Today was a rare day in political Ottawa, one that few ever witnesses. It’s not very often that the leader of another country is offered the chance to address the Canadian Parliament, so we were already starting from a small pool of events. But today we saw something as historic and rare as they come, when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed Parliament. He did so via video link, a fact that is historic in its own right. But he also did so from a safe, undisclosed location, as Russia continues to attack and bomb his country. All of these historic facts spoke for themselves, as Zelensky spoke to all of us.
The speech was short by the normal standards of such an address in the House of Commons, clocking in at just over 12 minutes. That was as expected, as when one is defending their country from an invading neighbour, one doesn’t have the time to give the kinds of long, soaring speeches like we’ve heard from past leaders like Nelson Mandela or Barrack Obama in the chamber. That fact made the speech all the more remarkable in these circumstances.
Zelensky used that short speech to cut right to the heart of the matter, transporting Canadians to imagine what their lives would be like if they were suffering under the attacks of another country. He asked us all to consider how we would feel if the Hell being inflicted on Kyiv, Mariupol, Kharkiv, Kherson and other Ukrainian communities were being inflicted on Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver and Edmonton. I’m sure that we’ve all had moments where similar thoughts had struck us witnessing this war from the safe distance of our living rooms half a world away. I’m sure that many of us saw the missile attacks on the large TV tower in Kyiv and wondered what would happen if that had been the CN Tower instead.
Zelensky didn’t spare any of us the discomfort we naturally feel when we think of those things, and then juxtapose them against our response to date. He thanked Canadians and our government for what we have done to date to support his country and people, but also made it clear that hasn’t been enough. It was done with tact, care and drew on our humanity. It was probably this one quote that did this best, putting us all in the shoes of the Ukrainian people:
“Can you imagine when you when you call your friends… and you ask: ‘Please close the sky. Close the airspace. Please stop the bombing. How many more cruise missiles have to fall on our cities until you make this happen?’ And they in return express their deep concerns about the situation”Source: Rachel Aiello, CTV News
Folks, that cuts straight to the heart of the conflict in Ukraine, and the conflict that so many in NATO are struggling with in their minds and their hearts. We all know the potential impact of implementing a No-Fly Zone over Ukraine and how it could stop the bombs falling on innocent civilians. We’ve seen that work in other countries and in our hearts, we know it is the right thing to do, with each new horrifying attack on a maternity hospital, or kindergarten, or apartment building further confirming our feelings. But in our heads, we know that implementing a No-Fly Zone will mean war with Russia. It will mean having to confront Russian jets in they sky over Ukraine, having to fire upon those that refuse to obey and likely attack Russian ground artillery that would shoot at them. It would be World War Three, and in our heads, we know that’s something we vowed never to do again.
It’s a conflict that is raging within all of us, and particularly so within the hearts and minds of those who we elected to make such decisions. With that quote from Zelensky, he gives Canadians no quarter or respite from that conflict within us. He actually turned up that tension, making the case that those “expressions of deep concern” essentially feels to them like the victims of mass shootings getting the usual “thoughts and prayers” comments from American politicians who vehemently oppose gun control. We know that those “thoughts and prayers” are relatively worthless, and we can understand why Ukrainians would feel that our “expressions of deep concern” are worth even less to them as they are being bombed into oblivion.
He also used that same sanguine tone to point out to our Parliamentarians while Canada has been a “reliable” partner, when it comes to Ukraine’s aspiration to become members of NATO, we have hesitated to give them clear answer. That fact must feel like a strong sense of abandonment in this most difficult moment, when the lack of that very NATO membership is being used as the tent post to hold up the argument to keep NATO jets out of the sky, to stop the bombing. While I don’t doubt Mr. Zelensky’s sincerity in his thanks for what Canadians have done to help his country, I couldn’t help but feel hearing the word “reliable” to describe our partnership as a reminder that our reliability here has been hasn’t been everything that’s been needed.
In the end with his speech, Zelensky used his deep rhetorical and story-telling skills to both thank Canadians and try to push us further to help his people in their moment of peril. He served his people well in this moment, as he did something that many political leaders from conventional backgrounds never could. He painted a picture, delivered it with visual and moral clarity, all while forcing us to consider how we can do more, even the things that we feel we can’t consider. It was a speech the likes of which we’ve never seen in Canada’s chamber of democracy, and depending on what happens in the weeks to come, could mean a great deal. And many most importantly in this immediate moment, it was a speech that left all Parliamentarians and most Canadians standing, applauding and saying in unison, “Slava Ukraini”. We’ll see if this speech brings about more action from allies like Canada, but it’s clear that Ukraine is leaving no stone unturned in the attempt to save their country and stand up for democracy.