As tensions escalate between Ukraine and Russia, so do the fears of Manitoba’s large Ukrainian community for the safety of loved ones in the eastern European nation.
An estimated 100,000 troops have been stationed by Russia at its border with Ukraine, with some believing an invasion is imminent.
On Jan. 16, the federal government asked Canadians to avoid non-essential travel to the area, citing "ongoing Russian aggression."
Statistics Canada information from 2016 lists Manitoba as the province with the highest percentage of Ukrainians in its total population.
That group is largely composed of people who have family and friends living in Ukraine, many of whom are worried the situation will quickly escalate, Oseredok Ukrainian Cultural and Educational Centre executive director Yulia Zmerzla said Wednesday.
"Is it Ukraine who wants this war? No. Russia is doing that… This is terrible what’s going on."
“Is it Ukraine who wants this war? No. Russia is doing that… This is terrible what’s going on.” – Yulia Zmerzla
Zmerzla immigrated to Winnipeg in 2014, just before the Russo-Ukrainian crisis began. She calls family and friends in her homeland regularly, but said it’s harder to provide support, as the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult to visit in recent years.
"Ukrainians are all united here to support our families and friends who are still in Ukraine," she said. "Unfortunately, with what’s going on right now, no one can travel to Ukraine to help… We’re trying to raise awareness so that people know what’s happening."
Zmerzla said she believes there are some community members in Winnipeg who don’t yet know how serious the situation has become, feeling it’s nothing new after seven years of conflict with Russia.
Regardless, she said, people in Ukraine are ready for whatever comes next.
"I can tell you that people are ready to fight. Nobody is surrendering, everyone is ready to defend the country, if needed. Even my parents, they’re in their 60s… they are ready to volunteer, to help, to do anything they can," she said. "If worse things happen tomorrow, everyone will stand for the country."
Meanwhile, the time has come for Canada step in, said the second vice-president of the Manitoba chapter of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.
"Diplomatic involvement is kind of key to deterring Russia, to deter a further invasion into Ukrainian territory, the community here in Canada strongly believes that now is the time to act," Dmytro Malyk said Wednesday.
Canada is facing scrutiny from both sides for its involvement in the mounting tensions. A tweet posted Tuesday by Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly said Canada "must continue to support Ukraine, (its) people, and (its) sovereignty," alongside a photo of her visiting the Wall of Remembrance in Kyiv while on a two-day trip to Ukraine.
A response from the Russian embassy criticized the message as "misleading."
The federal Liberal government is also facing pressure to follow suit with the United Kingdom and United States and ship defensive weapons to Ukraine — something Malyk said would be a good first step.
"I do believe that if Canada kind of follows that example… to let Ukrainians defend themselves – Ukrainians, they’re not asking anyone to fight for them but if there is a way to help them to have that capability to defend themselves, that would be great," he said.
"Ukrainians, they’re not asking anyone to fight for them but if there is a way to help them to have that capability to defend themselves, that would be great,” – Dmytro Malyk
A good second step, Malyk said, would be imposing economic sanctions on Russia.
"We haven’t heard firm talks or conversations about economic sanctions, but if those economic sanctions could be visible and they could be loud, they could be strong enough to let Russia know that it will suffer economically," he said.
"That might be the case that would help Ukraine and Europe to be to stay in peace. But it’s very relative when it comes to Ukraine, because there’s has been a war with Russia for eight years now."
Malyk immigrated to Winnipeg in 2014. He said many Ukrainian Winnipeggers are like him — nervously checking in on family and friends and hoping the situation stabilizes.
"Having lived through a phase of the Russian invasion in 2014, and seeing lots of wounded soldiers and civilians, my family is terrified of this new military, escalation by Russia," he said. "They do have some kind of backup plan to move their children to the western part of the country, where we also have family."
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.