KIGALI, Rwanda — Canada will open an embassy in Rwanda as part of efforts to combat the influence of Russia and China in Africa, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly announced on Wednesday shortly after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived in the country to begin a 10-day overseas trip.
"Yes, we know that Russia is present on the continent. Yes, we know that China is increasingly present also on the continent. We can't be naive," Joly told reporters in Kigali.
"We need to make sure that we have the diplomats on the ground with eyes and ears listening to what's going on, to make sure that we can play a positive role with Rwanda and the entire region."
She said Canada is setting up a permanent embassy in Kigali, with an ambassador, and will also name a new ambassador to the African Union, based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The prime minister's plane touched down at sunset on Wednesday in Kigali, where he will gather beginning Thursday with the heads of government from the other 53 countries in the Commonwealth for the first time since 2018.
The original meeting, planned for 2020, was, like so much else, put off by the COVID-19 pandemic that is still an important backdrop to the talks.
The consequences of Russia's large-scale invasion of Ukraine, which began on Feb. 24, have been felt around the globe — particularly in some of the smaller nations whose leaders Trudeau will meet in Kigali.
The conflict sparked a massive refugee crisis. It also limited other countries' access to wheat from Ukraine, often referred to as the breadbasket of Europe because of its significant food production.
African countries, 19 of which are Commonwealth members, have faced especially severe food insecurity as a result. The UN World Food Program has warned that millions of people in the developing world and conflict zones are in danger of starvation.
Before the war, Russia and Ukraine produced about 30 per cent of the world's exported grain. The closure of key ports in the Black Sea has made it difficult to ship those goods to the countries that need them.
"We are ready to send ships to Romania, basically to get every single grain out of Ukraine. We need to free the wheat," Joly said.
Dealing with the emerging geopolitical consequences of the conflict in Ukraine is what Joly calls the "third phase" of Canada's response to the Russian invasion and said there will be further announcements on that front this week.
Trudeau spoke about potential measures during a phone call last week with Rwanda's President Paul Kagame, who will be hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
Canada will also be rallying support for Ukraine among Commonwealth members and attempt to win over any leaders who may be on the fence about condemning Russia.
When the United Nations voted to suspend Russia from the human rights council in April, 58 countries abstained from the vote. Of those, 29 were Commonwealth countries.
Macky Sall, the president of Senegal and chair of the African Union, blamed western sanctions on Russia for stopping the flow of grain. He made the remarks at a press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month.
Joly said it will be important to hear from members of the African Union and those who abstained from the UN vote to understand where they're coming from — and how to change their minds.
That will be her goal on Thursday when she sits down with her counterpart from India, a country with long-standing diplomatic ties to Russia.
In Kigali, Trudeau will take part in meetings with Commonwealth leaders and roundtable discussions on the climate economy. Prince Charles and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson are also both scheduled to attend the gathering. The Queen attended the 2018 Commonwealth summit, which took place at Buckingham Palace.
Trudeau is also expected to pay his respects at the Kigali Genocide Memorial on Thursday, in memory of the 1994 Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi people.
He will depart for Schloss Elmau, a resort in the Bavarian Alps of Germany, for the G7 leaders' summit on Saturday before heading to a NATO meeting in Madrid next week. He will also meet Pedro Sánchez, the prime minister of Spain.
The Ukrainian Canadian Congress said it expects Trudeau to spur other leaders into action on Ukraine when he is in Germany and Spain.
Congress head Ihor Michalchyshyn said he spoke to Ukrainian defence officials in a recent trip to Kyiv, who highlighted the dire situation they're facing with dwindling military equipment.
"They don't have enough weapons. They've been actually saying that they're going to run out of ammunition in coming weeks and months," Michalchyshyn said.
"If there's nothing of substance announced and operationalized there, the rhetoric is empty."
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is expected to address the G7 and NATO summits, where the conversation will be largely focused on economic and military support for the embattled country.
Last week in Brussels, Defence Minister Anita Anand, who will join Trudeau at the NATO summit, announced Canada would deliver 10 replacement artillery barrels, worth $9 million, to support the M777 howitzer artillery guns already provided.
As of the end of January, 33,346 candidates for the Security Forces of Ukraine have participated in Canada's training program, called Operation Unifier, since September 2015.
Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins pressed Trudeau during his visit to Canada last month for a more permanent military presence in the Baltics to counter any Russian perceptions of NATO weakness in the area.
Canada currently has nearly 700 troops leading a NATO battlegroup in Latvia, one of several in the region. At a joint news conference with Karins in Ottawa, Trudeau announced one general and six staff officers from the Canadian Armed Forces would be deployed to a NATO headquarters in Adazi near the Latvian capital of Riga, but deferred any major decisions to the NATO talks.
The serious conflict between Ukraine and Russia has drawn more countries to the coming NATO meeting in Madrid, including Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. He is he first Japanese leader to join a top meeting of the North Atlantic military alliance.
Sweden and Finland, which have applied to join NATO, are sending delegations. South Korea's new President Yoon Suk-yeol has also signalled his intention to attend.
Trudeau is expected to return to Ottawa on June 30, in time for Canada Day celebrations.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 22, 2022.
Laura Osman, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version misspelled Defence Minister Anita Anand's surname.