Alberta's Ukrainian community comes together to support each other, family overseas

More than 345,000 Albertans have Ukrainian heritage, according to the provincial government, and many have been worried about family and friends in Ukraine after news of the Russian invasion.

'We're asking you to support Ukraine and to stop this war'

The Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in central Edmonton. (Julia Wong/CBC News)

After weeks of worrying about a threatened invasion of Ukraine by Russia, many Albertans spent a sleepless night Wednesday, trying to contact friends and family after news reports confirmed it had happened.

"It was a very disturbing evening," said Orysia Boychuk, president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress – Alberta Provincial Council (UCC-APC).

Boychuk was on the phone late Wednesday with loved ones in western Ukraine who heard bombings at a nearby airport, she told a Thursday news conference.

On Thursday, Ukrainian forces battled Russian invaders on three sides after Moscow mounted an assault by land, sea and air in the biggest attack on a European state since the Second World War.

Alberta is home to many people with connections to the eastern European country. More than 345,000 Albertans have Ukrainian heritage, according to the provincial government.

Shortly after news of the Russian invasion broke Wednesday, Father Cornell Zubritsky opened up the Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist church in central Edmonton, offering space for those who needed to pray. 

Father Cornell Zubritsky opened his church to offer people a place to pray. (Nathan Gross/CBC News)

"Edmonton has a large Ukrainian-Canadian population and a large population of new Ukrainian-Canadians, so this is very real and very raw for them," he said.

"I felt that we needed to do this and reach out to the community in this way."

Ukraine 'won't give up its freedom': president

Ukraine, a democratic country of 44 million people with more than 1,000 years of history, is Europe's biggest nation by area after Russia itself. It voted overwhelmingly for independence after the fall of the Soviet Union and aims to join NATO and the European Union, aspirations that infuriate Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has called Ukraine an artificial creation carved from Russia by its enemies, a characterization Ukrainians call shocking and false.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Putin's aim was to destroy his state.

"Russia has embarked on a path of evil, but Ukraine is defending itself and won't give up its freedom, no matter what Moscow thinks," Zelensky said on Twitter.

A view shows the Ukrainian State Border Guard Service site damaged by shelling in Ukraine's Kyiv region on Feb. 24. (Press service of the Ukrainian State Border Guard Service/Handout/Reuters)

A University of Alberta professor says Ukrainian-Russian relations are very special. 

"Now it seems like we are facing the last periods of the agony of the Soviet system," said Volodymyr Kravchenko, professor and director of the Contemporary Ukraine Studies programs at the University of Alberta.

Kravchenko, who moved from Ukraine to Canada nine years ago, still has family and friends in the country. 

Some of them were hiding in a bomb shelter, he said Thursday. 

A man and woman stand next to fragments of military equipment on the street in the aftermath of an apparent Russian strike in Kharkiv, Ukraine on Feb. 24. (Andrew Marienko/The Associated Press)

Kravchenko said his hometown of Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine was "one of the primary targets for Mr. Putin."

But he believes that Ukraine is prepared to fight.

"If Ukraine is able to stand her ground, I have no doubt that Ukraine will break with the Russian world once and for all."

Ongoing support

One of the key messages from many Albertans with Ukrainian heritage is for people to not panic. 

"Just help in any way you can," Oleksandr Danyleiko, Consul General of Ukraine in Edmonton, told CBC's Edmonton AM Thursday. 

"I will be meeting today and all the days after with the Ukrainian community. We will co-ordinate our actions and don't panic."

Danyleiko and other community leaders met with Premier Jason Kenney Wednesday before news of the invasion broke in North America. 

Liliya Pantelyuk, director of UCC-APC, is asking for people's support of Ukraine. (Dave Bajer/CBC News)

The provincial government announced it would provide $1 million to the Ukrainian Canadian Congress to help deliver humanitarian aid in Ukraine.

Continued support for Ukraine is the resounding message among many in Alberta's Ukrainian community.

"Right now, we're asking you to support Ukraine and to stop this war," Liliya Pantelyuk, director of UCC-APC, said on Thursday.

A rally in support of Ukraine is being held at the Alberta legislature on Thursday at 7 p.m.

With files from Stephanie Dubois, Julia Wong and The Associated Press