On March 8 the world marks International Women’s Day, when we pay tribute to the achievements of women around the world. For Ukrainian Canadian women – it is a day to pay tribute to our sisters in Ukraine.
Russia is perpetrating a genocide against the Ukrainian people who are bravely defending their country from Russia’s war of annihilation. In every aspect of the Ukrainian nation’s defiance to Russian tyranny, Ukrainian women fight on the frontlines.
The heroism of Ukrainian women was recognized at the Halifax Security Forum in November 2022 when the John McCain Award for Leadership in Public Service was presented to First Lady Olena Zelenska on behalf of all of the Women of Ukraine.
One of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize Winners was a Ukrainian activist – the head of the Center for Civil Liberties, Oleksandra Matviychuk.
Today, over 50,000 women serve in Ukraine’s Armed Forces, many of them in combat and supporting roles on the front lines of the war.
I had the honour of meeting one of these soldiers at the Halifax Security Forum. I will call her Yulia, a 21 year old private from Bakhmut, where one of the fiercest battles of this war rages, and where the barbaric Wagner Forces have been deployed with particular savagery. Yulia travelled for three days to get to Halifax – first by car from the front lines to Kyiv, then a 10 hour train ride to Poland, followed by an overseas flight to Canada. She found it difficult to adjust to the normalcy of a Canadian city, a hotel with hot water and electricity, food, and most importantly safety.
These are things that most Ukrainians don’t have today because Putin is trying to destroy Ukrainian morale by destroying the infrastructure that sustains the civilian population. Putin’s attempts to cow the Ukrainian nation have failed miserably.
Before the invasion started, I had invited my cousins to come to Canada. They refused, saying they will fight to the end. If they die, they will do so in their own beds. They assure me that they are coping with limited access to power and water because they grew up in the Soviet Union. There was no regular electricity or water then. And there is none now. So they fill their bathtubs with water and go on with their daily lives.
Just as Canadian women did during WWII, Ukrainian women have become the backbone of the country.
They operate wide-scale logistics efforts to supply volunteers and troops on the front lines, they make camouflage netting, they transport cars from all over Europe for use by Ukraine’s military, they cook for the military and for the millions of internally displaced people, and they raise money to support soldiers.
Women also take on the burden of caregiving for their children and the elderly. Many of them have been forced to leave the country because their homes have been bombed and destroyed – and – because their children are traumatized.
Not surprisingly women have proven to be good soldiers, able to master and use different weapons, and to carry out various military tasks. Women are particularly good snipers.
In June of 2022 I travelled to Ukraine. I visited Bucha – a place that has become synonymous with the war crimes committed in Ukraine.
There I met a school teacher who had recently come out of retirement. She told me that so many children had been traumatized by what they witnessed – bombing, executions, the death of their classmates, family, friends and neighbours, and some had been subjected to,or witnessed sexual violence.
There aren’t enough resources in Ukraine to care for their fragile mental health. So she – a retiree – was compelled to return to the classroom – to nurture and heal those who are so badly scarred by this war.
Tragically, sexual violence is a hallmark of war and has been since time immemorial. Today it is considered a war crime. Sexual violence is used as a means of psychological warfare to intimidate and humiliate the civilian population. At the end of WWII, the Soviet army raped 200,000 German women. It happened in the former Yugoslavia. It has happened in many African countries. It is happening in Ukraine.
And women and girls are not the only victims. The Russian forces don’t discriminate – they inflict sexual violence on women, girls, boys and men. They rape women in front of their children and husbands. They rape young girls in front of their mothers and fathers. They torture Ukrainian male prisoners by attaching electrical current to their genitalia and defile them in unspeakable ways.
Ukraine’s Prosecutor General has registered more than 65,000 Russian war crimes since Moscow’s war began a year ago. And we haven’t even scratched the surface – because we haven’t had access to the occupied territories and places like Mariupol which have been completely destroyed. But we do know that with every territory liberated by Ukrainian forces, more and more crimes come to light.
Only when Putin is tried, will justice be done.
It is ironic that today – my two worlds – my two identities – as a Canadian and a Ukrainian – are converging because of the war. In some ways, my fellow Ukrainian Canadians and I feel like we have been preparing for this war most of our lives.
In 2018 when I was elected President of the UCC, I didn’t think then that I would have to become a war time leader of our community. But on February 24, 2022, when Russia launched a full scale invasion of Ukraine, I experienced a sense of déjà vu. It was WWII all over again.
In 2021 when US and UK intelligence reports were showing increasingly that Russia intended to expand the war it had begun against Ukraine in 2014 – we jumped into action just as previous generations of Ukrainian Canadians had prepared to welcome Ukrainian refugees after WWII.
We pressured the Canadian government about the provision of military aid to Ukraine – and about providing refuge to Ukrainians who would inevitably flee the war.
We understood that the worst predictions of the UN – that as many as 8 million people could be displaced by the war – could come true. So we began to mobilize for what was to become the greatest humanitarian crisis in Europe since WWII.
Together with our partners at the Canada Ukraine Foundation we formed the Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal which to date has raised over $55 million for humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and for settlement of Ukrainian displaced persons in Canada. We are grateful for the support of so many Canadians who have opened their hearts and their homes to Ukrainians.
In the first days of the war my phone did not stop ringing with offers of assistance. The support of so many Canadians makes our pain a little easier to bear.
A year later, Canadians still stand with Ukraine.
We cannot let down the Ukrainians who fight to protect the principles that we hold dear – freedom and sovereignty. Ukrainians know they can’t ask for Canadian sons and daughters to put boots on the ground. Ukrainians are prepared to do the fighting. Because they have no choice. They are in an existential battle for their very existence.
We know that if Russia stops fighting, there will be no war. If Ukraine stops fighting there will be no Ukraine.
We must give Ukrainians the weapons with which to fight, in sufficient quantity, and with sufficient speed – so they can win this fight. Because if we don’t, just as in WWII, Poland and the Baltics, and then the rest of Europe will be next. History cannot be allowed to repeat itself.
Together with our friends and allies we look forward to celebrating Ukrainian Victory Day in 2023. And on that day – we will thank Ukrainian women for the vital role they all played in securing that Victory.