A Hamilton philanthropist's website that he says helps educate about Ukraine and the "true realities of warfare" is under fire by anti-war activists, who argue it promotes "illegal recruitment" and violates an 85-year-old Canadian law.
Chris Ecklund launched the website after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in late February. He said FightForUkraine.ca is aimed at providing education for those who want to help the country, including by fighting against invaders.
Some anti-war activists, however, argue the website runs afoul of Canada's Foreign Enlistment Act, meant to stop Canadians from being recruited to enlist in a foreign military, because it provides a direct link to a separate website — where people can enlist in the International Legion of Defence of Ukraine, a force of volunteer, foreign fighters.
Ken Stone, treasurer of the Hamilton Coalition to Stop the War, described Ecklund's site as a tool for "illegal recruitment," and said he believes the Canadian government should tell him to take it down.
"We're upset that the Canadian government is turning a blind eye to this illegal action. If they don't cease and desist, they should be charged," said Stone.
Ecklund maintains the website is not a recruiting tool. He said it simply provides information to "educate and inform not just Canadians, but anybody around the world that wants to go over, about the true realities of warfare."
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly put out worldwide calls for volunteers to help defend his country. He created the International Defence Legion, opened borders to visa-free entry, set up an application process at embassies and launched a website — which is linked to on Ecklund's page.
Ecklund estimates about 500 people have reached out through FightForUkraine.ca since it was set up, including those wanting to provide humanitarian aid or who have shown interest in military service.
He said the point of his site is to "try to weed out those people who want to show up at the border [in] jeans and a T-shirt and say, 'Give me a gun.'"
Act created during Spanish Civil War
Canada's Foreign Enlistment Act, passed in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, makes it an offence to recruit anyone "to enlist... in the armed forces of any foreign state or other armed forces operating in that state," though consular and diplomatic officers are allowed to do so.
The act also bars Canadians from joining the army of a foreign country that is "at war with a friendly state," such as Ukraine.
Tyler Wentzell, who is pursuing his doctorate in law at the University of Toronto, has written several articles about the act.
"The prohibition on recruiting in Canada is pretty wide and it was written that way deliberately," said Wentzell, adding it's the only part of the act that has been applied, with enforcement limited to "sternly worded cease and desist letter."
Asked whether including a link on a website could constitute inducing someone to enlist, Wentzell likened it to providing a virtual "mailing address" for the Ukrainian Consulate, where they could find more information.
"I don't see providing this link as constituting recruiting under the Foreign Enlistment Act," said Wentzell, who has served in the Canadian Armed Forces, including in Afghanistan.
"However, I do think it perhaps comes close enough."
He added that the site may also be unnecessary given how similar information can be found with a simple search.
Wentzell said what would really cross the line would be arranging plane tickets or building an organization of volunteers within Canada who would then travel to Ukraine together.
"That would be a very different matter."
Facebook post mentions 'training'
A Facebook page that could be accessed directly from the FightForUkraine.ca website — and went by the same name as the site — included posts describing "team members" entering Ukraine and mentioned a "training option ... for those who want to fight for Ukraine."
"It will be a 2 week intensive course covering what you need to know and learn in order to keep yourself safe and effective in theatre," read a post from March 10.
Ecklund told CBC it would have been a "crash course" on what to expect, but the training didn't take place.
"There was really no interest in it, so we never proceeded any further."
When asked if the people he brought together through the website had gone to Ukraine, Ecklund said "there's lots of people over there, yeah," but declined to provide any further details, citing operational security (OPSEC).
"For OPSEC reasons, I don't discuss anything with anything going on inside Ukraine."
The Facebook page associated with the site has since been deleted or made private.
Asked why, Ecklund emailed it had "nothing to do" with CBC's inquiries.
'Thousands' have contacted Ukrainian Embassy
A spokesperson for the RCMP confirmed it was aware of FightForUkraine.ca.
The force is mandated to investigate illegal behaviour under the Foreign Enlistment Act, wrote Robin Percival in an email to CBC.
But, she noted, the RCMP generally doesn't confirm, deny or release information about criminal investigations until charges are laid.
The Canadian government has been warning residents to avoid all travel to Ukraine since February, saying doing so puts their safety at "high risk, particularly if you engage in active combat."
Canadians currently in the country are advised to find a place to shelter, with Global Affairs Canada cautioning them that its ability to provide consular services may become limited.
"Canadians in Ukraine should not depend on the government of Canada to leave the country," wrote spokesperson Lama Khodr in an email.
Roughly 1,250 Canadians are listed as being in Ukraine through the government's Registration of Canadians Abroad service, but it's voluntary, so Khodr said it doesn't provide a "complete picture."
Elena Lazar, acting president of the Hamilton branch of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, said she's aware of Canadians who have gone overseas to fight.
"My personal opinion is that Ukraine is fighting for democracy for the rest of the world, including Canada, the states [U.S.) and Europe," she said. "They are taking the brunt of it, so I think it's about time that everybody should be going over there and lending a hand."
The Ukrainian Embassy in Ottawa said more than 1,000 Canadians have contacted the embassy since the war began and "dozens" have travelled to the country to enlist in the legion on their own.
I think it's about time that everybody should be going over there and lending a hand. - Elena Lazar, acting president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress Hamilton branch
It stressed it doesn't do any enlisting, but does provide information for those who want to fight, and weighs criteria including age and military experience. Those who enlist also cannot have a criminal record or be a serving member of the Canadian Armed Forces or army reserve.
Enlisting not 'to be taken lightly'
Stone, the anti-war activist, said Canada should enforce the Foreign Enlistment Act or take it off the books.
"If someone were recruiting for Russia today, I am sure that the Canadian government would come down like a ton of bricks on them," he said. "But because they're recruiting for causes which the Trudeau government happens to favour … they turn a blind eye. I think it's wrong."
Ecklund said Stone's concerns amount to misinformation and there were many inaccuracies in the statement the coalition released warning about his website.
He also said he's aware of the act and the federal government has a "very, very clear understanding of what's going on" with the site, but has not raised any concerns.
Wentzell said anyone considering taking part in the war should ultimately assess the risks.
"This is not an activity to be taken lightly, and while it's true that the Ukrainian people need a tremendous amount of help and support, Canadians who want to help should ask what their skills and abilities are and how they can best help."