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Ukrainian community in Canada on edge as tensions with Russia escalate

Many fear for safety of friends and family — and are asking Canada to do more against threat of invasion

From left to right: Artem Pazych, Michael Doroshenko and Yevgeniya Tatarenko are among those in the Ukrainian community in Canada who are anxiously watching the tense situation on the Ukraine-Russia border.

From left to right: Artem Pazych, Michael Doroshenko and Yevgeniya Tatarenko are among those in the Ukrainian community in Canada who are anxiously watching the tense situation on the Ukraine-Russia border.

Photo: (Janella Hamilton/CBC News; Submitted by Michael Doroshenko; Travis Golby/CBC)

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As tensions mount between Ukraine and Russia, many in Canada's Ukrainian community are watching and worrying about what the crisis means for their country of origin and loved ones living there.

Russia has massed an estimated 100,000 troops along its borders with Ukraine, raising fears the Kremlin is preparing to launch a full-scale invasion. Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied this and in turn accused the West of taking an aggressive course on the threshold of our home.

Russia's demands — that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO and that other actions, such as stationing alliance troops in former Soviet bloc countries, be curtailed — have been rejected by NATO officials. Recent rounds of high-stakes diplomacy produced no breakthroughs (new window).

The threat of a possible war is being keenly felt across Canada, which is home to about 1.3 million people of Ukrainian descent, according to the 2016 census.

In Waterloo, Ont., Michael Doroshenko said he is concerned for his parents and grandmother (new window), who live in Sumy, Ukraine, about an hour's drive from the border with Russia.

It's been pretty nervous for everybody, said Doroshenko, 30, a Ukrainian citizen who moved to the Waterloo region to study and now works in the tech industry.

He is trying to help his family make plans in case an invasion does happen, but says it's been difficult given the unpredictability of the situation.

Nobody knows where it will be safe in the next week, or two weeks, or two months, he said.

Doroshenko, shown here with his daughter, is a Ukrainian citizen who is currently living in Waterloo, Ont.

Doroshenko, shown here with his daughter, is a Ukrainian citizen who is currently living in Waterloo, Ont.

Photo: (Submitted by Michael Doroshenko)

Varvara Shmygalova, a member of Toronto's Ukrainian Canadian community, said she is worried about the loss of life  (new window)that would result from Russian military actions. She left the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, five years ago, but her parents, grandparents and all of her friends are still there.

My message [to them] is: Try to stay as safe as you can, because I love you and I want you to be alive, she said. But also, I want you to do everything you can to protect our home country and protect all the values of all democratic nations.

Prepared for the worst

Artem Pazych, a newly arrived Ukrainian student in Vancouver, is also worried for family back home and the potential lasting impact on the country (new window) if Russia invades.

Loss of history, loss of identity, loss of culture, he said.

The 19-year-old is from Zhytomyr, just west of Kyiv. He grew up in the shadow of the war in Eastern Ukraine, where government forces have been fighting Russian-backed separatists since 2014 — the same year that Russia annexed the Crimea region.

Multiple attempts at a ceasefire have failed, and Ukraine estimates more than 14,000 people have been killed in the conflict. Many others have been wounded or displaced from their homes.

Pazych said being prepared for the worst became normal.

My family is informed in their local community: where to go to the bomb shelters, what documents to have and what rescue pack do they have, he said. And my brothers in school have been told what to do in case the war is happening, the attack is going to happen.

Anastasiia Mereshchuk, a member of the Nova Scotia chapter of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC), said the situation has been very hard mentally on family and friends living in Ukraine, even though they live about 300 kilometres from the war zone.

Even though there are no active war actions going on in our region, it's still troublesome, Mereshchuk told Mainstreet, saying soldiers frequently pass through and the region's hospitals have treated many of the wounded.

It is very real there, and everyone is affected, no matter where they are, no matter what they do in Ukraine.

Vitaliy Milentyev, president of the Alberta Ukraine Chamber of Commerce, said the situation is the most heated he has seen in the almost eight years since the fighting began. He said it is having an impact on Ukraine's economy (new window).

The aggression and this whole tension is slowing down economic growth in the country. Investments are not flowing in, people are extremely careful about dealing with Ukraine, he said.

That in itself is damaging, just as much as this whole nervousness around the country on the military side.

WATCH | Edmonton woman asks Canada to 'do everything possible' to help Ukraine:

'We want to bring awareness'

Amid the tensions, there has been a growing movement calling for support from the Canadian government and other Canadians.

In Winnipeg, about 50 people gathered in a churchyard (new window) on Sunday to show solidarity with Ukraine. The rally was organized by the Manitoba chapter of the UCC as part of the national organization's #StandWithUkraine campaign.

Among those rallying was Yevgeniya Tatarenko, whose mother lives in Novomykolaivka, in southeastern Ukraine. If the situation worsens, Tatarenko hasn't ruled out trying to bring her mother to Canada as a refugee.

We want to bring awareness around the world and we want to bring attention to the political power of Canada and those people that can make decisions on the global level, Tatarenko said.

Tatarenko speaks at a rally for Ukraine in the churchyard of St. Mary the Protectress Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Winnipeg on Sunday.

Tatarenko speaks at a rally for Ukraine in the churchyard of St. Mary the Protectress Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Winnipeg on Sunday.

Photo: (Travis Golby/CBC)

Accelerating a NATO membership action plan for Ukraine is among a handful of moves the UCC is pushing the Canadian government to make.

The UCC is also asking for increased sanctions on Russia; the cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline (new window); military equipment and defensive weapons for Ukraine; and the extension and expansion of Canada's military training mission in Ukraine, known as Operation Unifier.

Ihor Michalchyshyn, the UCC's executive director and CEO, said in Ottawa on Monday that Canada needs to send a strong message to Putin.

We've seen the United Kingdom, the United States, NATO allies, G7 allies send defensive weapons to Ukraine that will help them defend themselves in the case of an invasion. And we think very strongly that Canada needs to join that list very quickly, he said.

Last week, Global Affairs Canada announced the government has offered Ukraine a loan of up to $120 million (new window) to support the country's economic resilience and governance reforms.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly also said Canada will join allies in imposing severe sanctions (new window) on Russian officials if the country takes further military action to compromise Ukrainian sovereignty.

CBC News with files from The Associated Press

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