As Ukrainian refugees flee their homes, people in Thunder Bay, Ont., prepare to welcome them
More than 12,000 people in Thunder Bay identified as being of Ukrainian heritage in 2016 census
As the number of refugees fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine tops two million, preparations are underway in Thunder Bay, Ont., for their arrival, with support from both city officials and community organizations.
The United Nations has called this the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War and Canada is prepared to welcome an "unlimited number" of Ukrainians fleeing war while waiving most typical visa requirements for them.
In Thunder Bay, city councillors have approved a resolution from Mayor Bill Mauro asking the federal government to identify Thunder Bay as "an ideal location for settlement of Ukrainian refugees who have been displaced form their home country."
About 12,000 people in Thunder Bay identify as being of Ukrainian heritage, according to the latest census data, and the Ukrainian community has a strong cultural presence in the city.
"In the first 24 hours, we've had up in the range of 20 host families registering their interest [for hosting refugees], and I suspect that that number has grown since then," said Walter Warywoda, the Thunder Bay branch president of the League of Ukrainian Canadians.
"It's been very good and I do expect that to grow."
Warywoda said, so far, details are scarce about what changes would be made to the immigration rules to allow Ukrainian refugees to smoothly come to Canada but they will be critical to bring refugees to Thunder Bay.
"Implement those rules efficiently and nimbly to get people into Thunder Bay," he said. "That's what I envision happening, and I think we have an advantage being small in Thunder Bay."
Warywoda said bigger cities like Toronto and Montreal can't always work as swiftly as the smaller communities like Thunder Bay.
The Thunder Bay Multicultural Association, as selected by the federal government, is one of the six Resettlement Assistance Program agencies in Ontario.
The program, which is managed through Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, provides ongoing assistance to refugees prior to their arrival in Canada.
'Community rises to the occasion'
Thunder Bay Multicultural Association executive director Cathy Woodbeck said the organization has had a lot of interest from people in the city who want to help refugees in any way they can.
"We're getting a lot of calls from folks that are interested in helping, and that's a wonderful thing," Woodbeck said. "This community rises to the occasion for helping in situations like this, so we are getting a lot of calls about available accommodations. Is there a place that people are collecting money? What can they do to help?"
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Woodbeck said the centre also heard from some Ukraine residents who are outside of their country and don't want to return now that an invasion is underway.
She said some were working in places like Peru, but quite literally don't have a home to return to.
Woodbeck said they have dealt with refugee crises at the Multicultural Association before, and they have a protocol ready to go to deal with new arrivals.
She said they now have to wait and see how and when any refugees will be arriving.
"If it's a government assisted refugee situation or a sponsorship type of situation, it's different," Woodbeck said. "We know how many are coming, when they're coming, what medical needs or housing needs or other family needs they might have before they arrive."
Woodbeck said, for now, they are doing their best to be ready, even if they don't know how or if people are going to come.
"But the process over time has shown that with this much destruction, there will most likely be some people arriving," she said.