Ukrainian community in Canada on edge as tensions with Russia escalate
Many fear for safety of friends and family — and are asking Canada to do more against threat of invasion
As tensions mount between Ukraine and Russia, many in Canada's Ukrainian community are watching and worrying about what the crisis means for their country of origin and loved ones living there.
Russia has massed an estimated 100,000 troops along its borders with Ukraine, raising fears the Kremlin is preparing to launch a full-scale invasion. Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied this and in turn accused the West of taking an "aggressive" course "on the threshold of our home."
Russia's demands — that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO and that other actions, such as stationing alliance troops in former Soviet bloc countries, be curtailed — have been rejected by NATO officials. Recent rounds of high-stakes diplomacy produced no breakthroughs.
The threat of a possible war is being keenly felt across Canada, which is home to about 1.3 million people of Ukrainian descent, according to the 2016 census.
In Waterloo, Ont., Michael Doroshenko said he is concerned for his parents and grandmother, who live in Sumy, Ukraine, about an hour's drive from the border with Russia.
"It's been pretty nervous for everybody," said Doroshenko, 30, a Ukrainian citizen who moved to the Waterloo region to study and now works in the tech industry.
He is trying to help his family make plans in case an invasion does happen, but says it's been difficult given the unpredictability of the situation.
"Nobody knows where it will be safe in the next week, or two weeks, or two months," he said.
Varvara Shmygalova, a member of Toronto's Ukrainian Canadian community, said she is worried about the loss of life that could result if Russia takes military action. She left the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, five years ago, but her parents, grandparents and all of her friends are still there.
"My message [to them] is: Try to stay as safe as you can, because I love you and I want you to be alive," she said. "But also, I want you to do everything you can to protect our home country and protect all the values of all democratic nations."
Prepared for the worst
Artem Pazych, a newly arrived Ukrainian student in Vancouver, is also worried for family back home and the potential lasting impact on the country if Russia invades.
"Loss of history, loss of identity, loss of culture," he said.
The 19-year-old is from Zhytomyr, just west of Kyiv. He wasn't even a teenager yet in 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimea region and a war broke out in Eastern Ukraine that pitted government forces against Russia-backed separatists.
Since then, multiple attempts at a ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine have failed and the rebel-held area has been divided into two self-governing entities: Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic, neither of which is recognized by the international community.
Ukrainian authorities estimate more than 14,000 combatants and civilians have been killed in the conflict. Many others have been wounded or displaced from their homes.
Pazych said being prepared for the worst became normal, as Ukrainians worried about Russian aggression at their borders.
"My family is informed in their local community: where to go to the bomb shelters, what documents to have and what rescue pack do they have," he said. "And my brothers in school have been told what to do in case the war is happening, the attack is going to happen."
Anastasiia Mereshchuk, a member of the Nova Scotia chapter of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC), said the situation has been "very hard mentally" on family and friends living in Ukraine, even though they live in Dnipro about 300 kilometres west of the war zone.
"Even though there are no active war actions going on in our region, it's still troublesome," Mereshchuk told the CBC Radio program Mainstreet in Halifax, saying soldiers frequently pass through and the region's hospitals have treated many of the wounded.
"It is very real there, and everyone is affected, no matter where they are, no matter what they do in Ukraine."
Divisions among Ukrainians
There are differing views among Ukrainians about who is to blame for the current conflict and what future shape the country should take.
Some of those differences can be found along the "line of control" that separates the separatist-held areas from the rest of Ukraine.
Many of the region's Russian-speaking citizens align themselves more with Russia than the central government.
Yulanna, a young woman who spoke to CBC on a recent visit to Donetsk, said she works for a Russian company and hoped to move to Moscow as soon as she could.
"The worst thing about this all is there is no future," Yulanna, who didn't want to give her last name, said of living in Donetsk, whose residents must cross a series of checkpoints when leaving and re-entering the area.
"We are cut off from the rest of the world."
She acknowledged that Russia is "playing a role" in the conflict but believes Ukraine is to blame, too.
"They just won't give up our republic so easily," she said.
Back in Canada, Vitaliy Milentyev, president of the Alberta Ukraine Chamber of Commerce, said the situation is the most heated he has seen in the almost eight years since the fighting began. He said it is having an impact on Ukraine's economy.
"The aggression and this whole tension is slowing down economic growth in the country. Investments are not flowing in, people are extremely careful about dealing with Ukraine," he said.
"That in itself is damaging, just as much as this whole nervousness around the country on the military side."
'We want to bring awareness'
Amid the tensions, there has been a growing movement calling for support from the Canadian government and other Canadians.
In Winnipeg, about 50 people gathered in a churchyard on Sunday to show solidarity with Ukraine. The rally was organized by the Manitoba chapter of the UCC as part of the national organization's #StandWithUkraine campaign.
Among those rallying was Yevgeniya Tatarenko, whose mother lives in Novomykolaivka, in southeastern Ukraine. If the situation worsens, Tatarenko hasn't ruled out trying to bring her mother to Canada as a refugee.
"We want to bring awareness around the world and we want to bring attention to the political power of Canada and those people that can make decisions on the global level," Tatarenko said.
Accelerating a NATO membership action plan for Ukraine is among a handful of moves the UCC is pushing the Canadian government to make.
The UCC is also asking for increased sanctions on Russia; the cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline; military equipment and defensive weapons for Ukraine; and the extension and expansion of Canada's military training mission in Ukraine, known as Operation Unifier.
Ihor Michalchyshyn, the UCC's executive director and CEO, said in Ottawa on Monday that Canada needs to send a strong message to Putin.
"We've seen the United Kingdom, the United States, NATO allies, G7 allies send defensive weapons to Ukraine that will help them defend themselves in the case of an invasion. And we think very strongly that Canada needs to join that list very quickly," he said.
Last week, Global Affairs Canada announced the government has offered Ukraine a loan of up to $120 million "to support the country's economic resilience and governance reforms."
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly also said Canada will join allies in imposing severe sanctions on Russian officials if the country takes further military action to compromise Ukrainian sovereignty.
With files from The Associated Press