Daughter's embrace welcomes Ukrainian refugee to Winnipeg on same day Canada eases visa rules

Manitoba’s already large Ukrainian community could soon grow. after Canada prepared to accept an unlimited number of people fleeing the violence of the Russian invasion.

Expect influx of people fleeing Russian invasion, Mayor Brian Bowman says

Oksana Feklisov, right, hugs her mother after she got off a plane at the Winnipeg airport on Thursday. Feklisov's mother is one of an estimated one million people who have already fled Ukraine since Russia invaded a week ago. (CBC)

Manitoba's already large Ukrainian community could soon grow, after Canada's federal government said it will accept an unlimited number of people fleeing the violence of the Russian invasion.

Oksana Feklisov's mother came ahead of that potential surge — she arrived in Winnipeg from war-torn Ukraine on Thursday, greeted at the airport by a hug from Feklisov.

As relieved as she is to have her mother safely in Canada, Feklisov's father and sister are still in Ukraine, and her 15-year-old niece is in Warsaw, Poland.

"We're all happy [my mother is] here, but we still would like to have everyone here," she said.

WATCH | Happy homecoming: 

Happy homecoming: Winnipeggers prepare to welcome Ukrainian refugees

7 months ago
Duration 2:11
Manitoba's already large Ukrainian community could soon grow, after Canada's federal government said it will accept an unlimited number of people fleeing the violence of the Russian invasion.

On Thursday, federal Immigration Minister Sean Fraser announced the Canadian government will create a new visa category allowing Ukrainians to come to Canada to live, work or study here for up to two years. There is no limit on how many people can come under the program, he said.

Fraser also announced the government is introducing an "expedited path" to permanent residency for Ukrainians with family in Canada, allowing a "wider circle of family members" to sponsor those who want to stay here.

The United Nations refugee agency estimated on Wednesday that 1 million people had already fled Ukraine.

Millions more could follow unless the fighting stops immediately, the agency said. There was little sign Thursday that will happen, as Russian forces continued to try to take control of Ukrainian cities.

Ukrainian officials said the southern port of Mariupol is surrounded by Russian troops. A large Russian convoy continues to threaten the capital city of Kyiv, but has moved little in recent days.

People fleeing Ukraine get food, clothing and toiletries at the main railway station in Berlin on Wednesday. (Hannibal Hanschke/Getty Images)

The number of people already leaving Ukraine for countries like neighbouring Poland is concerning, Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman said in an interview with CBC News.

"I think Canadians should expect that we're going to see an influx of residents," he said.

Process still too long, families say

Members of the Ukrainian community in Winnipeg welcomed the federal government's announcement, but they say the process may still be too slow to protect their loved ones.

"[The measures] are a step in the right direction," said Nick Krawetz, a third-generation Ukrainian Canadian whose wife is from Ukraine. Most of her family is still there.

"However, Canada must and should do more in order to provide a lifeline to Ukrainians fleeing Russian missiles, tanks and artillery right now."

Winnipeggers Nick and Natalia Krawetz, from left, along with niece Anastasiia, and Natalia's sister Maryana and brother-in-law Valeriy in a family photo in Budapest, Hungary. (Submitted by Nick Krawetz)

The federal government says the streamlined process for Ukrainians will open in two weeks' time.

"That's two weeks while Ukrainian children are going to be faced with air raid sirens, living in bomb shelters while missiles are falling on them," said Krawetz.

He has called on the federal government to temporarily waive all visa requirements for Ukrainian refugees. 

The federal government said Thursday it will waive most visa requirements and fees, but applicants still need to submit biometrics — fingerprints and photos — and undergo a background screening process before leaving for Canada.  People must cross the border into a neighbouring country such as Poland or Slovakia in order to access a biometric kit.

Feklisov agrees the two weeks it will take to implement the changes to the visa process is too long. Her mother was able to come to Canada now because she already had a visa.

"It's a very good idea, but what will happen, I don't know. I think I cannot wait two more weeks for my niece. She's with, not strange family, but other family in Warsaw. She's 15, it's hard for her."

'Level of dysfunctionality' heartbreaking: consultant

Winnipeg-based immigration consultant Randy Boldt questions why the federal government doesn't just drop the visa requirement entirely.

"I wish they could find ways to move much, much, much faster," he said. 

"To suggest that the applications will be ready in two weeks, and then likely it will be some months after that, when a million people a week are being displaced — they just break my heart, and everybody's heart, that we have this level of dysfunctionality."

Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Sean Fraser speaks during a press conference in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022, in response to the Ukraine crisis. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Ottawa says implementing visa-free travel for Ukrainians would take up to three months, due to changes that would needed to the government's information technology systems and airline processes. The federal immigration minister said Thursday there's no time for a three-month delay, given the urgency of the situation.

Winnipeg's mayor says he has been in contact with federal and provincial officials to pledge the city's support for Ukrainians.

Bowman also announced Thursday that he is donating $10,000 from his office budget to Winnipeg's Ukrainian sister city, Lviv, to help meet the needs of internally displaced people.

Winnipeg, where nearly one in eight people can trace their heritage to Ukraine, has deep connections to the country, Bowman said.

"We have benefited from community builders that are of Ukrainian heritage and we want to, during this time of crisis, continue to keep our doors open to those that are fleeing, in this case, a Russian invasion," he said.

Preparations to house and support Ukrainian refugees are primarily the responsibility of federal and provincial governments, but Bowman said the city is prepared to offer any assistance it can.

With files from Jérémie Bergeron and Jillian Coubrough


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