January 15, 2021

2020: Canada: Year of remembering during historic pandemic


Ukrainian Canadian Congress

Oleh Sentsov (center), at a dinner with Ukrainian community leaders on February 2 in Toronto. From left are: Ukrainian Canadian Congress Vice-President Olesia Luciw-Andryjowycz, UCC National President Alexandra Chyczij, Ukrainian World Congress Vice-President Anna Kisil, Mr. Sentsov, UWC President Paul Grod, UWC Vice-President Zenon Poticzny and UWC Executive Director Mariia Kupriianova.

With the COVID-19 pandemic putting the planet on freeze for most of 2020, the year presented an opportunity for reflection and Canada’s Ukrainian community spent considerable time looking back at history.

As part of its “Heroes of Their Day” initiative and during 75th anniversary year of Victory in Europe (V-E) Day, the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Foundation (UCCLF) released the Almanac of Ukrainian Canadian Servicemen online (https://www.ucclf.ca/heroes-of-their-day), a Ukrainian-language digest (with an English foreword), produced in 1946 by the Ukrainian Catholic Brotherhood of Canada, which provides information about many of the thousands of Ukrainian Canadian men and women who volunteered for service overseas with the Canadian Armed Forces during World War II, including photographs and casualty lists. News of the online documentation was reported in February.

Canada’s longest-serving ambassador to Ukraine, Roman Waschuk, a Ukrainian Canadian, was honored, along with his wife, Oksana Smerechuk, at a Toronto gala organized by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) on February 1. Some $100,000 (about $88,000 U.S.) was raised to support a fund bearing the couple’s name to support the UCC’s Parliamentary Internship Program as well as its community development fund. Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who is also an ethnic Ukrainian, were among those who feted Ambassador Waschuk, Canada’s representative in Kyiv from 2014 to 2019.

Ukrainian Canadian Congress

Former Canadian Ambassador to Ukraine Roman Waschuk and his wife, Oksana Smerechuk, at a gala held in their honor by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress on February 1. They were honored for their contributions to public service and Canada-Ukraine relations.

The first week of February also found Ukrainian filmmaker and political activist Oleh Sentsov visiting Ottawa and Toronto on a busy four-day schedule that included a sit-down with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ms. Freeland and a Ukrainian Canadian community meeting co-hosted by three members of Parliament and the Ukrainian Canadian Congress’s Ottawa branch in the capital, along with an event in Toronto organized by the League of Ukrainian Canadians.

Released in 2019 from a Russian prison where he had held been for five years on trumped-up terrorism charges, Mr. Sentsov spoke in Canada of the plight of the more than 90 Ukrainians – many of them Crimean Tatars – jailed in Russia and Crimea, where he grew up and whose annexation by Russia he has actively opposed. One of his podiums was at the University of Ottawa, where Mr. Sentsov participated in a question-and-answer session presented by the university’s Chair of Ukrainian Studies and the Human Rights Research and Education Center. At that event, he proved to be a man of few words, as law professor John Packer, the center’s director, told The Ukrainian Weekly. Mr. Sentsov, said Prof. Packer, is “a flesh-and-blood example of a good man doing something by standing up and speaking the truth. And he does it without fanfare – just walking the talk – and not even talking much, which is very impressive in its simplicity and clarity.”

Meanwhile, François-Philippe Champagne, who succeeded Ms. Freeland as Canadian foreign affairs minister in November 2019, visited Ukraine on March 4-6, 2020. Top of mind was the tragedy involving Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) Flight PS752, which Iran said its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps accidentally shot down on January 8.

Minister Champagne told Canadian reporters in a March 6 teleconference from Kyiv that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were assisting Ukrainian police in their criminal investigation of the downing of the aircraft, which claimed the lives of 176 passengers and crew, including 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents of Canada.

Canada’s foreign affairs minister also said that he and his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, agreed to “continue to push” UIA to provide compensation to the families of the victims of the ill-fated flight.

While in Ukraine, Minister Champagne also announced more than $2 million (about $1.5 million U.S.) over three years in Canadian government funding to help strengthen the capacity of the National Police of Ukraine.

Back in Canada, Liberal Member of Parliament Yvan Baker, a Ukrainian Canadian who represents the Toronto riding of Etobicoke Center in the House of Commons – a seat once held by another Ukrainian Canadian, Borys Wrzesnewskyj – was elected chair of the Canada-Ukraine Parliamentary Friendship Group on March 9.

Later in March, the UCC launched a national blood drive to fill the gap of blood donations created by the COVID pandemic. Also that month, the congress called on the Trudeau government to support charitable and non-profit organizations affected by the crisis through such measures as wage subsidies, which Ottawa introduced as organizations were forced into lockdowns.

The pandemic impacted Canada’s Armed Forces too, with the number of personnel scheduled in April to deploy to Ukraine as part of the military training operation, UNIFIER, decreasing from 200 soldiers to about 60.

Canadian Armed Forces in Ukraine

The outgoing commander of Canada’s Operation UNIFIER, Lt. Col. Ryan Stimpson (left), signs Transfer of Command Authority documents alongside incoming commander Lt. Col. Sarah Heer, Joint Task Force – Ukraine’s first female commanding officer, and Col. Robert Foster (center) on October 5 at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center (IPSC) in Starychi, Ukraine.

Also in April, the Temerty Foundation, which Ukrainian Canadian business powerhouse Jim Temerty and his wife, Louise, established in 1997, donated $10 million (almost $8 million U.S.) to the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine to help its partner hospitals respond to the immediate needs of frontline health-care workers, and facilitate research and training in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The coronavirus crisis impacted the UCCLF’s unveiling of a memorial “Heroes of Their Day” stained-glass window in London, scheduled for May 8, as part of the V-E Day 75th anniversary commemoration activities.

On that day, the UCC issued a statement marking Nazi Germany’s surrender that ended World War II in Europe – a conflict that claimed more than 45,000 Canadian lives. “Today we unite in solemn commemoration of the millions of victims of the most brutal war ever inflicted upon humanity and in eternal gratitude to those who fell in the service of our country in the struggle for freedom,” it read. “The memory of the Nazi German death camps and the blood-soaked battlefields of Europe warn us of man’s capacity for evil and instills in us an eternal vigilance against inhumanity.”

The pandemic also motivated Canadian organizations Help Us Help and the Canada-Ukraine Foundation to launch the COVID-19 Children’s Relief Initiative on May 20. The online appeal (https://covid19childrensrelief.ca/) was intended to help about half of the nearly 100,000 children in Ukraine assigned to government-run residential institutions or rehabilitation centers who were sent home to their families when nationwide quarantine measures were introduced.

Meantime, the Canadian Centre for the Great War, a Montreal-based non-profit organization, unveiled the online exhibit “Confined: Reflections on Internment in Canada during the First World War” (https://confined.greatwarcentre.com/), featuring images from internment operations in Canada during World War I that targeted, among other ethnic groups, Ukrainians, who were labeled as “enemy aliens.” Twenty-four camps housed 8,816 men, women and children, including civilians and prisoners of war. Ukrainians are counted among people from Austria-Hungary (5,954 people as listed on the website), which included Czechs and Slovaks.

In June, The Weekly ran an editorial focusing on the month when Canadians commemorated the centennial of the end of the country’s first national internment operations, “a shameful episode in Canadian history” that occurred between 1914 and 1920 against the backdrop of the first world war.

Canada’s War Measures Act of 1914 made the operation possible; the same legislation was later used to justify the imprisonment of Japanese Canadians during World War II and of some Quebecois in 1970. A decades-long campaign spearheaded by the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association resulted in the historic signing in 2008 of a redress settlement between the Canadian government and the Ukrainian Canadian community that led to the establishment of a $10 million educational and commemorative endowment managed by the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund.

To mark the centennial in 2020, the UCC’s Alberta Provincial Council announced it would run stories online (https://uccab.ca/internment-100/) daily from June 1 to June 20, the day when the internment operations officially ended 100 years earlier. Among the topics covered: the impact on descendants of internees; the early days of research into this historic injustice; and the documentary “That Never Happened.”

Quebec’s Ukrainian community also remembered that sad chapter in the province’s history. The largest internment camp there, and the second largest one in Canada, was established at Spirit Lake, 373 miles north of Montreal. The Spirit Lake internment site was opened in January 1915 with over 1,200 interned. The majority of those held there were Ukrainians – many taken from Montreal and the surrounding area, including 60 families, men, women and children.

Slammed by the pandemic, the fourth annual Ukraine Reform Conference – scheduled to take place in Lithuania – had to be postponed until the summer of 2021. But the COVID-19 lockdown did not prevent the UCC – in partnership with the Canadian International Council’s South Saskatchewan Branch – from presenting a special 90-minute webinar on June 22 to examine the “progress” made and the “pitfalls” experienced a year after the 2019 reform conference that featured President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in his first overseas trip as Ukraine’s then-new head of state.

Also in June, following the killing by a Minneapolis police officer of Black American George Floyd in late May that sparked widespread anti-racism protests in both the United States and Canada, UCC President Alexandra Chyczij, a lawyer, issued a statement of solidarity to the Black community. “Racism has no place in Canada, yet is experienced every day by many Canadians who are mistreated because of the color of their skin and their ethnic background,” she said in the June 2 statement.

“The right of equal treatment before the law and the right to justice are fundamental and inalienable for every human being. We must recognize that as a nation, we do not always live up to our highest ideals – but we must strive for them, together,” Ms. Chyczij underscored.

A month later, on July 6, the UCC issued another statement – this time about the vandalization of a large banner at the construction site of a planned $3 million (about $2.3 million U.S.) Victims of Communism memorial in Ottawa. The words “Communism will win” and Soviet hammer-and-sickle emblems were spray-painted on the English-and-French banner.

The memorial “is to be a national place of mourning, reflection, contemplation and remembrance, honoring the millions of innocent victims murdered by Communist regimes throughout the world,” the statement read. “Millions of people, including many Ukrainians, who were subjected to the brutality and inhumanity of Communism, fled to Canada – where they found liberty and peace. That this sight was desecrated through this act of hate is unacceptable and deplorable, and an insult to the hallowed memory of the millions of innocent victims of Communism.”

The vandalized signage was removed, but the incident was not singular. On June 1, a similar memorial in Washington was defaced with graffiti, which included the letters, “BLM,” an apparent reference to “Black Lives Matter.”

On August 2, The Weekly ran an editorial on the effort to have the word “Holodomor” and its definition included in such major English-language dictionaries as Oxford, Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com. “Currently, Ukraine and 15 other countries recognize the Holodomor as genocide,” read the editorial, which referred to an online petition posted July 21 on Deeptruth.ca to have Holodomor recognized by the aforementioned dictionaries. The Deeptruth.ca campaign and website were conceived by the Holodomor National Awareness Tour of Canada, the organization credited with the very successful Holodomor Mobile Classroom (https://holodomortour.ca), and a project of the Canada-Ukraine Foundation.

The word “Holodomor” is derived from two Ukrainian words “moryty” and “holod,” or murder and starvation, which when combined, “literally means ‘to kill by starvation,’” according to the editorial. “Although usage of the word began to increase after the 1970s thanks to diaspora publications in North America, the word’s early usage was documented by Ukrainian diaspora publications based in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s to describe the genocide.”

“The first official use of the word in Ukraine was in 1987 after the introduction of the Soviet policy of glasnost (openness). ‘Holodomor’ was included in Ukrainian dictionaries in 2004, which describe it as ‘artificial hunger, organized on a vast scale by a criminal regime against a country’s population.’”

Summer in Canada also saw Deputy Prime Minister Freeland’s political star continue to rise with her appointment, on August 18, as the country’s first female finance minister and the first Ukrainian Canadian to serve in that role.

She is “a real force in the sense that she is able to take on any challenge… learn a file and dive deep into it,” said Paul Grod, the Toronto-based president of the Ukrainian World Congress, who added that Ms. Freeland has been “phenomenal” in her previous senior Cabinet roles in the Trudeau government, which have included international trade and foreign affairs.

The UCC’s Ms. Chyczij told The Weekly that she expects the political powerhouse to one day serve as Canadian prime minister – “something the Ukrainian Canadian community would wish for fervently.”

Continuing centennial commemorations of Ukrainian Canadian internment, Canada’s first statue and trilingual (English, French and Ukrainian) bronze plaque, placed near Castle Mountain, Banff National Park, in memory of those held at that internment camp from July 1915 to July 1917, marked its 25th anniversary on August 12.

Meanwhile, to celebrate Ukrainian Canadian Heritage Day, which is observed annually in Ontario and Alberta on September 7 and on the last Saturday in July in Manitoba, the UCC released a graphic that illustrated the cross-country distribution of Canadians who identify as Ukrainian. The total number for Canada was 1,359,655, according to the UCC, which hopes to have the country’s Parliament recognize a “Ukrainian Canadian Heritage Month.”

On September 22, Prime Minister Trudeau spoke by phone with President Zelenskyy. According to a release from Mr. Trudeau’s office, the two leaders talked about ongoing efforts in Canada, Ukraine and around the world to address the impacts of COVID-19 and to ensure a “sustainable and inclusive” post-pandemic economic recovery. During the call, the prime minister and the president also discussed “the importance of dialogue and diplomatic efforts focused on restoring peace and security in Ukraine’s Donbas region, and the ongoing challenge of Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea.”

The Temerty Foundation was back in the news in the fall, when it made an unprecedented $250 million donation (about $194 million U.S.) to the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine on September 24.

Johnny Guatto

At the University of Toronto on September 24, when the Temerty Foundation announced its gift of $250 million (Canadian) to the university’s Faculty of Medicine, are: (back row, from left) Hira Raheel, Trevor Young, Rose Patten, David Palmer, (front row) Mike Lord, Leah Temerty-Lord, Meric Gertler, Jim Temerty and Louise Temerty.

In addition to a new Center for AI Research and Education in Medicine, new funding for research and collaboration across hospital partners and a new medical building in downtown Toronto, the U of T’s newly named Temerty Faculty of Medicine will establish the Education and Research Fund for Collaborations with Ukraine, which will support visiting fellows, professors, scholars and students from Ukraine and encourage increased collaboration with academics and researchers from the Toronto faculty.

In his October 18 column, Marco Levytsky wrote about the devastating effects the COVID-19 pandemic has had on seniors, with 81 percent of the deaths caused by the coronavirus occurring in Canadian long-term care centers. But, as he pointed out, such facilities run by the Ukrainian Canadian community have been spared outbreaks. For example, the Ivano Franko Home in Toronto, which had no deaths, as CBC News reported in May, had an emergency plan in place before the pandemic.

In a September 24 letter to Prime Minister Trudeau, Ihor Michalchyshyn, CEO and executive director of the UCC, wrote that “during the COVID-19 pandemic, the 40 Ukrainian long-term care homes across Canada have seen better health outcomes and higher rates of life satisfaction for seniors and their families than have comparable for-profit institutions. This is borne out by evidence-based policy studies of long-term care facilities.” He said the UCC is “ready to work with the government of Canada to identify experts, stakeholders and practitioners in our community that ensure that the experience of these long-term care homes is integrated into the development of national standards for all Canadians.”

Ukraine’s diplomatic presence in Canada expanded in the fall when Eugene Czolij, former president of both the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) and the Ukrainian World Congress (UWC), was named Ukraine’s first honorary consul in the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec on October 16. Since Montreal was in a COVID-19 red zone that prohibits travel outside Quebec, Mr. Czolij had to sign the joint agreement appointing him to his three-year renewable term position on a Zoom call with Andriy Shevchenko, Ukraine’s ambassador to Canada, who was in Ottawa.

For Mr. Czolij, a corporate and commercial litigator, and partner with one of Quebec’s major law firms, Lavery de Billy LLP, assuming the role of honorary consul in Montreal on a pro-bono basis complements the work he began in 2019 – also on a voluntary basis – to head Ukraine-2050, a non-profit organization that sets hard targets over the next 30 years to advance Ukraine as a “fully independent, territorially integral, democratic, reformed and economically competitive European state,” according to its mission statement.

As Ukraine’s honorary consul, Mr. Czolij told The Weekly he would also encourage continued sanctions – including Canada’s three-year-old Magnitsky legislation – against Russia in light of its military aggression against Ukraine and to “pressure Russia to comply with its international obligations.” And he said he would “defend the interests of Ukraine” and “counter Russian disinformation regarding Ukraine, which is very powerful.”

Andriy Shevchenko/Facebook

During the virtual ceremony on October 16 when Ukraine’s Ambassador to Canada Andriy Shevchenko (right) officially signed the agreement with Eugene Czolij on his appointment as the honorary consul of Ukraine in Montreal.

The centennial year remembering Ukrainian Canadian internment concluded on October 28 with National Internment Commemoration Day in Canada, as designated in 2014 by the Endowment Council of the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund and the UCC’s internment committee.

COVID’s continued threat also forced the UCC, for the first time, to hold its annual general meeting online. Over 80 people participated in the virtual AGM held on November 7 during the year of the UCC’s 80th anniversary.

The online reality continued later in the month when the congress held a virtual National Holodomor Commemoration ceremony in Canada on November 22 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKs9dHOUXY8) to remember the nearly 4 million Ukrainians who perished during the genocidal famine perpetrated by Joseph Stalin’s Soviet regime in 1932-1933.

It was yet another example of how 2020 was a year in which memories were made even more poignant and treasured during a time, unparalleled for most, of physical distancing.

And that point was amplified on November 11 in Ottawa, when COVID-19 restrictions kept the usually large crowds in cooler weather away from the Remembrance Day ceremony at the National War Memorial, and The Weekly spoke to Ukrainian Canadian filmmaker John Paskievich about his latest documentary, “A Canadian War Story” (https://canadianwarstory.com/), produced by the Toronto-based Ukrainian Canadian Research and Documentation Center (UCRDC) with financial support from the Shevchenko Foundation’s Ukrainian Canadian Veterans Fund.

In the film, Mr. Paskievich highlights the enlistment rate of Ukrainian Canadians during World War II – “the highest percentage of any ethnic group outside of the British in Canada.” Of the more than 1 million Canadians who served in Canada’s Armed Forces, between 35,000 and 40,000 – mainly men – were of Ukrainian origin. The high Ukrainian Canadian wartime participation rate became a reckoning for a community whose members were branded in Canada as enemy aliens, many of them interned in work camps during World War I.

“A Canadian War Story” also examines how Ukrainians, rendered stateless following the first world war, had their hopes for independence dashed when the Germans occupying the Soviet Union during the second world war viewed them and other Slavs as “subhumans.” Among them were Mr. Paskievich’s late Ukrainian-born parents (his mother, Ewka, from the Lviv area; his father, Paul, from the Volyn region), who were sent to forced-labor camps in Hungary and then Austria, where they remained following the war and where Mr. Paskievich was born 72 years ago.

Some of the Ukrainian Canadians who served overseas during the war stayed behind in Europe to help Ukrainian displaced persons, such as the Paskieviches, avoid being repatriated to the Soviet Union and find a new home in Canada.

Mr. Paskievich believes there should perhaps be a monument recognizing the Ukrainian Canadian service personnel, who not only served in World War II “but who stayed behind and helped the DPs emigrate to Canada.” It is a hope that carries with it a wish: If and when such a memorial materializes, the hope is that people are present for the unveiling and the COVID pandemic has become a memory.