Oleksandr Pankieiev didn’t sleep.
All night, the editor-in-chief of the Forum for Ukrainian Studies watched the Russian invasion of his country unfolding in real time, glued to the news coming out of Ukraine, and messaging with his friends and family there.
“I don’t know how to describe the severity of the situation. It’s not only about Ukraine any more. It’s about the whole world’s security,” said Dr. Pankieiev, who moved to Canada from Ukraine 10 years ago. His voice was tired and tight with worry. “It’s dangerous. It’s really dangerous.”
At the Ukrainian Cultural and Education Centre in Winnipeg, Yulia Zmerzla said she, too, had a sleepless night watching the news in both Ukrainian and Russian, tracking, minute by minute, what was happening in her home country. Ms. Zmerzla came to Canada eight years ago and still has many friends and family in Ukraine, including her parents.
“I spoke to my parents today, and they told me that life will never be the same again after today,” she said, through tears.
She said her loved ones woke up at 4:30 a.m. to the sound and reverberations of bombs around them.
Canada has the largest Ukrainian population in the world, outside Russia and Ukraine. About 1.4 million Canadians are of Ukrainian ancestry, not counting significant additional populations of non-ethnic Ukrainians, among them Mennonites, Jews, Poles, Romanians and Swedes.
On Thursday, demonstrations were popping up in Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver to denounce Russia’s attack on Ukraine, and fundraisers were being set up to raise money both for humanitarian aid and military supplies for the country.
In B.C., several hundred people gathered at the Vancouver Art Gallery, waving signs and Ukrainian flags. Sofiya Pylypenko, who moved from Kharkiv 12 years ago, said she was awakened by texts from friends and relatives telling her they’d heard explosions and were headed to shelters. She said she is worried for their safety, and especially for her 80-year-old grandmother.
“There’s not a lot she can do other than to try to stay safe,” Ms. Pylypenko said.
Olena Krevenets, who has lived in Vancouver since 2020, carried a sign that read “Save my Family” and another reading, “No war in Ukraine.”
“I don’t want to stay quiet in my safe place. I want to scream,” she said. “I want to scream for Ukraine.”
In Toronto, a few hundred people gathered outside City Hall in the late afternoon to denounce Russian aggression and call for solidarity and tough sanctions.
The crowd was festooned with Ukrainian flags, and dotted with others from Poland, the Baltic countries and Taiwan. There were also people flying the flag favoured by protesters in Belarus, whose President supports Vladimir Putin, with one man waving a sign characterizing the two leaders as dictators, murderers and thieves.
In Edmonton, Jars Balan, former director of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, said he had been watching the attack unfold with “a mixture of deep concern, outrage, anger and almost disbelief that in this day and age, we would be dealing with this kind of behaviour on the part of Russia.”
“It’s really like something of the 17th century, in the 21st century,” he said. “And watching him [Putin] try to justify this with out-and-out lies, propaganda, is stunning. And to see some people believing it.”
Mr. Balan said he and his wife had been calling and texting friends and family, communicating with those trying to flee the attack. He said one friend tried to leave Kyiv two different ways, only to be forced back by clogged roads and explosions.
Thinking back to the time when Ukraine became independent, and the Soviet Union fell, Mr. Balan said, “We thought we had escaped. People would say that sooner or later it was going to be a war, and I didn’t believe it.”
Jurij R. Klufas, president of the Ukrainian National Federation of Canada, said he, too, was having trouble reconciling the reality of what was happening in Ukraine, something he said seemed more like a relic of a primitive past, “when everybody used to resolve issues with war.”
“It’s very troubling to see at this time, in modern society, having somebody push in a military way their colonial convictions from the last two centuries,” he said. “It’s kind of almost crazy, surreal, to be seeing this kind of thing happening in today’s modern society, and in Europe.”
Saskatoon resident Angela Wojcichowsky said she spent the day moving from “tears to anger to absolute disbelief.”
“I read a statistic that Russia has invaded Ukraine every century since 1149,” she said. “How many times will history repeat itself? My grandparents left because of Russia. And my husband’s grandparents left because of Russia. And we finally were at a stage when we could go back and visit the homeland, and now it looks like that is going to be taken away from us.”
Dmytro Malyk, who lives in Winnipeg with his wife and son, said he was devastated and appalled by the attack on his home country, and was similarly struggling to comprehend what had occurred in the proceeding hours.
“I watched my hometown be hit by a ballistic missile,” Mr. Malyk said. “That is just painful. I can’t even imagine. If someone had told me two or three days ago I’d be watching this, I wouldn’t have believed them.”
He says some of his friends have voluntarily enlisted and are prepared to fight.
“I cannot believe that this is happening …” he said. “The whole of Europe is watching as this democracy is being killed.”
Mr. Malyk said he had been in constant contact with his mother all night, who had been sending him photographs of personal and property documents. “Nobody is thinking the worst but we have to be prepared for that,” he said.
In Vancouver, Pavlo Ponikarovskyi said he was finding it hard not to be in Ukraine, but was thankful to be able to send money and raise awareness about the situation from Canada.
“I have been crying every day since Sunday,” said Mr. Ponikarovskyi, who moved from Kyiv 10 years ago. “But I am angry and determined. Determined to take action. To donate money to Ukrainian aid. I have also been going crazy on social media.”
Mr. Ponikarovskyi said he is also organizing an event to bring the Ukrainian community together in Vancouver on Saturday.
“This is a war of one man,” he said. “The Canadian Ukrainian diaspora is very strong. We need to maximize our voice.”
Dr. Pankieiev said the people he’s speaking to in Ukraine are trying their best to stay calm and preparing to face the invasion in their own way, whether that means moving west in search of safety or staying to fight where they are. He said his mother is among those who have left Kyiv, where he had moved her a year ago.
“I was thinking that place was safer,” he said. “But I was wrong.”
Ms. Zmerzla, in Winnipeg, said that many – including her parents – will stay and fight.
“I asked them if they would like to come to Canada, for safety if they can,” she said. “They said, ‘No. This is our land, and this is the time to show our unity.’ ”
At his home in Edmonton, Mr. Balan said he was taking things one hour at a time, and being especially careful with the information coming out, knowing how much is unconfirmed, untrue and uncertain in the fog of war, and amid the chaos of propaganda and intentional misinformation.
Mr. Balan said the cultures and people of Ukraine and Russia are deeply intertwined, with many mixed families, and some Ukrainians more fluent in Russian than their own tongue.
But he says the attack has only solidified Ukrainian patriotism and resolution.
“We’re a nation of people that have fought hard to exist and suffered all these things and still survived,” he said. “We’re a nation of survivors, and the irony is, at the end of the day, I am absolutely confident eventually Russia is going to be the loser in all of this.”
With reports from Wendy Stueck in Vancouver and Oliver Moore in Toronto
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