According to a 2016 census, Canada is about 4% Ukrainian, and Saskatchewan is right in the middle of the prairie provinces at 13%. Immigration from the Ukraine to Canada has always been high since the early 1900s, but has ramped up since 2013 with protests in the Ukrainian capital, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that the conflict happening now in Ukraine hits close to home for a lot of people from Saskatchewan.
Iryna Kutska is one of those Saskatchewan residents with close ties to the conflict. Her family left Ukraine and moved to Leader in 2014 when she was 15 years old and she has since become a student at the University of Saskatchewan; she spoke with West Central Online about how her family here in Canada has been processing the news from the last week back home, and how the family they left behind to come to Canada, not even a decade ago, are faring in the complicated situation in Ukraine.
“My grandma is 83, and she's been hiding in the basement for the last couple of days,” said Kutska at the time of our interview, “She's not really running out of food, but supplies won't last forever and people are just buying everything off the shelves and trying to stock up because they just not sure what's going to happen tomorrow.”
Kutska and her family moved to the west central community of Leader following the increased military tension between Ukraine and Russia in 2014 that lead to the Russians annexing the eastern peninsula of Crimea, though mostly the stress of the situation is that led the household to make the move.
“I don't want to say (the war) was the main reason why we came here, but the start of the military tension back in 2014, it was definitely part of it too,” she explained. “When things like that happen, all men are required to stay in the country. They're not allowed to leave, and that's exactly what's happening right now.”
The Kutska’s decision to escape was an important, and likely, tough move, but one that needed to be made in order to assure they would not be stuck in a war that is still ongoing and continuing to escalate. Kutska’s family is native to the western side of the country where tensions have not gone as far in the past, but recent events have proven that any portion of the nation under attack appears to be particularly safe.
Kutska talked about how the political environment of the country has been shaky ever since the initial invasion of Crimea in 2014 that followed protests in the capital aimed at new policies being implemented by an eventually ousted government. This mix of events created enough security and safety issues for the family to pull the trigger and move on forward to Canada.
The current events in Ukraine are taking over the headlines all over the world, and with so much news coming out about the situation with every minute, it's been hard to narrow down what is fact and what is fiction. Regardless of one's knowledge, Kutksa knows that one thing people need to put into perspective is the amount of time this fight between neighbouring countries has been truly going on.
“One thing I would like to emphasize, and I would like for people to know is, that it's not a one day job sort of thing,” shared Kutska, “It's been going for a while. Ever since 2014 when it was a huge political revolution in the country.”
As a university student with a background in political studies, Kutska was more than happy to speak on the details of how Ukraine got rid of the old government, introduced a new president with completely different parties to vote between; completely changing the Ukrainian ideology.
“So it's been going on for a good while, like since 2014, but right now, it's just the tensions are so insanely high that people are literally getting bombed and dying.”
Kutska accounts the last eight years as a period of, relatively, cooled relations in terms of war between Russia and Ukraine, though military presence was still very active near the country’s eastern border.
“There were still shootings, and they had army on the east side, but it was under control and they held the border pretty well,” she said, “There were no tanks on the streets, but right now it's just that they lost control of it, so the Russian army just pushed right in.”
The current war can come down to a lot of things, but a simple look at eastern and western ideology, paired with Ukraine’s attempts to fall in line with things like democracy, and more independence has to be the reason for the Russians act of aggression to unjustifiably take back now sovereign land that did, at one time, belong to the Soviet Union prior to its dissolution in 1991.
In the years between, many efforts have been made by Russia to hijack Ukrainian etymology; more specifically, the ways they identify personally to express their long-earned independence from Russia. Examples of this include the easy mistake in western culture of referring to “the” Ukraine. Using “the” as a preface to the country’s title is one little thing that, if used, slowly degrades the country in a way that can only help Russia’s current campaign against Ukraine. Another small detail would be spelling the country's capital city as 'Kyiv', rather than the Russian spelling of 'Kiev'.
One outlandish online rumour about the war made word of Russian advances, potentially, forcing Ukraine to move their capital city from Kyiv west to Lviv which, according to Kutska, is the true capital of the country to many of it’s inhabitants.
“Lviv, it's sort of like the cultural centre of the entire Ukraine,” she began, “Kyiv is the capital. You have your government buildings, president’s office, all of the logistics of government. It's a beautiful city too, but (Lviv) is the cultural center and where all the traditions are still alive and well. If you, literally, ask a random Ukrainian on the street where is the cultural center if we wanted to learn about Ukrainian culture heritage, or whatever, they will point out at that city.”
Kutska did provide some laughter at the tabling of Lviv becoming the new capital, knowing the widespread nature of rumours that can, and will, come out over the coming weeks.
The eastern Ukraine provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk make up the Donbass region. She provided more details on the main provinces in question that border Russia, and have been the main region for fighting over the past eight years. Kutska said a reinforced army held the border strong for years, but the Russian’s strategic move south through the northern country of Belarus is what really came as major trouble to the country’s defense against a now realized invasion by the Russian Federation.
“The last eight years they have been under a lot of tension there, so they are sort of independent little republics that have been left alone as they are, but why it’s such a big deal now is because new cities are being affected by it, and they're trying to push inward now; whereas, like I said in 2014, we developed a strong army and (the border) was under control. Now it is the north that's being really affected, and nobody was expecting that.”
Belarus is being targeted with sanctions in line with the ones currently being handed out to Russia by countries around the world, including Canada, as Vladimir Putin continues on his offensive. The sanctions are the political support that Ukraine needed, but Kutska does feel more could be done.
Some major moves have been made to place the Kremlin in a precarious situation. Still, the people seem to be the ones most effected, and Kutska wanted to use that fact to emphasize that not all people in the country need to be treated poorly as a result of the war.
“You don't generalize all Russians as sort of like in one category,” started Kutska, before entering into her main point, “But I think most of them are brainwashed to the extent that they don't think what's happening right now is wrong. They think it's OK and their president is just doing a huge favour, which is entirely wrong.”
Some strong words, but not ones that Kutska are afraid to share thanks to her background in politics, and foray into the courtroom, as she just recently completed her first moot as a 1L student at the University of Saskatchewan College of Law.
“However, there are some that are protesting, and there are some going on the streets and begging their MP's to talk and maybe find a different solution to this. So like I said, I don't want to put them all in the same kind of a category and then say we're all against Russians. Ukraine is against Putin and his government, so I think people will be struggling and they already are.”
The conversation then turned to the extreme value drop of the Russian ruble, as the move to invade just shows that a leader can really bring stern consequences on the people. Because of this, Kutska would like to see the sanction targets aimed a little higher.
“What do I think about it? I think it's not enough,” she said, “I think they should really, and by they I mean European Union, NATO, any other sort of possible organization, should just really aim at him, and at the government, rather than people themselves. I highly doubt they deserve to be punished the way they do. At the end of the day it's going to be them struggling to come back on their feet more than their leader, so I think they should really aim at, you know, fighting him more than it hurting the people of Russia.”
Volodymyr Zelenskyy is the current Ukrainian President, and has earned tons of supporters across the world with his courageousness, and memorable quotes since the invasion officially began. He has become an international celebrity of sorts, yet rejects any notion of the fact. Zelenskyy wants to be there for his people, a huge difference from past leaders according to Kutska.
“For my entire life, I think he's the first president that actually hasn't fled the stage when things hit the fan, if you know what I mean. The last handful of presidents, they just left at the very first opportunity they got. This guy, he's really in for the people, and when I went there to visit this summer I thought the country had never been this united. He's had a lot of support. Honestly ever since he got into power, but especially right now.”
Zelenskyy’s recent presence on social media has been a very calming factor for many Ukrainians. Kutska is happy to see the leader addressing his people as much as possible.
“He was keeping everyone informed, which is probably one of the best things they could have done given that panic was just spreading so fast.”
Many Ukrainians love their president now, but also did back in the day, as the 44-year-old Zelenskyy was once a television star. His words earned peoples respect on the big screen, but now his actions on the big stage are earning the former star an even bigger level of fame than he could have ever imagined.
“He's, literally, in the middle of Kiyv where I think his office is downtown and I think that's exactly where they aiming,” said Kutska of her president, “The fact that he hasn't fled to like some sort of huge villa outside of the city speaks a lot.”
The show of solidarity towards the Ukrainian people shows a strong sense of direction for the country’s future. Zelenskyy defeated the incumbent and took office in 2019, and has since turned into a great role model for many Ukrainians in the country and immigrated across the world.
Ukrainians are typically very invested in their culture. As mentioned above, Kutska was just back home to Ukraine this past summer, and got to experience it’s beauty before the abrupt beginning of a war into 2022. Kutska and her family are Canadian citizens, but certainly returned home over the summer with some deep roots after only being in Canada for such a relatively short period of time. While proud to be a Canadian, with the current state of her homeland, Iryna Kutska has no problem defining herself as a Ukrainian living abroad.
“As a Ukrainian living abroad, it is so good to see other people, other Ukrainians, you know just getting out in the streets and protesting and staying strong. It’s not only Canada that has a ton of Ukrainians here, it’s pretty much every other country possible on Earth.”
Iryna’s best friends, all the way to acquaintances have voiced their support for her since the initial advance was made into Ukraine last week. She will continue to accept the support that comes her way, while also staying in contact with her family back home.
SaskTel made news with their announcement to waive long distances charges for calls in and out of Ukraine, a very beneficial move for members of Kutska’s family. Social media is what has been the best tool for Iryna as a young adult, but some of the other members of her family certainly appreciate the gesture a little more.
“I use apps like Skype and Instagram and stuff like that to connect with family. I don't really phone them like as a regular kind of phone call,” she chuckled in Gen Z, “I'm also, what, 23? My grandma really used that opportunity of a free of charge phone call, but yeah, I think it really comes with a generation and age; because grandma does not know what Instagram is.”
Kutska shared her thoughts on the consequences being endured by the people of Russia, but she believes it pales in comparison to the bloodshed seen over the years in her homeland. Current sanctions have clearly not been enough to deter the Russian military from advancing further, and frankly nothing has been done looking at the humanitarian angle as children, women, and men around the country continue to live in danger. Many athletes and other figures have come out with a basic message saying no to war, even though their ultimate silence results in a message of standby and solitude behind Putin.
“I don't see a lot of activists that will be pro-Ukrainian.”
West Central Online attempted to get more of Kutska’s family involved in the story, but busy times at work along with Iryna mentioning her mother’s steady stream of local Ukrainian news made the meet-up tough. According to Kutska, her parents have no doubt been the most affected by this, after being entrenched in Ukraine for so long prior to making the tough decision to leave.
“They do have a lot of friends there, and my dad’s mom is still there,” relayed Kutska, “Most of my family is here actually, but some of our kind of distant relatives are still there and it's really affecting them.”
Her parents spent most of their lives in Ukraine. Outside of thinking about family, there are ex co-workers, friends, and classmates; along with other people they may know that all are in the middle of a terror situation. As mentioned back at the beginning, Iryna’s 83 year old grandma has been tucked away for some time now with limited supplies, along with so many other war-affected Ukrainians.
“I guess to kind of conclude they're just really worried and they hope things will get better, but right now they're really on it, just always watching news, always watching TV. I don't think my mom has done a single thing at home yet since it's all started. She's just been stuck, reading news, and watching to kind of keep up with it all.”
It would have been great to get the parents involved, but Iryna admits they may have just burst out into tears while talking on the situation back home.
Kutska should take pride in speaking up to tell her family’s story while the world seems to be watching, all while experiencing the same feelings of despair as her Ukrainian compatriots. The country is doing its best to maintain the longstanding Ukrainian heritage that has found itself all across the world, and should for many more years to come.