'I just needed to do something': Tłı̨chǫ man volunteers in Ukraine to deliver aid

A Tłı̨chǫ man from Behchokǫ̀, N.W.T., says his military training prepared him to deliver aid in Ukraine, where he once taught English. John Rabesca has been transporting food, supplies and military equipment to Ukrainians affected by Russia's military invasion.

John Rabesca says his military training prepared him to be useful in wartime

John Rabesca, originally of Behchokǫ̀, N.W.T., in Kyiv. (Submitted by John Rabesca)

Tłı̨chǫ soldier John Rabesca wakes up at the crack of dawn to deliver supplies to Ukrainians affected by Russia's invasion. 

"Once the war started, I just needed to do something to help Ukrainians," he said. "I needed to do something more than just invest money into a volunteer group."

Rabesca grew up in Behchokǫ̀, N.W.T., until he was 18. He joined the Ranger program to see if he liked the military.

He would later serve during the war in Afghanistan, and was deployed with the Canadian Armed Forces in 2011.

In his time off, he vacationed in Ukraine, and said he was drawn to their history, culture, food and music.

"It kinda interested me. Like, nobody really talked about these people for such a long time. And I was like, I kind of need to know what's over there. It was the mystery that attracted me."

Rabesca on a delivery to Ukraine, where he has been volunteering to bring food and supplies to affected communities. (Submitted by John Rabesca )

Rabesca decided to get a teaching certificate in 2013, and in 2014, he travelled to Ukraine to teach English for a year.

He returned to Canada, and earlier this year — after Russia's invasion of Ukraine — decided he wouldn't return as a tourist. 

Instead, he flew there to Europe to work as a volunteer delivering aid. 

Rabesca has been putting in 60-hour weeks, waking up at the crack of dawn to haul food, Ukrainian army vehicles, body armour and medicine to cities like Kharkiv, Kyiv and Lviv.

On his last trip into Ukraine, he delivered 440 pounds of pet food from a city 500 kilometres from the Ukrainian border to Lviv.

"Last time we were there we literally filled up one vehicle with dog food and cat food," he said. "The tires were becoming a little low in the back."

But they made it. 

When Rabesca first arrived in the country, "it took a little while for the Ukrainian guys just to warm up to me," he said.

"They didn't really show me the garage, the store or the vehicles for a good three whole weeks."

He now plans to stay in the country for 10 months.

Running logistics

As a volunteer, Rabesca mainly deals with logistics organizers who are in touch with volunteer groups. He and the logistics crew ask for only reimbursement for gas and some food. 

Their runs to deliver aid can last until two or three in the morning. 

"I'm very busy when they call me up," he said. 

A truck delivery loaded up to be delivered to Ukraine. (Submitted by John Rabesca)

In Ukraine, the air alarms are going off nearly every day.

"I'm happy to say that I haven't heard any explosions in the last month," he said. 

But Rabesca said being in that environment is still scary. 

When the alarms go often, it's often a debate about whether to take cover in a basement or wait on the first floor of a building. 

Rabesca said his military training in 2011 prepared him for the situation. 

"The Taliban were always shooting their rockets into the base, like everyday or every other day," said Rabesca.

"It was super dangerous because there were always explosions," he said.

"I've kinda gotten used to it."

Future unclear

The experience has so far been "dark at times," and Rabesca said some aid organizations are even leaving Ukraine because they're out of money. 

"There are still a lot of groups that are actually trying to help Ukraine as well," he said. "There are a lot of people that still care."

Rabesca said he'll decide this fall just how long he will stay.

"We'll see what happens in October because my funds will eventually run out."

He still speaks to his sister every week and she passes him any messages from friends and family.

Rabesca said he will consider joining the Ukrainian Legion and fighting this winter, if needed.

"There is a war going on," he said. "These people, they need your help."


Avery Zingel


Avery Zingel is a reporter with CBC North in Yellowknife. She is a graduate of the Carleton University School of Journalism and Political Science. Email her at or follow her on Twitter @averyzingel.

Written by Avery Zingel based on interviews by Lawrence Nayally