Two months of protests in Kiev and now across western Ukraine and into its Russified east are parts of a renewed struggle for post-Soviet democratic integrity and national sovereignty by a courageous and long-suffering people.
Canada was the first Western country to recognize Ukraine’s independence after 28 million — 92 per cent of eligible voters — voted in their 1991 referendum to declare independence from Russia. Many Canadians have a long and close history with Ukraine.
The Ukrainian sense of nationhood survived centuries of foreign occupation and oppression. In 1918, an independent Ukraine was proclaimed, but it survived only until 1920; two years later, most Ukrainian territory was incorporated into the Soviet Union. The national poet, Taras Shevchenko, termed Ukraine “this land of ours that is not ours.”
Canadians of origin in Ukraine (numbering about 1.2 million) have played an important role in our own history. In the three waves of immigration from what is now Ukraine, approximately three-quarters settled first in Western Canada. They were among those who broke Prairie land after 1896 and are one of the region’s pre-eminent settlers.
They also overcame challenges beyond those faced by settlers from other countries. Ottawa’s 1914 War Measures Act led to the internment of about 6,000 Austro-Hungarians, the overwhelming majority of whom were Ukrainians. As Vera Lysenko noted in her Men In Sheepskin Coats, during World War I, "One repressive measure followed another, directed against bewildered Ukrainians. Thousands of harmless (Ukrainians) were rounded up by the police and herded into concentration camps …’’
Tragically, Ukrainians were dropped to "non-preferred" immigrant status by Ottawa during the 1930s; without this, some of the three million Ukrainians, who, Yale history professor Timothy Snyder estimates in his book Bloodlands had been deliberately starved to death by Stalin, might have escaped to Canada. As one of 1,100 Canadian observers of the 2006 election in Ukraine, I was held by an imploring voter in his 80s at a polling station near the Russian border as he recounted through an interpreter how his parents starved to death virtually in front of him as a child in the winter of 1932-33.
The historian James Gray explained in his Winter Years what many Westerners faced during the 1930’s in addition to the Great Depression: "For them [Ukrainians, Poles and Jews], Winnipeg was far from being a city of 250,000 in which they too were free to search for work. As much as two-thirds of it was barred and bolted against them. ... Anyone with a Ukrainian or Polish name had almost no chance of employment except rough manual labour."
Despite all, in World War Two, an estimated 40,000 Ukrainian-Canadians, or more than 10 per cent of the entire community then in Canada, enlisted in our armed forces. Afterwards, many thousands of Ukrainians, who had been deported to forced labour farms, concentration camps or German factories, refused to return to Ukraine, then entirely part of the Soviet Union.
The tragic repatriation of many thousands of them was finally stopped, and the remaining refugees from Ukraine were granted "displaced person" status and resettled abroad. Between 1947 and 1953, approximately 34,000 Ukrainians came to Canada, many well-educated professionals. They and the generations arriving since the 1890s helped shape Canada into what it is today.
The protests in recent months by widely-based opposition groups, including an estimated 90 per cent of the residents of Kiev and perhaps half the overall population of Ukraine, against the deeply corrupt President Yanukovich and his political party, their cronies, oligarchs, and Russia’s Putin, remain highly volatile. Yanukovich’s draconian legislation against protesters only inflamed tensions. Unfortunately, the protesters still have almost no overall organization, leadership or strategy.
Where is the economic pressure from Europe, Canada, the U.S. and other democratic countries to offset the $15 billion offered by Putin to lure Ukraine back into the Russian fold? Many protesters have been on the streets for weeks because they want to be part of Europe and strongly oppose the Putin-Yanukovich deal.
Ukraine is not Russia and the world’s advocates for human dignity must do what we can to advance this reality.
Many Ukrainian-Canadians and others in our country and elsewhere seek:
- Targeted sanctions against Yanukovich, his cabinet ministers, MPs who supported police state legislation, prosecutors/ judges who have sentenced peaceful protesters, and the immediate family members of these individuals.
- Speedy and no-cost visas for injured protesters, their families and the kin of murdered protesters. Observers should also be sent to document court proceedings against protesters, the injured who arrive in hospitals and clinics, and bodies arriving at Kiev morgues.
For two months, Ukrainian Canadians have been in anguish as they've seen Yanukovich brutalize their ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ as he attempts to introduce a police state with the encouragement and help of the Kremlin. Canada must stand firmly with Ukrainians to maintain national independence and democracy.
Fortunately, the timing of the Winter Olympics is preventing Putin from unleashing Russian violence in Ukraine — at least until the Games torch is extinguished in Sochi. Canada, Europe and the U.S. must act now.
Full disclosure: David Kilgour has been forbidden from entering Russia since 2011 over his 2009 book Bloody Harvest, co-written with David Matas.
David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.