10/19/2012 04:30 EDT | Updated 12/18/2012 05:12 EST

Ted Opitz's Inclusion In Mission To Monitor Ukraine Vote Under Fire


OTTAWA - A Conservative MP who is part of a Canadian mission to ensure free and fair elections in Ukraine will find out next week — mid-mission — whether numerous irregularities will invalidate his own election.

Ted Opitz will be in Ukraine for that country's Oct. 28 election when the Supreme Court of Canada delivers Thursday its long-awaited landmark ruling on the legitimacy of the vote in his Toronto riding of Etobicoke Centre.

The top court served notice Friday of the imminent ruling, just as Prime Minister Stephen Harper was speaking at a public send-off for hundreds of Ukrainian election observers, including Opitz.

Harper made no specific reference to Opitz, but earlier Friday in the House of Commons, his government made no apologies for choosing to send to Ukraine an MP whose election remains shrouded in controversy.

Indeed, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird extolled Opitz as a model election observer.

"People are entitled to be innocent until proven guilty," said Baird, dismissing the ongoing legal uncertainty that hangs over Opitz's narrow election victory last year.

"He's a man of great integrity, he's a man who works tremendously hard for his constituents and we are tremendously proud that he will join (other MPs from all parties) ... in observing elections in Ukraine."

The Supreme Court will determine whether Opitz will continue as an MP or have to face a byelection against former Liberal incumbent Borys Wrzesnewskyj, whom he defeated by a mere 26 votes in the May 2011 election.

An Ontario Superior Court judge earlier this year nullified the results in Etobicoke Centre, a riding with a large Ukrainian-Canadian constituency, after finding procedural irregularities with 79 ballots. Opitz appealed the ruling to the top court.

This is the first time the Supreme Court has been asked to rule on the validity of an election result.

While the court case focused on procedural snafus, Wrzesnewskyj has made more serious charges of voter suppression and intimidation by members of Opitz's campaign team, none of which has been proven in court.

The makeup of the mission to Ukraine is sparking accusations that the Conservative government is compromising Canada's international reputation by injecting domestic partisan politics into its staffing of the delegation.

Concerns have been raised that the disproportionate number of Ukrainian Canadians involved could lead to the perception of bias against Ukraine's Russia-leaning ruling party. Moreover, while Opitz is going, at least two former Liberal cabinet ministers have been given the boot.

The mission has raised eyebrows, even among some observers, with the disproportionate number of Ukrainian Canadians who've been selected — many of whom are connected to the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC), an organization that has been highly critical of Ukraine's governing party.

One observer, who asked not to be identified, estimated that 50 per cent of Canada's observers are of Ukrainian heritage.

Taras Zalusky, the mission's chief of staff, said it's an asset that 40 per cent of Canada's long-term observers, who've been in Ukraine for the past two months, speak Ukrainian or Russian.

"Frankly, when you have people on the ground for two months, in order to catch nuance, in order to be able to understand what's going on in a complex political system like Ukraine — where, as good as they are, interpreters won't catch everything and sometimes they're afraid to translate everything — it's good to have people who actually understand what's being said," said Zalusky, who is taking a leave of absence from his job as executive director of the UCC to take part in the mission.

The diaspora-heavy contingent would seem to be contrary to Canadem's own guidelines for election monitoring missions.

"Regardless of how impartial and professional an observer is, the perception of bias or conflict of interest is a huge challenge, particularly for observers who are returning to their country of origin," Canadem says on its website.

"Therefore, in many situations, election observer missions cannot be staffed by observers who originated from the country in which the election is taking place.

"Regardless of how good they are, local voters will assume that they are not impartial. At a minimum, the standard practice is that the number of country-of-origin observers on an international mission must be relatively small."

Nevertheless, Harper praised the large number of Ukrainian Canadians on the mission in a speech to the monitors in Gatineau, Que., on the eve of their departure.

Harper said he was proud to describe the delegation as one of the largest deployments of Canadian observers to the Ukraine since Canada started the practice in 2004.

"Again the mission will be led largely by Ukrainian Canadians. Thanks to waves of immigration going back more than 120 years, Ukraine's sons and daughters now number nearly a million and a quarter, or four per cent of all Canadians," Harper told about 500 monitors and dignitaries in a museum auditorium across from Parliament Hill and the Supreme Court.

"We also understand that, for you, the situation in Ukraine remains deeply personal."

Harper also blasted Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych for backsliding on democracy, reiterating Canada's condemnation of the jailing of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

"We continue to call upon President Yanukovych to respect judicial independence, to cease the harassment of opposition voices and to conduct an election that is indeed free and fair."

Opitz slipped out of the mission send-off without stopping to speak to reporters.

Earlier in the day, the Conservatives allowed Opitz to lob a softball question about the mission during question period, enabling Baird to congratulate the MP for being "a key advocate" in persuading the government to send 500 election monitors to Ukraine.

Harper's office also rushed to defend the mission Friday — as well as Opitz's involvement in it.

"Our government, and especially MP Ted Opitz, stands strong as a supporter of the Ukrainian people as they seek to build a nation based on democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law," Harper spokesman Andrew MacDougall said in an email.

"This will be an all-party delegation that is reflective of Canada's care and concern for free and fair elections in Ukraine."

Opitz played a prominent role last August when Immigration Minister Jason Kenney — the government's political point man on wooing ethnic communities — chose the riding next door to Etobicoke Centre to announce the mission, which is being led by Conservative Sen. Raynell Andreychuk.

Meanwhile, former Liberal cabinet ministers Elinor Caplan and David Anderson both received telephone calls earlier this month from Canadem — the independent agency that recruits observers for the federal government — telling them they didn't make the cut as election monitors.

"You don't need to be a genius to figure this out," Caplan said. "Obviously, this is seen as very political by the government."

Caplan, who served as an observer in Belarus and has taken United Nations courses on election monitoring, said she was notified that she was "good to go," pending the formality of having the minister sign off on her involvement.

But then Canadem left a message on her home phone advising her that "at the direction of the government of Canada, we've been directed to remove you from the delegation."

She said it appears the government is bumping Liberals while "doing what they can to keep (Opitz) front and centre" with his Ukrainian-Canadian constituents in case he winds up having to fight a byelection.

"It's a pity because, you know, it tarnishes Canada's international reputation ... if the message is we're sending over a partisan, highly unbalanced (delegation) or there are political reasons for who gets selected."

Anderson received a similar telephone call on the same weekend, and was told he was off the team. He said he has questions, given that he's very familiar with the practices and policies of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a recognized leader in international monitoring.

As for Opitz taking part in the mission, Anderson said: "It's a curious choice, given the controversy surrounding his election."

Zalusky said the selection process "was exactly the same" for this mission as it was when Caplan and Anderson were in cabinet.

"So, it sounds like sour grapes to me," Zalusky said.

Zalusky, who has been involved in two earlier Canadem missions to Ukraine, said 1,500 people applied for the 490 available short- and long-term observer spots. Another 10 are reserved for parliamentarians, chosen by their respective parties.

Anderson said it's understandable that the Ukrainian community in Canada tends to be "more hostile to the Russian party," but that makes it problematic for members to serve on a supposedly neutral election monitoring mission.

"They tend to be more on one side. That means that Ukrainian Canadians like any other ethnic group in the diaspora of any country are not necessarily accepted by the home country as unbiased."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said Zalusky had served as adviser to former international co-operation minister Bev Oda.

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