The Current·Q&A

Leaving Ukraine was a 'brutal' and 'heartbreaking' experience, says Canadian ambassador

Larisa Galadza, Canada’s ambassador to Ukraine, is among millions of people who had to flee Ukraine for Poland following Russia's invasion of the country.

'Everyone understands Ukrainians are fighting our fight for democracy and for freedom': Larisa Galadza

Larisa Galadza, Canada's Ambassador to Ukraine, is among millions of people who had to flee Ukraine following Russia's invasion of the country. (Michel Baljet/CBC)

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Weeks into Russia's invasion of Ukraine, millions of refugees — both Ukrainian citizens and non-Ukrainians — continue to try to flee the country they once called home.

Among them is Larisa Galadza. She's been Canada's ambassador to Ukraine since November 2019, and was based in the Canadian Embassy in Kyiv.

But after the embassy temporarily suspended operations in Kyiv in late February, she and her Canadian colleagues were forced to flee — first to the Ukrainian city of Lviv, and then from the country itself.

The Current's Matt Galloway caught up with her in Przemyśl, Poland. Here is part of their conversation.

You are here in Poland, not in Ukraine. Tell me about leaving [Ukraine].

Leaving was something that we had to do to be safe, to keep the Canadian personnel safe. It's not something we wanted to do, but we had to. We had no more choice. 

Quite frankly, we are able to do more here. In our last days in Ukraine, we were spending the vast majority of our time just watching the situation because we knew the moment would come. 

So once we left, we were able to do a lot more. And we're glad that we can stay close to Ukraine, close to Ukrainians, very much plugged into what's going on inside the country and with the people that are leaving.

WATCH: As Russia invades Ukraine, Canada's Ukrainian community face their worst fears

Tension, fear and heartache: Canada's Ukrainian community facing its worst fears

9 months ago
Duration 5:23
Andrew Chang, co-host of The National, sits down with three Ukrainian-Canadians to hear their fears and anxieties about Russia's invasion.

There's a long pause before you answered that. How difficult was it to leave the country?

Oh, it was brutal.

We left twice, because we left Kyiv [first]. We closed the embassy, we unplugged everything, we packed up, we took down the flag and we closed the gates behind us. And I said to the guards, "All right, it's in your hands now, and we'll be back." 

We went to Lviv and we set up there, and for 10 days, you could see the relief on the faces of the staff at the hotel because we were still there and that gave them confidence. 

The morning that we decided we had to leave, those faces changed and that was heartbreaking. To leave Lviv, I think a lot of us cried for a lot of the journey.

Refugees queue for trains to Poland, at the train station in Lviv, Ukraine on March 7, 2022. (Marko Djurica / Reuters )

And taking down the flag, what was that like?

I knew it was a big moment, but the group of us that were there, we just did it. 

The security that was with me, they folded up the flag and they said, "Ma'am, this is yours." So I've had that close to me since we left, and it's that flag that's going to go back up.

You have a personal connection to the country, and your grandparents [have] roots in that country. When you take a look at the scale of the destruction that we're seeing right now, what goes through your mind?

What goes through your mind is the strength of the people like my grandparents, and the strength of the people that I've met since living in Ukraine for almost two and a half years.

WATCH: Ukrainian exodus stirs memories of WWII for Canadian ambassador

Ukrainian exodus stirs memories of WWII for Canadian ambassador

9 months ago
Duration 3:18
Canada’s Ambassador to Ukraine, Larisa Galadza, discusses the decision to get embassy staff out of Kyiv and why the exodus of Ukrainians stirs memories of the Second World War.

I think that when I talk to people now who are leaving the country, it's temporary. They have every hope and every right to hope and every reason to believe that ... they will be going back. 

I think we see that in the strength of the president [Volodomyr Zelensky], in his determination and in the determination of every single person who is doing what they need to do to defend their country. 

It's remarkable, and I think that that's what Canadians see and what inspires people all over the world. When you don't have the tanks or the military to protect the nuclear power plant, the people defend it with their bodies and with their lives. 

We have been speaking with people from across Europe … who are taking refugees back to countries like Germany, back to Belgium, back to Estonia; places they've never been to before in cars with people whose language they don't speak. What does that tell you about what's going on in this moment?

I think it tells me that everyone understands that Ukrainians are fighting our fight for democracy and for freedom, that that resonates with the regular people, [and] that Ukrainians have a spot in the hearts of Europeans, but also North Americans. 

Ukrainians don't need to speak the language and the Europeans don't need to speak Ukrainian to understand that that is goodness.

Refugees arrive at the Medyka crossing border in Poland on March 10. (Daniel Cole/The Associated Press)

We, in Canada, have a substantial Ukrainian Canadian population. There are people … who are fleeing the country. What are we doing to get people who want to come to Canada, to Canada?

Right now, we're setting up the programs that will give Ukrainians options. If they want to come to Canada for a little bit of time, [or] if they want to come to Canada for a longer period of time, those pathways will become easier for them to navigate and they will be processed faster. 

The faster processing actually started a while ago, and now, after the minister's announcement last week about the visa programs and the permanent resident programs, those programs are being stood up right now.

I know it's probably frustrating it takes a little bit of time for that to happen. But there's good reason for that, and they will work well for this particular crisis at this particular time.

You talked about the flag that you have and you smiled when I asked that. When do you think that you would get back into the country?

We will go back into the country when we can be assured of our security, and that means safe where we're staying, but also options to leave if the situation changes again for the worst. 

I think that there will be options sooner than later, and it might be possible to go in for day visits. It might be possible to go in and stay somewhere temporarily.

This is something that when I get together with my colleague ambassadors, we talk about over dinner ... and we look forward to that time.

Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Lara O'Brien, Liz Hoath, Karin Marley, Samira Mohyeddin and Lindsay Rempel. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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