Harper wanted to pull out of European security organization, diplomats say
Conservative government wanted to leave organization because it was 'no longer relevant'
Former prime minister Stephen Harper wanted to pull Canada out of one of Europe's leading security organization four years ago, but U.S. President Barack Obama helped convince him to stay, according to three European ambassadors.
The ambassadors described on Monday what happened in 2012, when Harper suggested Canada would withdraw from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a 57-country alliance that includes NATO and European Union countries.
The diplomats said Harper believed the organization was no longer relevant because Europe was mainly peaceful, a view that was widely shared at the time. The outbreak of hostilities between Russia and Ukraine would later change that.
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Their account flies in the face of a heated denial issued by former foreign affairs minister John Baird in April, 2013 during testimony before the House of Commons foreign affairs committee.
Baird was confronted by New Democrat MP Helene Laverdiere who said she was "flabbergasted" to hear that Canada wanted to withdraw from the organization.
"We have no intention of withdrawing from the OSCE. I'm very happy to clarify that to you directly," Baird said.
Laverdiere, an ex-diplomat, said she heard "from very serious and various sources that Canada was intending, to the dismay of a lot of people, to withdraw from the OSCE."
According to a transcript of the hearings, Baird shot back, saying, "Who told you that?" and, "You're making it up. Who told you?"
"I'm not making it up," Laverdiere replied, to which Baird countered: "Tell me who told you."
OCSE on the chopping block
Conservative foreign affairs critic Tony Clement — Baird's cabinet colleague as Treasury Board president in 2012 — confirmed Monday the OSCE was temporarily on the chopping block as part of their government's spending review.
"I guess we looked at it for a little bit, realized it was valuable for Canada to continue to be part of that organization. And so, we didn't cut the funding," Clement said in an interview.
"We thought we were at the end of history in Europe, but that proved unfortunately not to be the case."
Earlier Monday, the German, Serbian and Austrian ambassadors recalled the events of 2012 when Canada was persuaded to stay with Obama's help and would later become a major participant in the OSCE, especially when the Ukraine crisis began to escalate.
Harper "didn't see it as important any longer," said German ambassador Werner Wnendt.
The Harper government echoed a widespread feeling that the organization didn't have a job to do because there was no more conflict in Europe, said Wnendt.
Arno Riedel, the Austrian ambassador, said Canada was only raising questions that other states also asked, because "we all thought we defused tension in Europe."
The flare-up of the Ukraine-Russia conflict has since highlighted the importance of the group, said Riedel.
"We need to have channels where we can communicate."
The organization has played a major role in monitoring on the ground since Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea region in 2014, sparking the worst crisis between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.
Dion visiting Ukraine
Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion completed his first trip to Ukraine on Monday, where he again pledged Canada's solidarity in meetings with his counterparts.
Meanwhile, the OSCE is trying to gain more access to eastern Ukraine, which is held by Russian-backed separatists, to monitor what has been a shaky ceasefire.
Fighting between Russian-backed rebels and Ukraine forces in the eastern part of the country has killed 9,000 people since April 2014.
In the last year, the number of OSCE monitors in Ukraine has grown to 600 from 200, said Mihailo Papazoglu, the Serbian ambassador.
The Harper government was a vocal supporter of Ukraine's sovereignty, as are the Liberals.
There are about 1.3 million Canadians of Ukrainian descent, which makes them an important constituency domestically.