end, he’s now pushing for Ottawa to sanction a further 1,000 Russian oligarchs, ship more arms and ammunition to out-gunned Ukrainian fighters and promote the idea of a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

“Global history has taken a very dangerous turn,” said the businessman “These events will be defining for the 21st Century and we need to use all the resources we have available to make sure Canada leads on this issue.”

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seemed to take him and others up on some of those suggestions, announcing Monday that in addition to previous sanctions and aid to Ukraine, the government would be donating 100 anti-tank systems and ammunition for them.

And Trudeau said he will ask the CRTC to review whether Canadian cable providers should still be allowed to carry Moscow’s state-run RT television network. Wrzesnewskyj said he’s pushed to have the network — often criticized as a Kremlin propaganda arm — banned since long before the invasion of Ukraine.

His Future Bakery is a mainstay of Toronto’s Ukrainian community, but the proprietor also has a history of supporting democracy in the land of his forbears.

That included travelling to Ukraine in 1991 as the Soviet Union was crumbling. He and other young Ukrainian Canadians set up an underground printing operation to produce leaflets calling for democracy and independence, he wrote in the Post. Then they painted the message on Lenin himself.

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He served two terms in the House of Commons for his riding in Toronto’s Etobicoke neighbourhood before losing by 26 votes in 2011. He made it back into Parliament in 2015 but chose not to run again in 2019.

Wrzesnewskyj didn’t always toe the party line. He was one of just four Liberals who voted in favour of an initial Conservative motion declaring Islamic State’s slaughter of the Yazidi people in Iraq a genocide. His entire caucus joined him in backing a later version of the 2016 resolution.

“You can sometimes get caught in the bog of Ottawa and sometimes it’s necessary to speak clearly when you face those types of decisions,” he said Monday.

Wrzesnewskyj said the federal government has done extremely well on some fronts. That includes being part an international effort to bar Russia from the Swift bank-transfer system and impose other tough sanctions, as well as working hard to prepare for the expected influx of Ukrainian refugees. He praised Melanie Joly, the foreign affairs minister, for saying Canada and its allies wanted to suffocate the Russian economy.

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But there are other areas where the government could perform much better and more quickly, he argued.

He proposed expanding the sanctions list to include another 1,000 Russian oligarchs and seizing the estimated $2 billion of their assets in Canada, which he said could be paid out as reparations when the war is over. And more arms are desperately needed, said the businessman.

Wrzesnewskyj said he spoke on the weekend to civil-defence officials in the southern Ukraine city of Khaerson, who told him fighters were so short of ammunition they were pooling what bullets they had left and carefully divvying them out to each person.

He said he and others are also continuing to lobby the government to back imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine to “give these heroic fighters a fighting chance.

But regardless of what outside aid they receive, he said, “Ukrainians will fight to the death.”

“They will not be enslaved. This is a democratic country in the middle of Europe. Forty-four million free citizens.”

• Email: tblackwell@postmedia.com | Twitter:

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