Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky’s address to Parliament this week was the latest in a long line of speeches by foreign leaders hoping to build ties with Canada, promote policies or plead for aid.
Dozens of prime ministers, presidents and other key figures are part of a tradition of addressing Canada’s House of Commons, but Zelensky’s speech was remarkable for its timing, context and virtual delivery.
“These are all players, when they’re addressing the House of Commons, who are at the height of their powers and have their greatest influence on the world agenda and international relations,” said Patrick Boyer, a historian and former MP who wrote a book on addresses by world leaders, Foreign Voices in the House.
“And that’s true of the most recent speech,” Boyer said. “But that’s not unique.”
Canadian historian Robert Bothwell is more skeptical of the lasting impact of the addresses: “I could come up with four or five that were actually important, where there’s something more than ceremonial.”
He said that for much of its history, as a colony of the United Kingdom, Canada hosted few foreign visitors.
“When we did have foreign visitors, they never came to Ottawa because there was no point,” he said.
Third Ukrainian president to address Parliament
Prior to Zelensky’s speech, the House of Commons lists 58 addresses by foreign dignitaries since 1941, starting with Winston Churchill. But you don’t have to go back that far to find some interesting parallels to Zelensky’s address.
Two other Ukrainian presidents have spoken to the House of Commons. Boyer, who led a Canadian delegation that helped monitor Ukraine’s independence referendum in 1991, said it’s clear that the dynamics we’re witnessing today were already present in 2014, when Petro Poroshenko came to Ottawa, and in 2008, when then-president Viktor Yushchenko spoke.
“Ukraine’s admission to NATO is not a step meant to challenge anybody or to inconvenience any of our neighbours, immediate or distant. We are governed solely by the national interests of Ukraine,” Yushchenko said, not naming Russia. Just months before, Ukraine had applied to the alliance, asking it to consider Ukrainian membership.
Only six years later, the ground had shifted substantially.
“Today Ukraine pays a very high price for defending what we believe in: democracy and the freedom to choose our own future,” Poroshenko said, speaking six months after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine.
“For more than two decades, we proudly stated that Ukraine gained its independence without shedding a single drop of blood. Now that is no longer true. Now we are engaged in a true battle for our independence. Now we are paying the real price.”
Those speeches are jarring when read beside another address by a foreign leader, that of the president of the newly constituted Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, who spoke to the House in June 1992, just six months after the Soviet Union dissolved.
“When people speak about Russia and Canada, they generally comment on how similar our countries are. Canada is probably the only place where a Russian could forget that he is in a different country,” Yeltsin told members of Parliament, appealing for co-operation and mutual investment while promoting a reformist, internationalist and democratic Russia.
“Our intentions are not secret. We are prepared for hard work, which is the very essence of any partnership. We have a long and difficult road ahead of us. I am convinced that our peoples must travel together if they are to attain the best results.”
Wartime calls for aid
Another parallel between Zelensky’s address and others, Boyer said, is the wartime nature of the speech. Churchill’s 1941 appearance was one such address. Boyer likened it to other speeches in Canada by foreign leaders, going back to the First World War in 1917.
“In each case, their speech was totally riveting on the war, on Canada’s role, what Canada could do,” he said, with the message often being: “Really great, but more needs to be done.”
The same theme is echoed in Zelensky’s address, praising Canada’s efforts so far as Ukraine battles Russian troops but simultaneously urging Canadians to understand the severity of the situation, intensify sanctions and enforce a no-fly zone.
Churchill’s speech — significantly longer than Zelensky’s roughly 13-minute address — outlined how he saw the course of the war so far and his proposed pathway to victory, praising Canada’s contribution and calling for unity and continued struggle.
“Let us then address ourselves to our task, not in any way underrating its tremendous difficulties and perils, but in good heart and sober confidence, resolved that, whatever the cost, whatever the suffering, we shall stand by one another, true and faithful comrades, and do our duty, God helping us, to the end,” Churchill concluded.
The style of rhetoric has clearly changed. But that wartime message, notably different given Canada’s direct role at the time, still provides an interesting parallel.
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Bothwell compared Zelensky’s pleas with another famous international speech — though one that does not provide a particularly hopeful example for Ukraine.
“I think the only comparison I could make was Haile Selassie coming to the League of Nations in 1936. That was a very similar exercise,” he said. Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia from 1930-74, urged the international community to sanction Italy for its ongoing invasion of his country — but his attempt was largely unsuccessful.
Bothwell said Zelensky’s address to Canada’s Parliament was interesting because it was part of a series of speeches in foreign legislatures, including the U.S. Congress and the the British Parliament.
“The point is showing Canadians that Ukraine is a serious place, putting it on the map for us, and he did that. There was a purpose,” he said.
Unifying events for Canada
Since Churchill, many other leaders have come to this country to praise bilateral relations or call for policy change. When he was U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, for example, talked up the need for a renewed commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization during his 1961 address.
The presence of other leaders marked shifts in Canadian foreign policy and world history: an address by then-Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1949, for example, or a speech by Chinese state council premier Zhao Ziyang in 1984.
One striking aspect of Zelensky’s speech to Parliament this week was the overwhelming support he received from members on all sides of the House, with lengthy ovations and outward displays of support. Such unanimity is difficult to find in domestic politics, but, Boyer says, it’s not uncommon when foreign leaders visit.
“I can say safely that the single most unifying event for Canadian politics over the past century and a quarter has been the hour in which a foreign leader has addressed or spoken in our House of Commons,” he said.
Still, there are instances of disruption. In 1988, for example, then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan was heckled by NDP MPs, including Svend Robinson.
Others, like Nelson Mandela, received an awed reception. The South African anti-apartheid leader appeared before the House in June 1990, just a few months after being released from prison.
Boyer said that was one address where the need for a unified, respectful response was obvious.
“Why? Because we are witnessing history.”
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