March 8, 2024


As we mark the passing of a remarkable figure in Canadian history, the Right Honourable Brian Mulroney, we remember his profound contributions to our country, which have been well-noted already by other politicians and friends.

But I wish to underscore his major contributions in the geopolitical arena and his impact on world events – none more important than the collapse of the Soviet Union and the re-establishment of the nation-states of Eastern Europe, including Ukraine. I was involved with Mr. Mulroney during the rise of Ukraine to full sovereignty and independence in the late 1980s and early 90s. The year was 1989, and the Soviet Union was in trouble. Mikhail Gorbachev had put in place the policy of glasnost in 1986, and was looking for joint ventures with the West to save his economy.

And so, in late 1988, Politburo member and former Soviet ambassador to Canada, Alexander Yakovlev, invited the Canadian government to send a business and cultural mission to Ukraine, in an attempt to tap into the business side of the million-strong Ukrainian diaspora in Canada. I was asked to lead that delegation, and in early October, 1989, a trade mission of 70 businessmen (chosen to cover 11 sectors of the economy) and representatives of the federal, Alberta and Ontario governments went on an 18-day, three-city tour of Ukraine’s economy. A major debriefing session followed at the Canadian ambassador’s residence in Vienna, and a full report was filed with the Prime Minister’s Office and Foreign Affairs in Ottawa in late October. We gave 15 recommendations, a report on the rise of a democratic civil society in Ukraine, and a recommendation that Canada open a Canadian consulate in Kyiv.

As the prime minister, Mr. Mulroney was slated to go to Moscow in mid-November of that year, but on reading the report on the October trade mission he decided to add Kyiv to the back end of the Moscow trip, in order to announce his decision to open a Canadian consulate there. He invited me and five others from the October mission to join him on his visit. The speed with which Mr. Mulroney made that decision would be very telling shortly thereafter, as events in the Soviet Union would soon cause it to unravel very quickly.

Mr. Mulroney’s trip to Kyiv made international news because he started it with a cultural event – a wreath-laying ceremony at the monument of Ukraine’s greatest poet, Taras Shevchenko, in the park across from the National University. His speech referred to the famous 19th-century words of Shevchenko and his poem My Testament, referring to Ukraine as a “family new and free” – a country to be liberated from oppression. He then walked over and spoke to the huge crowd of about a thousand students across the street, cheering and waving Ukrainian blue and yellow flags (illegal at the time) despite roped-off police cordons. At the state dinner that evening, hosted by

the general-secretary of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the menus were printed in Ukrainian – even though the official language for diplomatic events was Russian. The trip showed that Ukraine had an international friend in Canada who could help the country in the future.

In November, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. The following month, Romania overthrew its communist dictator, and what was then Czechoslovakia finalized its “Velvet Revolution.” In March, 1990, Lithuania declared its independence (followed by fellow Baltic states Estonia and Latvia in 1991.) On July 16, 1990, Ukraine’s newly elected parliament adopted its Declaration of State Sovereignty, and one year later, on Aug. 24, 1991, Ukraine declared its independence. It is obvious that Brian Mulroney – who was a student of European history and a staunch supporter of democracy, freedom and the right to self-determination, along with his two intellectual soulmates, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – had followed events in Eastern Europe very closely and made the right calls at the right time in the region. He helped to restore the freedom of about 12 subjugated nations.

In September, 1991, Mr. Mulroney welcomed Leonid Kravchuk, the chairman of Ukraine’s parliament (and soon to be the first president of Ukraine) to Ottawa, extending Canada’s helping hand on advice, support and aid to a fledgling democracy. Mr. Mulroney agreed to send Canadian officials on an observer mission to monitor the Dec. 1, 1991, referendum on Ukraine’s independence. On Dec. 2, Canada was the first Group of Seven and Group of 20 country to recognize Ukraine as a sovereign country. Since that date, Canada has acted as a “big brother” to Ukraine in all international forums, providing advice and assistance where required.

The impact of Mr. Mulroney’s many accomplishments will be felt for generations to come, but for Ukrainian Canadians, his support for Ukraine over his entire political career will be warmly remembered.

And Ukraine felt the same way: In 2007, then-president Viktor Yushchenko awarded Mr. Mulroney with Ukraine’s highest honour – membership in the Order of Kniaz Yaroslav the Wise, in recognition of his visionary leadership and friendship.

In keeping with Brian Mulroney’s legacy, Canada continues to support Ukraine today as it faces an existential threat posed by its old colonial nemesis – Russia.


Bob Onyschuk is the founding president of the Canada-Ukraine Chamber of Commerce and emeritus chair of the Canada-Ukraine Foundation.