'This hurts': Manitobans react to Russian attack in Eastern Ukraine

Political leaders in Manitoba and Ukrainians who call the province home are expressing shock, anger and worry at the Russian military assault in Eastern Ukraine.

Manitoba's Ukrainian population is more than 180,000, according to most recent census data

Yulia Zmerzla is executive director of the Oseredo Ukrainian Cultural Education Centre in Winnipeg. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

Political leaders in Manitoba and Ukrainians who call the province home are expressing shock, anger and worry at the Russian military assault in Eastern Ukraine.

"I had a sleepless night. I'm watching all kinds of news — Ukrainian and Russian and Canadian — and this hurts because when you see what's going on there, I just can't believe my eyes," said Yulia Zmerzla, who came to Canada from Kyiv eight years ago and is executive director of the Oseredok Ukrainian Cultural Education Centre in Winnipeg.

"I kind of understand it, but it's difficult to accept it."

Russia launched a large-scale military attack just before 5 a.m. local time Thursday in Ukraine (9 p.m. CT Wednesday).

The attacks have come from land, air and also from the Black Sea as airstrikes and shelling have targeted cities and bases, according to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

"The invasion is from three sides of the borders and the major cities were attacked, including Kyiv," said Zmerzla, who has family members trying to escape Kyiv to the west but are stuck in traffic jams.

The debris of a privet house in the aftermath of Russian shelling outside Kyiv, Ukraine, on Thursday. Russia on Thursday unleashed a barrage of air and missile strikes on Ukrainian facilities across the country. (Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press)

"The [Ukrainian] government says keep calm and stay home if you can but obviously they want to go further from where it's going on," Zmerzla said about the people trying to leave.

She said people are lined up at banks trying to take their money out while food stores and gas stations also have long lineups as people scramble to stock up on materials. People are also being urged to go to hospitals to donate blood to build up the supply that will be used to treat the wounded.

Others are staying and vowing to fight. The Ukrainian government is providing guns to people with passport proof of citizenship, Zmerzla said.

"And there are lots of people who are signed up to go to [the military] reserve. It's actually lines there to sign up," she said, adding she has friends who have done so.

"So people are staying there, they are protecting their land and we try to support them."

Russia attacked Ukraine by air, land and sea from the north, south and east. This map shows where attacks had being reported. (CBC)

Air travel is cancelled in Ukraine but if people can get to regions where it is available, Zmerzla hopes the Canadian government will consider waiving visas to allow people from Ukraine to come to Canada for safety.

In the meantime, Zmerzla said she will just keep watching the news "and praying for peace."

'We condemn Russia's violent imperialism'

Premier Heather Stefanson, in a news release sent out Thursday, condemned Russia's "violation of Ukraine's territory and sovereignty."

She said she supports the federal government's promise to impose economic sanctions on Russia and Canada's decision to send military equipment and give financial loans to Ukraine.

"It is hard to imagine how difficult watching the news must be for so many Manitobans who have loved ones in Ukraine," Stefanson stated in the release. "I share your concerns and Manitoba will support the federal government in everything it can to pressure Russia to end its aggression and restore peace in the region."

According to the most recent available census data on ethnic origin, Manitoba's Ukrainian population is more than 180,000.

The first wave of immigrants from Ukraine — approximately 150,000 — arrived in Canada between 1891 and 1914. The vast majority settled in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta where they obtained land to farm.

The next largest immigration waves occurred after the First World War when Ukraine became a part of the Soviet Union, and then following the Second World War.

"Manitobans today are deeply troubled by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Manitoba NDP stands with the people of Ukraine, and the Ukrainian community in Manitoba and Canada, and we condemn Russia's violent imperialism," Manitoba's NDP Opposition Leader Wab Kinew stated in a news release.

"We will continue to work with the Manitoba Ukrainian community to identify ways to help those who are in danger."

Smoke rises from an air defence base in the aftermath of a Russian strike in Mariupol, Ukraine, on Thursday. Explosions were heard before dawn in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa as world leaders decried the start of an Russian invasion that could cause massive casualties and topple Ukraine's democratically elected government. (Evgeniy Maloletka/The Associated Press)

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman posted a tweet on Thursday morning, showing the Winnipeg sign at The Forks illuminated in blue and yellow, the colours of Ukraine's flag.

"I'm heartbroken by what we're seeing now," he told reporters during a news conference.

Bowman noted his wife's family is Ukrainian-Canadian and Winnipeg has held a 49-year relationship with Lviv, Ukraine, as a sister city.

"Many Winnipeggers have a very deep and personal tie to Ukraine," he said. "This act of war that has been initiated by Russia is deplorable and should be condemned by Canadians from coast to coast to coast.

"Right now it's important that we stand with Ukrainian Canadians and those with connections to Ukraine."

Despite years of tension and heightened signs of aggression by Russia in the past few weeks, many people still feel stunned at the scale of this attack, said Denys Volkov, a Ukrainian Canadian living in Winnipeg.

"They are shocked by it. I'm from Eastern Ukraine but the explosions are actually happening all over Ukraine, including the outskirts of the capital [Kyiv]," he said.

"We know that G7 countries and Western media have indicated for the last few months that Russia was building up its military. Of course, Russia denied it. For a lot of Ukrainians, they just can't believe that this is happening right now."

Volkov spoke last night with friends and family who live in Kharkiv, a city in northeast Ukraine, just minutes from the Russian border. They told him windows are rattling as explosions go off.

"Mostly, military installations so far have been attacked, but the [Russian] ground troops tried entering the city and the Ukrainian army is defending the city right now," he said. "I understand there are a lot of casualties on both sides."

The Manitoba Ukrainian community is planning to make announcement soon on how people can help through donations, Volkov said.


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

With files from Meaghan Ketcheson and Marcy Markusa