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Russia raiding Ukraine wheat stores, exporting it with false papers: Ukraine minister

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OTTAWA — Ukraine’s agriculture minister has told Ottawa that Russia is raiding its grain stores and selling Ukrainian wheat covertly on the international market.

Mykola Solskyi told the House of Commons agriculture committee that 500,000 to 600,000 tonnes of Ukrainian wheat have been stolen by the Russians.

Speaking via videolink to MPs, he said Russia was mixing stolen Ukrainian wheat with Russian wheat and exporting it covertly with fabricated documents, including via the Crimean port of Sevastopol.

“They are now taking this grain to Russia. They mix it with Russian grain and claim that the origin of this grain is Russia,” he said.

The minister of agrarian policy and food said Ukraine tracked cargo ships containing its wheat to Syria.

“We were able to turn these ships away from Egypt where they were originally heading, so they were diverted and went to Syria,” he said. “We have no allies in Syria.”

Solskyi called on Canada to apply sanctions on ship owners who exported the stolen grain, as well as those buying and selling it.

Ukraine’s silos contain grain destined for global markets including in the Middle East and Africa but the embattled country is unable to export it via ports such as Odesa.

Aid agencies have warned that Russia’s blocking of Ukraine’s ports could lead to starvation in the developing world.

“Due to blockade of Ukrainian sea ports … 20 millions tonnes of grain are not on the world market,” Solskyi said.

Usually Ukraine would be exporting 5-6 million tonnes per month, he said, but in March it exported only 200,000 tonnes.

Ukraine is one of the world’s biggest exporters of grain with many countries, including Lebanon and Bangladesh, relying on it to supply wheat, a staple food.

The Ukrainian minister said some of its upcoming harvest could be ruined because the war-torn country has storage facilities for only 60 million tonnes of wheat, far less than usual.

Many silos were already full because of Russia’s blockade of the ports.

Some silos were destroyed by the Russians or were in territories under Russian control. He said Russia has also fired missiles at bridges and roads used to transport grain.

The minister asked Canada to provide temporary storage facilities for its grain to stop the next harvest rotting.

At a press conference on Thursday, committee chair Kody Blois reported earlier evidence from a Ukrainian MP that 13 per cent of fields have been seeded with landmines by the Russians or contain unexploded shells.

The agriculture committee is carrying out an inquiry into global food security, and has been hearing evidence about the effect of the war on Ukraine’s ability to plant and export crops.

Blois said the committee also heard on Monday that Russia has been stealing Ukrainian wheat and selling it via Syria, a country allied with Vladimir Putin.

Ukraine’s minister of agrarian policy and food told the committee that Ukrainian farmers in Russian-controlled areas were being threatened with having their harvests taken from them if they did not comply with Russian edicts.

But he said in parts of the country controlled by Ukraine, its farmers “are not giving up, they are working hard every day.”

Farmers are cultivating fields “just a few hundred metres from where the bombings are.”

The war has led to droves of Ukrainians being displaced without jobs, he explained. Ukraine has asked Canada to send seedlings for fruit trees that people driven from their homes and family farms can cultivate.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 9, 2022.

 

Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press

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Hillier calls on Ottawa to provide aid to Ukraine, laments waning interest in war

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OTTAWA — Retired general Rick Hillier is lamenting what he sees as waning Canadian interest in the war in Ukraine as public and political attention turns increasingly toward the rising rate of inflation and other issues closer to home.

But the former Canadian defence chief who served as the face of this country’s military mission in Afghanistan for years warns that even more economic hardship is in store if Canada and its allies don’t step up their support for Ukraine and stop Russia.

That includes the rapid provision of hundreds of millions of dollars in Canadian military aid that the federal Liberal government promised in April, only a fraction of which has been delivered.

“Just imagine what would occur if Russia breaks through and takes Ukraine, changes the oil and gas flow dramatically, changes the flow of wheat into Africa, to the Black Sea ports,” he said in an interview.

“The implication will be double, triple or quadruple what we see right now. … It’s right to do more as a nation and we can afford to do more. But secondly, do it because the economic implications down the road of not doing it are brutal for us also.”

Hillier was speaking in his role as the new head of an advisory council comprised of retired military commanders organized by the Ukrainian World Congress, an advocacy group for the Ukrainian diaspora.

The UWC has been running a campaign called Unite With Ukraine that seeks to raise funds to buy non-lethal military equipment for the country’s Territorial Defence Force, which is comprised of volunteers — including foreigners — fighting Russia’s invasion.

Canada has been a staunch supporter of the Ukrainian military since Russian forces first attacked in late February, with the Liberal government promising $500 million in military aid in April’s federal budget.

The government says it has since provided more than $150 million worth of assistance, including millions in artillery shells, drones and satellite imagery. Those are in addition to the provision of four artillery guns and several armoured vehicles.

Defence Minister Anita Anand earlier this week held up the purchase of drone cameras for the Ukrainian military as one of several recent successes when it comes to military procurement, saying the government “turned around a contract within days.”

But Hillier says there needs to be a greater sense of urgency as Russia, after its early battlefield blunders, has started to deploy more of its military capabilities in ways that the Ukrainians are finding difficult to counter.

“They’ve committed half-a-billion dollars and I’d like to see that money spent in very effective ways, with things delivered to the Ukrainian defence forces literally right now, and not go through a procurement process,” he said.

“Let’s get them what they need right now.”

Hillier repeated some of his past calls for Canada to send some of the hundreds of light-armoured vehicles that form the backbone of the Canadian Army’s mechanized power, as well as dozens of tanks.

At the same time, he worried that the war in Ukraine is falling down the priority list for Canadians as they face more pressure on their pocketbooks due to rising fuel and food costs as well as mortgage rates.

“I watched a variety of national news shows over the last days and several weeks and Ukraine is barely mentioned, let alone what’s occurring there,” he said. “And people are worried about their ability to put food on their table, and their jobs and house.”

Hillier’s comments came as the Russian military extended its grip on territory in eastern Ukraine on Thursday, and the Ukrainian military announced the arrival of powerful U.S. multiple-launch rocket systems it hopes will offer a battlefield advantage.

The U.S. plans to send another US$450 million in military aid to Ukraine, including some additional medium-range rocket systems, ammunition and other supplies, U.S. officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to provide details ahead of an announcement.

Analysts said the advanced systems, which Canada does not operate, would give Ukrainian forces greater precision in hitting Russian targets.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 24, 2022.

⁠ — With files from The Associated Press.

 

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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Trudeau pledges to defend abortion rights around the world amid ‘devastating setback’

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OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to defend abortion rights in Canada and around the world on Friday after what he called a “devastating setback” in the United States.

“Quite frankly, it’s an attack on everyone’s freedoms and rights,” Trudeau said of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that guaranteed the right to abortion.

“It shows how much standing up and fighting for rights matters every day, that we can’t take anything for granted,” Trudeau said from the Commonwealth summit in Kigali, Rwanda.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, who joined Trudeau in Kigali, called it a “dark day” and warned the decision will have “a domino effect on other rights,” adding that no country is immune and accusing Conservatives of “shopping for anti-abortion votes.”

Trudeau did not take questions from reporters after making his statement.

Conservative interim leader Candice Bergen accused the Liberals of politicizing the abortion issue to create division.

She said in a written statement that her party’s position on abortion has not changed and the Conservatives “will not introduce legislation or reopen the abortion debate.”

Jean Charest, a candidate in the Tory leadership race, tweeted on Friday he was “disturbed” by the news. He said while he recognizes there are strongly held beliefs on the issue, “reproductive rights in Canada are non-negotiable.”

Leslyn Lewis, another candidate who describes herself as “pro-life,” tweeted on Friday that “Canada is not the U.S.” She said she expects Canadians to be able to have adult conversations about the topic.

She said her position is that coercive and sex-selective abortions are wrong, and a Conservative party under her leadership would allow free votes for issues of conscience in the House of Commons.

A majority of Conservatives voted in favour of a private member’s bill last year to outlaw sex-selective abortions, but the bill was defeated.

The party’s other leadership candidates have either said that they support the right to choose an abortion or that they would not introduce legislation restricting it.

The Campaign Life Coalition, which holds an annual anti-abortion rally on Parliament Hill that attracts thousands and has supported Lewis’s candidacy, put out a statement praising the court: “We thank God and heartily applaud this decision.”

Reacting to the news on Friday morning, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh said in a statement that “dangerous policies that threaten women’s health and women’s lives must not be allowed to take root in Canada.”

He said the government needs to work harder to improve abortion access for women, especially in rural communities. “The Liberals say the right things about being pro-choice but that isn’t enough,” he added.

The right to an abortion doesn’t exist in Canada in the same way it was enshrined in Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that served as a rock-ribbed legal scaffold for reproductive rights champions around the world.

Abortion is decriminalized in Canada because of a 1988 Supreme Court decision, but no bill has ever been passed to enshrine access into law.

Though the decision is sending “shock waves” everywhere, the legal ability to have an abortion in Canada is not under threat, said Joyce Arthur, executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada.

But her organization is concerned about Americans coming north for abortion care and is advocating for federal and provincial governments to help clinics with more funding because, as Arthur puts it, “even a small number of Americans can overwhelm our system.”

Later on Friday, Joly was asked whether the government would require provinces to provide access to late-term abortions, and if American women could have their abortions funded by Canada. She said they want to take “strong measures” towards better access.

“We will work with women’s organizations across the country to listen to their needs and also work with provinces and territories,” she said in Kigali.

Cara Zwibel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association noted that while most Canadians have access to abortion services through provincial health care, that is not true in New Brunswick. Publicly funded abortion services in that province have been restricted to three hospitals in two cities. The CCLA filed a case against the N.B. government that is making its way through courts.

Oxfam Canada executive director Lauren Ravon likewise reacted to the decision with concerns about the “enormous challenges” in abortion access for Canadian women who live in rural and remote areas, are in precarious housing situations or face intimate partner violence.

Social media was replete Friday with criticisms of the court’s decision from Liberal and like-minded politicians, including a tweeted statement from Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland that said she was “shocked and horrified” and “abortion is a fundamental right.”

But advocates such as Arthur have been hoping the government will start “putting their money where their mouth is.”

In May, after a leaked copy of the U.S. Supreme Court’s draft decision was obtained and published by Politico, the Liberal government announced it was spending $3.5 million on two projects to improve abortion access — part of a $45 million pot of money for sexual and reproductive health services they had announced in 2021.

At the time, Trudeau said his government was discussing how to make sure progress on reproductive rights is not reversed by future governments or court decisions, and that enshrining access to abortion with legislation could be one way to do that.

Liberals have made no major strides toward doing that, however, nor have they followed through on an election promise last fall to create Canada Health Act regulations that would penalize provinces for failing to provide access to sexual and reproductive health services.

Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos told reporters in May such mechanisms already exist, but his officials were looking at reinforcing them in the coming months.

Last year, the Liberal government confirmed it had withheld about $140,000 of New Brunswick’s share of the federal health transfer because it does not fund abortions provided at a clinic in Fredericton.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 24, 2022.

— With files from Laura Osman in Kigali, Rwanda.

 

Marie-Danielle Smith, The Canadian Press

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Quebec’s St-Jean Baptiste Day celebrations return after pandemic hiatus

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MONTREAL — Quebec residents streamed into local streets, packed outdoor concert venues and geared up for a weekend of in-person celebrations on Friday as they marked the provincial holiday of St-Jean Baptiste Day.

The return to public festivities came after two years worth of broad cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and residents lost no time in getting back into the celebratory spirit.

Tanya Dupont turned up for Friday festivities in Montreal alongside her five-year-old daughter, with the pair sporting matching tank tops featuring Quebec’s floral emblem.

“We missed celebrating the St-Jean Baptiste Day,” Dupont said. “My daughter was so excited to take her outfit out again!”

Celebrations for the 188th edition of St-Jean Baptiste festivities kicked off with major concerts in Quebec City and Montreal on Thursday evening, where thousands of attendees donned the province’s official blue and white colours.

About 5,000 activities across 650 provincial locales have been planned for the long weekend, including several musical performances from prominent Quebec’s performers.

Simon Bissonnette, president of organizer Mouvement national des Québécoises et Québécois, said this year’s holiday feels like a family reunion due to the lifting of public health protocols meant to protect against COVID-19.

“It’s a liberation to see people at different sites, without any measures,” Bissonnette said.

But this year’s celebrations weren’t exact clones of past events.

In downtown Montreal, for instance, the traditional parade was replaced with an immersive exhibition of scenes from Quebec’s history and culture.

Rather than admiring passing parade floats, attendees were encouraged to circulate among a dozen settings. These included a replica of Quebec’s infamous winter complete with real bonfires and the opportunity to roast marshmallows, a traditional sugar shack, and a showcase of photos depicting aspects of the province’s history.

Montreal resident Mélanie Aubut was all smiles as she watched her seven-year-old daughter run across the street with half her face painted in blue and a “Quebec” tag on her forehead.

“We’re also celebrating diversity today,” Aubut said. “It’s beautiful that we have people with different backgrounds in our city, celebrating together.”

She said having the option to walk across the static scenes was perfect to reintroduce the festivities after the pandemic.

“It’s less overwhelming or suffocating because there’s more space for people,” she said. “You can go at your own rhythm, take the time to look.”

Simon Dor also took in the sights during an afternoon  stroll with family and friends.

“There are several definitions to what it means to be Quebecer,” he said. “But we can celebrate no matter what.”

Quebec Premier François Legault posted a video on Twitter early Friday showing himself humming “Gens du pays” by Quebec Nationalist songwriter Gilles Vigneault, which is frequently sung during birthday celebrations.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also issued a statement in which he celebrated his Quebec heritage and touted the province as a leader in equality, justice and democracy.

“As Quebecers, we can be proud of our history and our beautiful French language,” Trudeau said on Friday. “These are the roots of a unique culture that binds us together, from Rimouski to Val–d’Or, from Montreal to Sherbrooke.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 24, 2022.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

 

Virginie Ann, The Canadian Press

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