Finding (and fixing) home

In 2022, Newfoundland and Labrador spent $7 million on a plan to help Ukrainians — and in turn, help itself. After 1,500 Ukrainians showed up, it looks like the idea Premier Andrew Furey dreamed up on a treadmill is working
A group of people, some in traditional Ukrainian dress, gather around a table of food.
At a Holiday Inn in St. John’s, newly landed Ukrainian families celebrated the holidays while honouring their traditions back home. (Caroline Hillier/CBC)

In a Torbay, N.L., kitchen just before Christmas, two grandmothers are hard at work preparing fish and brewis, a local dish of hard bread soaked in water and salted, dried cod fish topped off with a local delicacy — small chunks of fried pork fat known as scrunchions.

It’s a familiar dish for Shirley Thorne, a Newfoundland nan, but it is entirely new for Halina Revina, a babushka and refugee who recently arrived from the Ukrainian city of Dnipro with her daughter and grandchildren.

Cooking is their shared language. Thorne and Revina use Google Translate to speak with each other as the bread soaks.

Two women stand around a kitchen table and spoon food out of a casserole dish into a bowl.
Two women smile while one of them holds up a Bundt cake.
Shirley Thorne, wearing glasses, opened up her home to Halina Revina, and Revina’s daughter and two grandchildren. (Caroline Hillier/CBC)

Thorne hits a button on her iPhone and speaks slowly: “Halina, do you like the hard bread?”

Halina responds in English: “Yes.” Shirley laughs because she doesn’t believe her — but insists she’ll love it when it’s mixed with cod and pork fat.

The two also use gestures and laughter to get by.

“We already understand each other perfectly,” jokes Thorne.

“Halina is there, going on in Ukrainian, and I say, ‘Yes, yes.’ And then I say something in English and she says, ‘Yes, yes.’”

A plate with a piece of fish and pieces of bread topped with a brown sauce and small chunks of fried pork fat.
Fish and brewis is a traditional Newfoundland meal featuring dried cod and hard bread. (Andrea McGuire/CBC)

The Ukranian Family Support Desk brought Revina and her relatives to Newfoundland and Labrador. The boots-on-the-ground initiative — which includes a small team in Poland and chartered flights — has cost the provincial government $7 million so far, and doesn’t have an allotted budget or scheduled end date.

For Ukrainians, it’s a chance to start fresh and reclaim traditions while settling into life in Canada. For Newfoundland and Labrador, it’s a hopeful solution to a dwindling population and low immigration retention rates.


Statistics Canada reports that Newfoundland and Labrador had experienced the least growth through immigration in Atlantic Canada from 2016 to 2021, welcoming only 0.3 per cent of all landed immigrants in Canada in that period — fewer than 4,000 immigrants.

The provincial government has set a goal to welcome 5,100 newcomers by 2026 — and is hopeful many of them will be Ukrainians.

Reclaiming Ukrainian traditions in N.L.

Like Revina, many Ukrainains are living in the homes of host families around the province. Others, however, live at the Holiday Inn in St. John’s, while they search for permanent housing. The provincial government pays the bill.

According to the Association for New Canadians, a non-profit that helps settle immigrants in Newfoundland and Labrador, about 400 Ukrainian families have transitioned out of the hotel. About 250 families are still living there.

Yulianna Kunitska, from western Ukraine, shares a room on the fourth floor with her husband and son — a tight space with open suitcases on the floor and a Christmas tree pushed into a corner.

A woman sits on a bed in a hotel room, while a young boy dressed in a Christmas sweater stands behind her. In the corner of the room, there is a decorated Christmas tree.
Yulianna Kunitska and her son, Stanislav, put up Christmas decorations in their hotel room, where they have been living since they arrived in St. John's on Dec. 6. (Caroline Hillier/CBC)

With tears in her eyes, she explains through a translator that a local family offered them the tree over Facebook. They even delivered it.

“Everyone has been so helpful,” she said.

The Kunitskas were on the fourth and most recent chartered flight from Poland, along with 185 other Ukrainians who were greeted by rain, fog and reporters at the St. John’s International Airport. The scene was nowhere near as lively as the arrival of the first flight in May, which the government claimed was the first plane of Ukrainians to arrive in North America.

Their son, Stanislav, slept soundly the night before St. Nicholas Day. He was confident St. Nicholas knew right where to find him.

“I wrote a letter to St. Nicholas and included my new address in St. John’s,” Stanislav said through a translator.

Three children sit on a bed, one of them holding a decorated gingerbread house.
Hundreds of Ukrainian families that have arrived in Newfoundland and Labrador in the last year are still staying at a local Holiday Inn. (Caroline Hillier/CBC)

Mariya Lesiv, an associate professor of folklore at Memorial University, who is originally from Ukraine, refers to the focus on Ukrainian traditions, such as St. Nicholas, as “Ukrainization.”

“I see this effort to promote St. Nicholas — a figure in Ukraine folklore that was banned during the Soviet times and is now associated with a post-Soviet religious revival,” she said.

Listen to the documentary ‘Finding Home’ from CBC Radio:

Back to their roots — in Canada

Walking through the halls of the Holiday Inn on St. Nicholas Day, Ukrainian carols fill the halls. Some of the recently arrived Ukrainians living here have become an ad-hoc choir that’s actually led by a trained choir conductor.

“We [are] going back to our roots,” said Svitlana Al-Lahout, who is also originally from Dnipro, in central Ukraine.

For her, that includes speaking — and singing — in Ukrainian.

“Since the Russian full aggression, me and my friends decided to start forgetting the Russian language and speak Ukrainian. This is what I’m practising doing everyday.”

A woman and man, both dressed in traditional Ukrainian outfits, serve themselves food from a table.
A table with cheese, bread, a lit candle and religious decor.
A group of people seated at a table with food raise their glasses for a toast.
A group of Ukrainians, who all arrived in St. John's in early December, celebrated Christmas Eve at the Holiday Inn. (Caroline Hillier/CBC)

Ukraine’s culture minister recently called for a boycott of Russian culture. “Through pain and tragedy, we are rediscovering Ukrainian culture,” Oleksandr Tkachenko wrote in the Guardian.

While Ukrainians are dropping Soviet traditions, they’re holding on dearly to Ukrainian ones.

Al-Lahout and some choir members wanted a traditional Ukrainian Christmas Eve, with prayers, toasts and meatless dishes. So they got creative — with an electric steam cooker, hotel table linens, ingredients from their suitcases and a plea to use the hotel’s kitchen for the most important dish, kutia, a wheat pudding that is said to bring good fortune in the upcoming year.

A woman, dressed in a traditional Ukrainian shirt, sits at a table.
Svitlana Al-Lahout, from the Ukrainian city of Dnipro, arrived in St. John’s with her two children on a flight from Poland. (Caroline Hillier/CBC)

“It definitely has a sad undertone because of the tragic events in Ukraine, but my family has experienced a Christmas miracle at St. John’s,” said Al-Lahout.

Yuliia Reznik, one of the first Ukrainians to arrive in Newfoundland and Labrador, whose sister was already in St. John’s studying as an international student before the war, is picking up a new tradition: cutting down a real Christmas tree.

“We usually buy one from a Christmas market or we have the fake one,” said Reznik.

Reznik and about a dozen other recently arrived Ukrainians are in the woods, chopping down trees and having their first boil-up, a local tradition that involves friends and family hiking into the woods to enjoy food and drink over an open fire.

Newfoundlander John Lundrigan, who also took some Ukrainians whale watching this past summer, made an offer on Facebook to take Ukrainians tree hunting.

images expand
John Lundrigan, top left, offered to take a group of Ukrainians out in the woods to cut their first Canadian Christmas tree. (Caroline Hillier/CBC)

“I thought that going out and getting their own might be a really cool experience for them,” he said.

Reznik scans the trees along the path and settles on a full, tall spruce tree that will hopefully fit in her basement apartment.

“It’s illegal to go and cut one in Ukraine,” she said.

An opportunity for N.L. to grow

The out-of-the-box strategy for Ukrainian resettlement came to Premier Andrew Furey as he was running on a treadmill, watching the news about the war. He stopped his run and called Gerry Byrne, the province’s minister of immigration, population growth and skills.

“I said, ‘Look, we got to do something and I think we should set up a desk and try to recruit people to come directly to Newfoundland and Labrador,’” said Furey.

Byrne was “fully in,” said Furey, though some others in his government were skeptical.

“First of all, we didn’t know it was going to work,” said Furey.

A closeup of a man wearing a suit.
Premier Andrew Furey, seen here in 2020, says the Ukrainian Family Support Desk will help the province diversify its population and economy. (Paul Daly/The Canadian Press)

“We didn’t know if it was going to be fit to eat, if people were going to show up, if they were not going to show up, or if they were gonna stay.”

Furey suggested that one of the biggest fears was that Ukrainians would land in St. John’s on the free, chartered flight, and then move to bigger cities, such as Toronto or Vancouver.

But that hasn’t happened.


According to the Association for New Canadians, of the nearly 1,500 Ukrainian refugees that landed in St. John’s in 2022, only 57 have moved to other provinces.

In fact, Ukrainians that first landed in other parts of Canada are actually moving to Newfoundland and Labrador. Roughly eight per cent of the province’s Ukrainian population — about 50 families — have resettled here after landing in other provinces.

A man rolls suitcases through an airport, followed by a woman and several children.
A young woman is interviewed by various news reporters at the airport.
A man watches as two women embrace each other at the airport.
A total of 187 Ukrainians landed in St. John’s on Dec. 6, on the fourth flight chartered by the provincial government since it launched the Ukrainian Family Support Desk. (Caroline Hillier/CBC)

In a province where immigration recruitment and retention rates are among the lowest in Canada, these numbers are encouraging — and proof to Furey that the idea may work.

“This definitely will change the cultural makeup of Newfoundland and Labrador,” said Furey.

“It helps us meet some economic challenges, but it also helps us grow and evolve into a more modern Newfoundland and Labrador.”

The challenges ahead

Warm welcomes are nice, but Ukrainian newcomers face numerous challenges, such as language barriers, finding affordable housing, and finding jobs in their chosen professions.

The Ukrainian choir at the Holiday Inn includes a doctor, baker, teacher, social worker, nurse, dental assistant, among other professionals. Once settled, they could fill jobs in Newfoundland and Labrador and diversify its economy and population.

More than half of the working-age adult Ukrainians that arrived in the province in 2022 are employed, according to the Association for New Canadians. Some are not seeking jobs, because they’re taking English-language classes first.

A group of people, including a few children, pose for a photo while holding a large Ukrainian flag.
Some of the recently arrived Ukrainians formed an ad-hoc choir to sing Ukrainian Christmas carols. (Caroline Hillier/CBC)

Despite the challenges ahead, Svitlana Al-Lahout says Newfoundland and Labrador’s laid-back lifestyle, abundance of space, nature — and surprisingly, the weather — all make it an appealing place for her and her two children to live.

“I hope I can find a job soon,” said Al-Lahout, who was a preschool teacher back home.

'We are the best of friends'

Back in Shirley Thorne’s kitchen, the fish and brewis is nearly ready. Halina Revina picks up her phone to use Google Translate.

The robotic voice from the iPhone declares, “For us, she is everything. Because without her, we would not have succeeded in everything that we now have.”

Two women sit at a table and laugh as one of them pours wine into a glass.
Thorne, right, and Revina communicate through Google Translate, gestures and laughter. (Caroline Hillier/CBC)

Thorne gives Revina a warm hug.

“The two of us will go into our eighties together, in Newfoundland,” said Thorne.

“We are the best of friends.”


Writer: Caroline Hillier | Copy editor: Mary Vallis | Digital producer: Althea Manasan | Senior digital producer: Brandie Weikle

About the Author