Islanders support democratic process in Ukraine as Canadian election observers

An Islander heading to law school and the first leader of P.E.I.'s Green Party were among the Islanders who volunteered as observers in the recent presidential election in Ukraine.

There are an estimated 1.3 million Canadians of Ukrainian descent

Mark Townsend stands with the deputy head of Mission Canada 2019, Olya Odynska-Grod and the chief of police for Mykolaiv oblast. (Submitted by Mark Townsend)

An Islander heading to law school and the first leader of P.E.I.'s Green Party were among the Islanders who volunteered as observers in the recent presidential election in Ukraine.

They were part of Mission Canada 2019, organized by a non-partisan group called Canadem, which has sent 2,000 observers to Ukraine for 11 elections since 2004.

Charlottetown resident Mark Townsend, 24, has studied eastern European politics and speaks Russian, which came in handy during the six weeks he spent as one of 50 long-term observers.

"I find the democratic process particularly interesting in non-established democracies," Townsend said.

"It's interesting to understand how hard these people are working to achieve democracy in their country."

Townsend has an undergraduate degree from the University of King's College and an MA from KU Leuven in Belgium. (Submitted by Mark Townsend)

Townsend arrived in Kyiv on Feb. 11 for briefing, then was deployed to Mykolaiv, a city in southern Ukraine.

"You want to get a sense of the pre-election environment, how election commissions are being founded, how polling stations are being prepared," Townsend said. 

"But also how minorities are preparing to participate in the elections or whether they feel they have a voice in the election."

Townsend said media in the region told them they felt very free to report on the election, despite a proliferation of fake news about the election online. 

Townsend and Ivan MacArthur, also from P.E.I., attending the final reception for long-term observers. (Submitted by Mark Townsend)

"The elections were seen to be free and fair and I think it's fascinating the way that Ukrainians worked so hard to deliver a free and fair election," Townsend said. 

"It's remarkable the work that goes into that. It's very different from Canada, it's 24-hour days for a lot of the election workers."

Family ties

Sharon Labchuk was one of 100 short-term observers who travelled to Ukraine one week before election day.

Labchuk has family ties to the country, as her father's side of the family is from Ukraine.

"I have an interest in the politics of the country and the well-being of the country," Labchuk said.

"I also have a lot of election experience, both as the former leader of the P.E.I. Greens and as the national director of organizing with the federal Green party." 

The short-term observers arrived one week before the election to reinforce the work of the long-term observers. Sharon Labchuk is in the front centre. (Canadem)

Labchuk spent her time in northeast Ukraine at polling stations and offices where votes end up for final tabulation.

"We didn't find anything that was untoward and the final reports from Canadem said that as well, that overall the elections were fair and democratic," Labchuk said.

She was impressed by the peoples' dedication to democracy.

"A lot of people were born into that Soviet system and to have the opportunity to vote, it's really important," Labchuk said.

"I think in Canada we really take it for granted, a lot of people don't even vote." 

Labchuk in Novoselivka, Chernihiv oblast, Ukraine with her working partner Jerome Halluin and a member of the local election commission. (Submitted by Sharon Labchuk)

She says she also saw a darker side to the democratic process.

"The presidential debate only happened the night before so media and other analysts had no time to look at what was said," Labchuk said.

"There was a lot of disinformation going on, there was always a fear of Russian interference, there's a lot of media ownership by rich people who are able to influence the news that people get."

Canadian connection

Labchuk believes the observers play an important role.

"If nobody's looking, people have a tendency to do things they shouldn't do," Labchuk said.

"The more people that are watching, the more bad things are not going to happen."

Labchuk says the Ukrainian election is also important to Canadians.

"There are over a million Canadians of Ukrainian descent in Canada," Labchuk said.

"Many, many are still very connected to the country and to the politics and they follow what goes in Ukraine very attentively."

The observers were allowed to choose where they wanted to go and Labchuk was interested in observing the electoral process in this women’s prison. (Submitted by Sharon Labchuk)

Labchuk hopes to volunteer again with Canadem in Ukraine, possibly as soon as this fall when parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place."

Townsend says he would also like to be an election observer again in Ukraine, but he will be starting law school at McGill in the fall.

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About the Author

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water rowing, travelling to Kenya or walking her dog.


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