Last week, dozens of U.K. allies expelled Russian diplomats from their countries in retaliation for the poisoning of a Russian-British double agent and his adult daughter on British soil. The United Kingdom announced after an investigation that the attack – which was carried out earlier in March — was “likely” perpetrated by the Russian government.
At the time, Canada appeared to follow the lead of other countries – like the United States who expelled 60 Russians – with their expulsion of four diplomats. The federal government elaborated that the individuals had “used their diplomatic status to undermine Canadian security or interfere with our democracy.” You might be thinking, “That’s a weird way to say ‘Russia attacked our ally, the United Kingdom.’” Reporters were thinking the same thing.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about the statement at a press conference with NATO Security General Jens Stoltenberg Wednesday and he revealed that there was more to the expulsion of those Russian diplomats than solidarity with our allies. It turns out that last year, Russia was directly involved with a smear campaign against Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.
One day after Freeland was named to her position last year, a campaign with origins directly tied to the Russian embassy in Ottawa was launched to discredit her. Online articles and social media posts claimed that Freeland’s maternal grandfather was the editor-in-chief of a newspaper that worked directly with Nazis during World War II. Publications, including Vice News, also received communications from the Russian embassy suggesting that Freeland be questioned about her grandfather’s work during the Second World War
Freeland is of Ukrainian descent and is blacklisted by the Russian government for her support of the NATO-allied government of Ukraine – which Russia has been attempting to occupy since 2014. According to Vice, the newspaper Michael Chomiak (Freeland’s grandfather) worked for was Nazi-aligned, but out of necessity. Though some articles were anti-Semitic, inflammatory and propagandistic, Chomiak was largely a figurehead and never wrote for the paper himself.
It’s also completely unfair to ask Freeland to answer for the actions of her grandfather in WWII. She is her own woman and her own social and political actor. The smear campaign instigated by the Russian embassy was clearly a calculated attempt to remove someone who posed a challenge to their agenda in Ukraine.
“We all can remember efforts by the Russian propagandists to discredit our Minister of Foreign Affairs in various ways through social media and by sharing scurrilous stories about her,” Trudeau said during the press conference. He then elaborated on the global trend we’re seeing with regards to Russia’s interference in democracies.
“There are multiple ways in which Russia uses cyber, social media, propaganda to sway public opinion, to try and push a pro-Russia narrative,” he said, “Certainly, our troops in Latvia are currently experiencing a wave of interference and propaganda by Russia. This is a pattern that we have seen regularly.” He continued in French.
“[Freeland’s case] is just one example of many of Russia’s efforts to influence public opinion. For me, this is completely unacceptable,” Trudeau said, “Russia should not be getting involved in Canadian public opinion. Canada’s response of course has to do with our solidarity with our allies concerning the attack in Salisbury but this is just one attack of many of Russia’s attempts to interfere with public opinion in developed countries.”