Horrified by Russian attacks, Ukrainian Montrealers protest — and pray

Ukrainian Montrealers are rallying in solidarity with Ukraine and calling for the international community to fully isolate Russia, after it launched a full-scale attack on several Ukrainian cities overnight.

Rally at McGill University to call for solidarity with Ukraine

Rev. Ihor George Kutash prays for Ukraine during a morning service Thursday at St. Mary the Protectress Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Montreal's Rosemont neighbourhood. The church was built in the 1950s, after post-war Ukrainian refugees flooded into Canada. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

Montrealer Oksana Gerych has barely slept since Russia's assault on Ukraine began overnight Wednesday. She stayed up speaking with friends and some relatives back in Ukraine, and scrolling for the latest news of the attacks. 

"You could never be ready for this," she said.

Those with ties to Ukraine are watching with fear and anger as Russian forces march across the Eastern border, unleashing missiles into cities across Ukraine. 

Gerych said for now, her elderly parents, who live in Lviv, a city in Western Ukraine, are planning to stay home.

"They're scared. But my mom said, 'Don't worry; don't panic. We will do whatever we supposed to do, and we just pray and hope everything will be fine,'" Gerych said.

If it comes to it, Gerych said, her family has talked about possibly fleeing to Poland, to wait there until she can find a way to bring them to Canada. Her brother, however, has told her even if the family has to flee, he will make sure his wife, children and parents are safe before returning to fight.

"He's not military. He's never been in the army. But he said, 'I will be back,' because ... that's his home," she said.

"It's scary for me because, you know, you're far away, and you don't know what to do to help."

'People still think it's a local problem. It's not'

Some are seeking solace in places of worship.

At St. Mary the Protectress Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Montreal's Rosemont neighbourhood, sunlight poured in through frosted windows Thursday as Rev. Ihor George Kutash chanted the Akathist hymn — a devotional prayer he has sung daily throughout the pandemic, made more urgent by recent events.

The prayer is "asking God to protect and save the people of Ukraine," Kutash explained. 

"Saving and protecting the people of Ukraine is actually saving and protecting the people of Europe and a lot of the world because it does appear that Mr. Putin has delusions of being king of the world." 

Kutash has been inundated by calls from parishioners since Russia began bombing Ukraine overnight, including from some whose families want to flee the country but don't know how, as borders and airports are shuttered. 

WATCH | Ukrainian Montrealers call for solidarity:

Shock and concern from Ukrainian Montrealers

9 months ago
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Ukrainian Montrealers share their emotions as they watch Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Oleksandr Bignyak, who was clearing ice off the steps outside the church, said his sister wants to escape with her daughter, but he is especially worried about his mother, who is ill and bedridden. 

"So many people are going to die," Bignyak said, waving his hands in the air. "For nothing." 

Oleksandr Malakhov met Bignyak and his wife when he first moved to Montreal last fall. Malakhov was born and raised in Donetsk but moved to Kyiv in 2014 when Russia annexed nearby Crimea. 

The invasion feels familiar to Malakhov, but it also feels much bigger this time, he said.

"I still feel like the world is not recognizing this as a world problem. They still think that it's local," Malakhov said.

"It's not. This is like — Russia is trying to create a new world order, same as it was 70 years ago."

Malakhov says his brother and his brother's wife and their daughter, as well as his mother, are living in Kyiv. They are safe for now, relying on old bomb shelters and the subway network should they need to take cover. 

"It's painful. It's really painful," Malakhov said. 

Kutash, the priest, says he hopes Canadian and Quebec politicians will welcome large numbers of refugees. The Rosemont church itself, he noted, was founded and built by Ukrainian refugees  who came to Canada in the 1950s, following the Second World War. 

Once again, he said, Ukrainians fleeing their homeland "should be able to come here with assistance and help." 

Rally for solidarity with Ukraine

Vitalia Khmil, president of the Concordia Ukrainian Student Union, joined students from McGill University and Université de Montréal and their supporters in denouncing Russia's attacks on Ukraine Thursday. (CBC/Justin Hayward)

Ukrainian Montrealers and their supporters gathered at McGill University Thursday afternoon as a show of solidarity with people in Ukraine, and to call on the Canadian government to act. 

Vitalia Khmil, president of the Concordia Ukrainian Student Union, says she feels "pretty powerless" being so far away from her parents' homeland, but she's hoping the demonstration will help people realize the urgency of the situation.

"It's something bigger than all of us. It's not just about Ukraine anymore," she said.

Michael Shwec, president of the Quebec chapter of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, said Canada can continue to help by sending more military equipment to Ukraine and by pushing for even stronger sanctions against Russia, including removing the country from the SWIFT global banking system

"They need to be fully isolated from the entire international community — and immediately," he said, "perhaps removal from the United Nations — definitely their veto and membership in the Security Council."

Shwec said more rallies are planned for Friday and Sunday in Montreal, and he invited Quebecers of all backgrounds to show their support.

"Anybody who believes in democracy needs to try to tune in and look at the facts and understand that nobody except for Putin and Russia wants war," he said.

"Today, anyone who values human rights, democracy and liberty is a Ukrainian."

Quebec vows to welcome Ukrainian refugees

The National Assembly passed a unanimous motion Thursday in support of Ukraine and Quebec's Ukrainian community.

In a Facebook post, Quebec Premier François Legault expressed his solidarity with Ukraine and with the Ukrainian community in Quebec and said the province would do its part to welcome refugees in the weeks and months to come. 

"We wish wholeheartedly to see a rapid ceasefire. The federal government can count on our complete co-operation," said Legault. "We must make a common front with our European and American allies. I have confidence that together we will defend our democracies and the fundamental principles of our societies." 

Quebec Minister of International Relations Nadine Girault said in addition to welcoming refugees and supporting the Ukrainian Quebec community, the province can also send humanitarian aid to Ukraine. 

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante tweeted a photo of the Ukrainian flag flying outside city hall, in solidarity with Ukraine. 

"Our thoughts are with all of the innocent victims of this attack. Our hearts are with you," she wrote.

With files from Matt D'Amours & Radio-Canada's Mathieu Prost


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