OTTAWA - The Harper government has hired two agencies with relatively little experience in elections monitoring to organize hundreds of Canadian observers for next month's Ukrainian presidential vote.
The government has hired the Forum of Federations and CUSO International to replace its longtime Ukraine election partner, the non-governmental organization Canadem.
Veteran election observers, as well as Canadem, were caught off-guard by the announcement last week. The project will see 338 bilateral, short-term Canadian observers sent to the May 25 vote.
The decision comes two years after internal government assessments recommended Canadem as Ottawa's only option. The government only began consulting with the Forum and CUSO in recent weeks to begin recruiting observers.
Canadem has been Canada's main partner in Ukraine election monitoring since it began sending hundreds of observers to the country in 2004.
Canada's assignment of such large numbers of bilateral observers — the Liberals did it first in 2004, and the Conservatives have followed suit — has continued despite internal warnings.
One such warning came from Bob Johnston, a regional director general with the former Canadian International Development Agency, in a January 2012 memo.
Johnston recommended Canada channel its election observation efforts through the internationally recognized leader in the field, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE.
However, Johnston noted the government may want to send in short-term bilateral observers "to demonstrate Canada's commitment to Ukraine's democratic development" — a message that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet have repeatedly emphasized.
"If this option is selected, Canadem would again be the only possible partner," Johnston wrote.
Johnston's boss, then-CIDA president Margaret Biggs, agreed.
"Canadem, a Canadian NGO with a long track record of recruiting, training, and deploying election observers, is the proposed implementing organization," Biggs wrote in a July 2012 memo. CIDA has since been merged into Foreign Affairs.
The memos and hundreds of other related documents were obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
Canadem was informed last week it had lost the contract to the Forum of Federations.
The Forum, along with subcontractor CUSO International, will select the observers Canada will send to next month's Ukraine elections. The mission will be managed by a newly created organization called Canadian Election Observation Missions or CEOM.
The Foreign Affairs Department declined to answer specific questions about why the Forum and CUSO were selected over Canadem, or about CEOM.
Rupak Chattopadhyay, CEO of Forum of Federations, said his organization has never organized such a large-scale observer mission. The government asked the Forum to bid on the election-monitoring mission earlier this month, he said.
His organization sent two monitors to the recent election in Mali, and Chattopadhyay participated in election-observation missions in Bosnia in the 1990s.
"The election-observation missions we've done in the past are certainly not on this scale," Chattopadhyay said. "But in terms of movements like this, we're used to it."
Forum is accustomed to moving large groups, he added, citing a major conference the organization holds that brings together between 600 and 1,500 people every few years.
Chattopadhyay said the Forum subcontracted the vetting of candidates to CUSO International. CUSO executive director Derek Evans declined an interview.
CUSO spokeswoman Jennifer Lavoie said her organization learned April 17 it would be involved in the Ukrainian observer mission.
"We do the recruitment, screening and selection of volunteers, so not specifically for an election-observer mission but for volunteers that go into specific missions," Lavoie said.
Lavoie said CUSO has "a lot of experience in the recruitment interviewing and selection process" of volunteers for large international projects.
Yaroslav Baran, a spokesman for CEOM, said its newly installed management team has experience organizing election-observer missions. Baran cited four members of its board, including himself, who have performed that function in the past.
"With these kinds of missions, with all due respect to all the organizations involved, be it the Forum of Federations, the Canadems or the CUSOs, it's not really the NGO that mounts the mission, it's the core team, the management team, that runs the mission," Baran said in an interview.
"If you look at the individuals that run the mission and the experience they represent, that's ultimately what matters."
Baran said the new organization represents a good combination of "corporate memory combined with new blood" from experienced NGOs with strong reputations for excellence.
Canadem director Paul Larose-Edwards said the CEOM website appears to be using much of the material from his organization.
"I visited it and noticed that the instructions are verbatim copies of Canadem's website and past emails to candidates. This will suggest to many that Canadem is still involved with the bilateral mission, but unfortunately we are not," Larose-Edwards said in a widely distributed email.
Larose-Edwards declined to comment on the suitability of the Forum and CUSO for the larger observer mission.
"Canadem has been doing international election observation for over a decade, and my experience goes back three decades, so I can speak to our suitability," he said. "This is their very first experience, so I have little to judge them on."
A draft Foreign Affairs assessment said Canada sent too many observers — 357 on a short-term basis — to Ukraine's 2012 parliamentary elections and suggested the mission was a strain on the government.
Veteran Canadian election observers criticized the government for sending so many observers when no other country does so. They agreed to speak on condition of anonymity because all are independent contractors who rely on international work for their livelihoods.
They say the government is sending large numbers of observers to win votes at home because there are an estimated 1.2 million people of Ukrainian descent in Canada.
"You've got the gold standard with the OSCE, and we're sending the maximum contribution we can send anyway," one observer said.
"On top of that, for domestic political reasons we're sending another however-many-Canadians for no reason at all."
In addition to the 338 observers in the short-term bilateral mission, Canada will also be contributing 135 observers to an OSCE-led mission, the largest number allowed under its regulations.
Canadem has secured the contract for selecting those observers.
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