Exploring the connection between Canada and Ukraine

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Canada and Ukraine share a deep connection, as Canada is home to the second largest population of Ukrainians outside of the country, after Russia. Ukraine’s influence can be seen and tasted in towns across Manitoba and Saskatchewan especially, in the shape of churches and delicious perogies and cabbage rolls.

With so many Canadians sharing a Ukrainian heritage, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has hit very close to home.

To explore the connections between Canada and Ukraine, Shaun Haney spoke with Jars Balan, former director of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta. Listen on to hear the entire conversation, or read the Q and A below the player.

Q. What created this connection and the movement of so many people from Ukraine into Canada?

A. Well, there have been several reasons why Ukrainians have moved to Canada from Ukraine over the last 130 years, starting in the 1890s, and continuing to the present day. Some came for economic reasons. Some came for political reasons Some came to pursue more opportunities for themselves and for their children. What people I think should know about Ukrainian immigration candidates is that right now, there are 1.4 million Canadians who claim whole or partial Ukrainian ancestry. That’s a lot of Canadians who have roots in Ukraine, not only ethnic Ukrainians. Ukraine has also contributed immigrants, who are a Jewish background, Polish background of Romanian background, German background, German, Lutherans, German Catholics, German Baptist Mennonites, even a small community of Swedes, who came from central South Central Ukraine had been living there since the late 1700s, and who came to Canada in the 1920s. So the Ukrainian contribution to the Canadian population has been huge.

Q. Even several generations later, the sense of connection to Ukraine is strong. Why is that?

That’s true. There’s a reason for that. Ukrainian language and culture has had to survive in difficult circumstances, for much of the last century-and-a-half or even longer. And so the Ukrainians who came here, many of them really worked hard to preserve the language, culture, and identity to pass on the heritage to their children, because they wanted it to survive, they wanted it to be valued. And this is especially true in the interwar period in the post world war two immigration that came out of Ukraine that had just gone through very turbulent times, the World War, the Civil War, the famine, the Second World War, and those people were fiercely committed to resisting Russification, to resisting the erasure of Ukrainian language, culture and identity. Or it’s demeaning, or it’s dumbing down to, you know, a couple of folk dances at the end of a concert. That’s your Ukrainian content. So people here have maintained, compared to other immigrant groups, where they didn’t have to worry that, you know, if you’re a German, or if you were Dutch and you came to Canada, you didn’t worry that the language of the Dutch language and culture wasn’t going to survive in the Netherlands, or Italy. But Ukrainians did worry about this. And I think that motivated them to cling to their traditions and values, much more tenaciously than other groups did.

Q. Why is this current conflict happening right now?

Well, first of all, not only have I spent my career and devoted a good chunk of my life, to Ukrainian things are visited Ukraine starting 1968. And I visited probably over 25 times now, in different parts of the country. So I have a sense of the country as a whole and I have a sense of how the country has evolved over time. This conflict is deeply rooted in a couple of things. One in the personal, deranged, delusional illusory psychology of Vladimir Putin, who fancies himself a modern day tzar and who wants to go down in Russian history as the Russian leader who restored — made Russia great again…sounds familiar — but he knew he wanted to restore Russia’s imperial space as a powerful and feared country in the world. And so this is motivating him.

But Russia is also deeply steeped in myths about Ukrainian history that have been developed over centuries by Russian propaganda, imperial propaganda, that portrayed Ukraine as somehow being absolutely an indivisible country. This idea of it being indivisible from Russia only came about in the 18th century, but it is rooted in this mythology that Ukraine really is a part of Russia, and you can’t take it away from it. Ukrainians are really just Russians, who speak a funny dialect, and have have some interesting foods and customs or whatever. That’s absolute nonsense. And unfortunately, in the West, there’s a whole generation, or generations really of scholars who’ve been raised to study Russian history from a Russian point of view, and Ukrainian history through the Russian filter. That’s changed dramatically. I mean, what you’re seeing play out now with this conflict is a reflection of what Ukrainians have long said about their relations with Russia, that the Russians like to think of themselves as an older brother, even though Ukraine is the Ukrainian state and Ukrainian identity is a deeper roots than Russians. If they’re an older brother, then they’re an abusive one. And they have a long history of abusing Ukrainians. And this is just the latest chapter. It’s very sad.

Q. Could this conflict have been avoided?

This probably was inevitable, even though I didn’t want to believe that it would actually happen. First of all, this whole issue of NATO membership. First of all, NATO did not expand because they wanted to expand —  NATO expanded because countries pleaded to get in because they were afraid precisely of this kind of scenario. These are the former Warsaw Pact countries, the Baltic countries, all of these countries have long experience with Russian invasions, and Russian dominance in Russian claiming hegemony over the area. And so when the Soviet Union broke apart, they looked immediately to the west, to Europe. And they were conscious of the fact that their security was perilous. And so that’s why they asked, pleaded, begged, to be allowed into NATO. Ukraine always had an element of Ukrainian society that, you know, foresaw this and wanted to join NATO. But most Ukrainians tended to be more cautious about him saying, well, maybe we’ll just be neutral. And that all changed in 2014. After the Revolution of Dignity, and the Russian invasion and occupation and annexation of Crimea, and the proxy wars that they started in the Donbas region. In 2012, I believe something like 20-25 per cent of Ukrainians supported joining NATO. Now it’s like 60 per cent, if not higher. So this is a non-issue. And NATO is a defensive alliance. It’s not there to threaten Russia. This is just a pretext that they’ve tried to create for invading Ukraine and for demanding, not only Ukraine — and this is what people need to remember, this isn’t just about Ukraine — that Russia wants the Baltic countries to be stripped of their NATO membership, Poland to be stripped of basically to recreate the Warsaw Pact zone of countries that would agree to take direction in their foreign policy and their military policy from Moscow.

Q. Can you provide some context around Russian propaganda? Can you explain the narrative of a Nazi movement in Ukraine? 

The Russians have always tried to portray Ukrainian aspiration for Ukraine and for independence, as being inspired by others, agitated by others. It’s almost as if Ukrainians have no agency of their own, no free will, that they are incapable of making their own decisions to decide to be independent. They blame the Germans, they blame the Austro-Hungarians, (Russia) blames everybody, but themselves for you know, rather than acknowledging that well the people who live on their territory; Ukraine would like to choose their own destiny. I mean, how strange is that? The business of trying to, describing this as a de-nazification process goes back to World War II, even earlier, when an independent Ukrainian state was created in 1918-1920. Bolshevik propaganda very quickly began, and then you had the rise of a fascist movement in the ’20s (that) right away began calling these guys fascists even though the government says they’re socialists and social democrats, they were on the left, they were far from being fascists. But that didn’t matter. This is the trope that they kept pushing. During the second World War, of course, you have Ukraine invaded by the Nazis, they suffered horrifically in the fighting that swung back and forth across Ukraine. And that resulted in many, many, many millions of deaths, something like 7 million Ukrainians died, because of the war. There was a small group of Ukrainian patriots in western Ukraine, who when the Eastern Front was collapsing for the Germans, and they started to look around and say we need help to stem the Russian advance, form these national legions. And so something like 25,000 or 30,000, Ukrainians volunteered to join an SS division… in the hope or in the belief that this fighting for is trained and equipped by the Germans, even though small as it was, would serve as the nucleus of an of an army that could fight for independence of Ukraine, in the event that the Germans were defeated. And these are not people who were Nazis. They wore German uniforms, but they were fighting for the independence of Ukraine. They were not, you know, with very few exceptions, simply sympathizers of Nazi ideology. It’s pretty hard to be sympathizers of a Nazi ideology, when the Nazis deported something like 2 million Ukrainians to work as slave labor in Germany, and shot all kinds of Ukrainians who were conducted a very brutal regime in occupied territories of Ukraine. So this is a propaganda technique that they use, that the Soviets use, that they just kept hammering away saying, oh, Ukrainians are all Nazi collaborators. And that this bunch, that’s this government is dominated by Nazis, which is a joke. I mean, it’s like it’s so absurd. It’s hard to accept Israel was, as you mentioned, President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish, there are lots of Jewish members of parliament. There is a tiny, tiny, tiny neo Nazi movement in Ukraine. But the neo-Nazis are stronger in Germany, in France, in Holland, in Western Europe, and all kinds of other countries compared to Ukraine. They’re not really a force or a factor in Ukrainian society.

Q. It’s been interesting to watch the public opinion of President Volodymyr Zelensky. What are your thoughts on his transition in from a leadership perspective?

Well, this transformation has been undergone, he’s been undergoing it really since his election. He grew he came from a party he comes from a part of Ukraine that was mostly ratified Russian speaking, Russian sort of mentality, Soviet mentality. He spoke Russian, he didn’t speak Ukrainian when he ran for election. He could (only) speak a few sentences; he now speaks it perfectly well. And that puts a light to the fact that you know, Russian propaganda is the Russian speakers in Ukraine and ethnic Russians are under threat. Here’s a guy who wasn’t even wasn’t even Ukrainian-Ukrainian. He was Jewish-Ukrainian, and I think he got elected as the President of Ukraine. So come on. Tell me about this. He was a bit naive, at the beginning. His TV show that made him so popular, was widely viewed in Russia. It’s a very popular show there partly because it made fun of Ukrainians, even those Ukrainians making fun of themselves.

He thought that you know, I’ll be able to, I will deal with in business with Russians and everything that I’ll be able to cut a deal with him. We can put this conflict in the Donbas to an end. That proved to be very naive. And he quickly realized that that wasn’t going to happen. And that began his evolution. He started speaking more Ukrainian. He started understanding Ukrainian under the Ukrainian interpretation of Ukraine and embracing it. And so it’s been a gradual trying transition. I mean, before this conflict really heated up, his popularity was dropping, which is not unusual for a politician at a certain stage during their term in office. People grumble about this, that he promised this. He didn’t do that, that kind of the usual stuff. But there’s no doubt that right now, he has been an absolute inspiration. I mean, he has risen to the occasion in a way that nobody would have expected. And, I mean, I just watched a little clip of his speech to the assembly, UN General Assembly. And I mean, it’s powerful. The way he’s conducted himself with such dignity and such firmness and courage has really helped galvanize Ukrainian society, and he will go down in Ukrainian history as a great, great leader.

Q. Is Canada doing enough in its response to Russia’s invasion?

Not just Canada. The West in general could be doing more, of course. And we’ve and we’ve heard the pleas of President Zelinsky for military aid for all for not just weaponry, but now a no fly zone anything to help the Ukraine at the same time in Canada has been very good to Ukraine. We were the first western country to recognize Ukraine’s independence when it was declared and the referendum passed. We were we’ve been supporting various programs in Ukraine to promote democracy to promote reform the rule of law. It’s a long struggle, and the corruption is deeply rooted. Goes back, certainly into Soviet times. And there’s been enormous progress that have made we have been supporting Ukraine militarily in the sense of Operation Unifier, where Canadian troops have been going to Ukraine now for a couple of years and training, helping to train Ukrainian soldiers. And that training is now paying off, obviously, on the battlefield. That is Ukraine. More could be done.

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