November 6, 2020

Protests galvanize Belarusian Canadian community

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After basically stagnating for 26 years under the iron-fisted rule of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the people of Belarus suddenly erupted following the August 9 elections, which have been condemned as fraudulent by the opposition and Western democracies. Since then, massive protests have been held across the country on a daily basis. The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union have all initiated sanctions against top Belarusian officials, including Mr. Lukashenka himself.

Although there had been opposition to Mr. Lukashenka’s rule for a long time, people were afraid and expressed their thoughts only in closed circles. Until these elections, that is.

“This year everything has changed because our Belarusian people woke up and they are ready to fight for the right …to choose a new future for our Belarus. We are now united as never before,” noted opposition presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya during a recent webinar sponsored by the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.

But if the disputed elections galvanized the Belarusian people to action, it also had a profound effect on the Belarusian diaspora – particularly in Canada.

It is not a large community – some 20,000. The first Belarusians arrived in Canada in 1905, but it wasn’t until 1948 that the Belarusian Canadian Alliance (BCA) was founded by post-war political refugees. Like the Ukrainian displaced persons (DPs), these Belarusians came from the western part of the country that had been under Polish rule prior to the war. Very few refugees from the eastern part of the country managed to reach the West after the war because, under the Yalta Agreement, refugees from the pre-war boundaries of the USSR were repatriated to the Soviet Union and sent right to the Gulag. As the refugees who made it to Canada had not been exposed to Russificat­ion, they maintained the Belarusian language and even published newspapers in their own language at that time. Unlike the Ukrainian community, however, their children did not maintain the ties, and the BCA now consists mostly of immigrants who arrived after the collapse of the USSR and whose principal language of communication is Russian. Nevertheless, Belarusian is used exclusively for BCA events, leadership meetings, documentation and correspondence. And the BCA strives to expand upon this. But membership in the BCA was limited and the organization only had two chapters – in Toronto and Ottawa.

All that changed on August 9.

“There was an unprecedented line in front of the Belarus Embassy in Ottawa on the day of voting – all day,” says BCA head Alena Liavonchanka. “After the horrible events of the first protest week, the Canadian community was in shock, but then people actively engaged in political discussions, activism and community work. We were proud to be Belarusians, at last. Many volunteer groups in major Canadian cities are now organizing protests and helping families in need in Belarus. There is great collaboration between the BCA and volunteer initiatives. We provide guidance and tools for interacting with Canadian politicians.”

Indeed, the BCA is looking to expand into Winnipeg, Montreal and Edmonton – a city which didn’t even have an organized Belarusian community prior to the election. Anastacia Morozova, who has been one of the key figures in organizing the protests in Edmonton, says they first connected through a Russian Facebook group and held a couple of meetings prior to the election. Then, on the actual day of the election:

“We as the other millions of Belarusians (across the world) joined the telegram channel Nexta to watch the results of elections in real time. It was the only source of information abroad and in Belarus where the Internet was totally shut down. The havoc began. We could not eat, sleep or lead our normal lives anymore. It was terrifying to see the catastrophe unfolding in our blue-eyed Belarus. I felt like the hearts of millions of Belarusians started to beat in the same rhythm, even if it was the rhythm of pain and agony. Every one of us was shocked and paralyzed.”

“The next thing I knew I was calling another concerned individual and telling her we need to gather a meeting. When? Tomorrow! After my full-time shift at work with trembling hands and eyes full of tears I wrote a speech – things I wanted to tell the world and break the information vacuum. That meeting brought together over 80 people,” recalls Ms. Morozova.

The next day she was contacted by Ms. Liavonchanka, who suggested they work together. She also got in touch with another interested person in Vancouver, and they started coordinating actions through social media.

“Within this initiative, we began to plan Canada-wide events to support Belarus and increase awareness of its tragedy, work on petitions and communicate with the Canadian government, coordinate liaison with the Belarusian diasporas in other parts of the world, and work on many other current projects that help people in Belarus,” says Ms. Morozova.

What has been happening within Belarus, the Belarusian community in Canada and the Belarusian diaspora elsewhere is indeed a growing phenomenon. It is as if all the frustrations that were supressed during the years of Soviet and Lukashenka-era neo-Soviet repression have suddenly erupted like a genie bursting out of a bottle. And once the genie’s out, there’s no way to put him back in.

Despite the fact there are no two nations that are closer together in terms of language and culture than Ukrainians and Belarusians, Ukrainian Canadians have known very little about our Belarusian brothers and sisters until just now. But what is happening has major ramifications for our community as well. Ukrainian Canadians and Belarusian Canadians are united in their desire for self-determination, their desire to create prosperous and functioning democratic societies in our respective homelands, and the desire to rend asunder the chains of Muscovite imperialist oppression. Their struggle is our struggle. And as they undergo this national rebirth, it is up to us to lend a helping hand.

Marco Levytsky may be contacted at ukrnews@shaw.ca.