Canada·First Person

I'm a veteran who trained Ukrainian soldiers. They've taught me the meaning of resiliency

As Ukraine fights the Russian invasion, Andriy Tovstiuk reflects on his experiences serving in Ukraine as a member of the Canadian Armed Forces.

The Ukrainian air force base I served at was bombed. I worry about the people I met during my deployment

Andriy Tovstiuk poses for a photo during basic leadership course training in Ukraine in 2019. (Andriy Tovstiuk)

This First Person article is the experience of Andriy Tovstiuk who is a Ukrainian Canadian veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

Growing up in Edmonton, I used to dread Saturday mornings. At a time when my "Canadian" friends were either still sleeping or catching morning cartoons, I was at Ukrainian Saturday school. Episodes of Recess and Futurama were replaced with classes on Ukrainian language, literature, history and geography. 

I may not have realized it at the time, but these were the moments that planted the seeds for my appreciation of my Ukrainian heritage. 

Somewhere along the way, I went from resenting those classes to fully embracing my Ukrainian heritage. As a child, I joined Plast, a Ukrainian youth organization modelled after Scouts that develops leadership skills, and I remain a adult member to this day. I took various Ukrainian language courses at the University of Alberta. These experiences have provided me with a deep appreciation of what it meant to be a Ukrainian in Canada. 

That's why I understand the motivation of so many Canadian volunteers who are joining the Ukrainian Armed Forces right now to counter the Russian invasion. My own story of service has a similar beginning. Russia's annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014 was a flagrant violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. 

It was at that moment I decided to enlist in the Canadian Armed Forces. I've always wanted to serve my home, Canada, but I also wanted to deploy on Operation Unifier, Canada's military training mission in Ukraine. 

I got my chance and was deployed to Ukraine immediately after completing graduate studies in 2019. Over the course of a year, I helped implement new NATO-standardized basic leadership courses at Non-Commissioned Officer academies in Ukraine. We conducted training on topics like troop leading procedure and how to effectively carry out vehicle checkpoints, and also observed field training exercises. 

My favouite, however, was teaching basic navigation skills to instructors using the Military Grid Reference System (MGRS), a NATO standard. This was a clear example of how we were teaching them "our way" of doing things and bringing them closer to the alliance. 

Andriy Tovstiuk, second from the left, was deployed to Ukraine with the Canadian Armed Forces on the allied mission, Operation Unifier, in 2019. (Andriy Tovstiuk)

I spent four months stationed in Mykolaiv, a city in southern Ukraine where Russian is the dominant spoken language and pro-Russian sentiment was historically widespread. 

But I was heartened to see this was changing. From restaurants, gyms, even the post office, people would often thank me for speaking Ukrainian in a historically Russian-speaking city. On May 16, National Vyshyvanka Day, I vividly recall thousands of Mykolaivtsi pouring into downtown wearing their Ukrainian vyshyvankkas (traditional shirts) with pride. These moments didn't occur where one would expect them — cities in western Ukraine with traditionally pro-European views like Ternopil, L'viv or Ivano-Frankivsk — but rather in the former ship-building capital of the Soviet Union. 

Andriy Tovstiuk, left, poses with the Ukrainian Armed Force graduates of a leadership training course in Vasylkiv, Ukraine, in 2019. (Andriy Tovstiuk)

I finished my deployment in the town of Vasylkiv. Located just outside of the capital Kyiv, Vasylkiv has a population of just over 35,000 and is home to an important Ukrainian Air Force (UAF) base. 

This past week has seen intense fighting in the town with Russians trying to seize the airfield in their pursuit of Kyiv. The base where I served has been damaged. 

A burned out car remains next to the Ukrainian Air Force base building which damaged by Russian attack. Andriy Tovstiuk was deployed to this base in 2019. (Supplied by Andriy Tovstiuk’s colleagues in Ukraine)

It breaks my heart to see the place I called home for seven months now under assault. My thoughts turn to the people I met there —the lady working at the gas station with whom I sang Ukrainian Christmas carols on a cold winter morning. I think about the trainers at my gym, M2 Fitness, who helped me with my deadlifts. I think about the waitress, a young mother of two at the Intelligent Restaurant, who would refuse our tips. 

These are the people of Vasylkiv. Salt of the earth. 

They don't deserve this. I wonder if they're fighting or have fled. How they must be surviving this unjust invasion of their home.

While NATO allies have significantly assisted the UAF, the fact they've recently refused to implement a no-fly zone over Ukraine is disheartening. Russia is escalating the pace and intensity of its air raids. 

But if there's a word I can use to describe the Ukrainian people, it's resilient. They've sadly become accustomed to defending every inch of their land against various oppressors over the centuries. 

I have no doubt that allied training missions like ours helped strengthen the Ukrainian Armed Forces. As Canadian soldiers, we often joked that any time a single module in a course changed in Canada, everyone goes all up in arms. Yes, we were there as trainers. But in reality, we had more to learn from the Ukrainians because Ukraine has been rapidly professionalizing their military while simultaneously fighting a war for the past eight years. 

Before I departed back to Canada, one of the Ukrainian instructors gifted me with a magnet of their air force base which I proudly display on my fridge in my condo in Edmonton. Today, it's one of my most meaningful possessions.

As I look at it, I have never been prouder to be Canadian and Ukrainian. I have also never been prouder of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the ordinary citizens who have taken up arms. They are giving the Russian troops hell and will continue to do so until this completely unjustified war ends. 


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andriy Tovstiuk is a global digital marketer in Edmonton and a proud Ukrainian Canadian. He served in the Canadian Armed Forces for five years and deployed on two rotations of Operation Unifier as a linguist from 2019 to 2020.

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