Russian and Ukrainian Canadians clashed briefly on the steps of the Manitoba legislature in Winnipeg Saturday after a pro-Russian rally erupted in a shouting match against Ukraine supporters waving gigantic Ukrainian blue and yellow flags.
With both sides shouting each other down in the Ukrainian and Russian languages, observers were left to find supporters willing to translate the conflict into English.
"They’re saying something like 'Shame, shame.' They called us fascists," one Ukrainian supporter shouted over the roaring Ukrainian chant that quickly drowned out the Russian side.
Russian supporters insisted they meant no harm.
Irena Motnenko said she was the one who called the Ukrainians "fascists." She said the rally was a parade to remember the Russian war dead from the Second World War but she also made it clear she sees Ukraine as part of Russia. To her, pro-Ukrainian nationalists are the separatists, not the other way around.
"They do not allow us to voice our opinions. That’s not fair in a democracy," Motnenko said.
Touted on social media as Victory Day parade and rally, like parades held in Moscow every year, this was the first time members of Winnipeg’s Russian community had staged a similar event here.
Many Russians sported the Remembrance Day poppy, but it was the presence of St. George's ribbon, with its bold black and orange stripes, proudly pinned on T-shirts and polo shirts that inflamed tempers.
For weeks, pro-Russian Ukrainians have been seen wearing the St. George’s ribbon in violent clashes in eastern Ukraine.
"It offends me because the people who are wearing the same ribbons in the Ukraine are killing people, they’re taking hostages. If they weren’t wearing these ribbons I would have no issue," Ukrainian community member Ivan Marynovsky said.
Beyond the ribbons, Ukrainians voiced troubling suspicion that the Winnipeg rally was part of a broader propaganda campaign orchestrated from Moscow and intended as a device to embarrass Canada.
A vast military display marked the Victory Day marches in Red Square this year. And at least one Russian community member confirmed St. George’s ribbons had been supplied through Russia’s Canadian Embassy.
"I never thought this would come to Canada. It’s one thing to debate it online. It’s another thing to take it to the streets and show it on cameras. It can be used as propaganda against Ukrainians, that the Russian community in Winnipeg supports the invasion in Ukraine. I guarantee it will be on Russia Today tomorrow," Marynovsky said.
Russia Today, better known by its initials RT, is a gigantic Russia-based television network that broadcasts around the world.
Some supporters at the rally, however, were anxious to avoid politics and wore only the familiar poppy. Many of them also carried flowers in a symbolic display of peace.
"I believe the St. George's ribbon represents Victory Day, but that was before Ukraine. I’m not wearing one because a lot of people on my social network pointed out it’s a symbol of something that is disrespectful, so I made a choice not to wear one. We’re not here to antagonize anyone. We’re here to remember our great-grandfather," said a woman who gave her name only as Galina.
Ukrainian supporters outnumbered Russians by about three to one, with perhaps 200 people in total crowding the steps of the legislature about 2 p.m. Russian supporters quickly moved off to the Cenotaph on Memorial Boulevard where they’d previously planned to finish the event.