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Trudeau raises Poland’s democratic backsliding as prime minister visits Toronto

The visit comes amid unprecedented economic and military collaboration between the two countries
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walks along a street with Poland Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on their way to an announcement in Toronto on Friday June 2, 2023. Trudeau says that he raised concerns about reports that LGBTQ rights and democracy are under threat in Poland during a Friday visit with Morawiecki in Toronto. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he raised concerns about reports that LGBTQ rights and democracy are under threat in Poland during a Friday visit with its prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, in Toronto.

The visit comes amid unprecedented economic and military collaboration between the two countries.

“I certainly raised concerns that we have around some of the reports coming out of Poland around LGBTQ rights, around democracy, and we had a frank conversation, as must be the case,” Trudeau told reporters Friday.

His comments come amid rising concern about free speech and elections due to policies enacted by Morawiecki’s government.

The country recently passed a law that will create a commission to probe alleged Russian interference in the country. Academics and civil-rights groups say the mandate is so vague that the panel of mostly government MPs will be used to attack opposition parties.

“It threatens, for sure, not only the electoral process but also academic freedom, because the commission has such large powers to question people from academia,” said Marcin Gabrys, a political scientist with Jagiellonian University in Krakow.

On Monday, the U.S. State Department expressed concern over a new law “that could be misused to interfere with Poland’s free and fair elections.”

Gabrys was surprised that on that same day, Trudeau announced Morawiecki’s visit by praising “a shared commitment to NATO and democracy.” He said there is a strong discrepancy between the values held by the two governments.

On Tuesday, a Polish MP from the far-right Confederation party blocked University of Ottawa professor Jan Grabowski from delivering a lecture in Warsaw that would have touched on Polish complicity in crimes during the Holocaust.

The topic is a sore point for ruling PiS, which in 2018 outlawed truthful statements that some Poles were complicit in Nazi war crimes.

“There is too much silence, and I think we are on the edge in Poland,” said Gabrys, who specializes in Canadian studies.

“For Canada, many times the economic interest and security interests are more important. And sometimes it means that Ottawa has abstained from saying what it should say. Nevertheless, the case in Poland is so clear; it has been for so many years,” he said.

Two years ago, Morawiecki’s government limited abortions to cases where a pregnancy resulted from a criminal act or posed a serious health risk. The party has called out LGBTQ rights as “an attack on the family and children” and turned a blind eye to municipalities and regions declaring themselves “LGBT-free zones.”

In January, the European Commission withdrew a 2021 court case against Poland over the LGBT-free zones, and Morawiecki noted that the body hasn’t withheld equalization payments to Poland after threatening to do so over judicial reforms.

“In Poland, rights of all of human rights and rights of LGBT people are not jeopardized at all. We very strongly put focus on nurturing families, supporting families and sometimes it is misunderstood by some people as being discriminatory,” he told reporters.

“There are no problems whatsoever; there are lots of misunderstandings I reckon and I can explain them even more in detail, but this is not an issue in Poland.”

Canada and Poland have been ramping up military collaboration since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine.

That ranks high in Trudeau’s official notice about Morawiecki’s visit, which pledges “to address the regional defence and security challenges resulting from Russia’s brutal and unjustifiable war of aggression.”

Poland has been among the most assertive European countries in urging military allies to provide Ukraine with equipment. Gabrys says that’s in part due to a conviction that a victorious Russia would feel emboldened to target Poland and the three Baltic countries.

He’s watching to see if Poland makes a request for Canadians to train European soldiers in specialty equipment or in winter conditions, or to station more Canadian soldiers in the region. Gabrys expects Morawiecki to praise Canada for resettling Ukrainians who fled to Poland last year and for funding projects to help integrate those staying in that country.

Trade between Canada and Poland has been booming, rising 52 per cent in the five years since the Canada-EU trade deal came into effect, even though Warsaw hasn’t fully ratified the deal.

Poland recovered faster from the 2008 global recession, the European debt crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic than most of its peers.

The country is looking to Canada for know-how in carbon-capture technology and the fledgling nuclear field of small modular reactors.

Gabrys said his country would be open to Canadian hydrogen, uranium and liquefied natural gas if there’s enough of a business case, and Poland is trying to become a hub for electrical-vehicle battery factories.

He noted that Poland’s ambassador in Ottawa, Witold Dzielski, is close to the PiS leadership and has a better understanding of Canada than most envoys.

That has led to a series of unprecedented visits, Gabrys said, such as when Polish Health Minister Adam Niedzielski visited Canada in March to take stock of medical support for Ukrainians and to examine possible collaboration in life sciences.

“I see a new chapter, a new energy in the relations between Poland and Canada,” Gabrys said.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press

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