The freedom to live, and to continue to live.
That was the resounding message on Friday night, as more than a thousand Calgarians, many of them members of the Ukrainian community, gathered to memorialize a year of war in that nation.
The Russian Federation illegally began a war against Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022 following months of denials by Russia’s leaders that was their intention.
Friday’s event was a somber reminder of the heavy toll taken. There have been massive Ukrainian casualties as Russian forces continue to target civilians with artillery, missile strikes, and murder by group troops in what Ukrainians—many of them now living in Calgary—have called a genocide against their people.
Canada has accepted 167,585 Ukrainian refugees so far, and has issued a total of 559,868 temporary resident approvals.
“Being away from your country, from your home, from your loved ones is very hard and sitting and doing your everyday chores, sometimes it becomes painful,” said Gulnar Najafova, one of the memorial event organizers.
“At least when we get understanding from people, when people stand with us, it encourages us to go further, to not to give up. And because we understand, we value and we keep those values which are important for the whole of humanity.”
Najafova said that it was the ignorance and apathy that exists in Russia that has played a part in continuing the war.
“That’s one of the reasons why we have this war because people are not interested. People stay that way away from politics, but it doesn’t work like that,” Najafova said.
“When we say that we live in a democratic society, it means that we have a voice and we need to unite, and we need to be aware of what is going on. And to say that I’m not in politics, I’m not in there, don’t touch me, it doesn’t work this way.”
Co-organizer Stephania Romaniuk added that apathy is a dangerous contagion.
“If we sit back and do nothing, what’s to stop the next Putin? What’s to stop the next would be dictator from just taking by force what they want,” she said.
“As the united international community, when we stand up and say this cannot stand, we signal to everyone that the future ought to be better.”
Voices strengthened, not diminished by war
Keynote speaker Bohdan Romaniuk said that the war had done more to unite Ukrainians than any other event. He damned Putin with faint praise.
“Putin has done more to unite Ukrainians; more to strengthen national self awareness; more to define the profound differences in the national character, culture, spirit values of Ukrainians, relative to their Russian neighbours; more to foster the rapid growth and use of the Ukrainian language in all aspects of life, especially among all Ukrainians whose first language was Russia; and more to spurred genuine interest in Ukrainian history in the leading universities of the world,” Romaniuk said.
“The world is only just now beginning to appreciate how different Ukraine is from Russia.”
Romaniuk outlined a number of reasons why he believed that the Russian forces have already lost the war. He praised the fighting forces of Ukraine drawing applause from the crowd at City Hall.
“Ukrainians know precisely what is at stake for themselves for their families, for their communities, and their country,” he said.
The participation of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress—which was formed in 1940 during WW2 to support Ukrainians fleeing to Canada from that war—and the Ukrainians of Calgary Association which was formed two days after the current war began, were also outlined.
Organizers for both groups highlighted the work that was being done to provide continued aid and support to Ukrainians coming to Canada, and also to those who remain in their home nation.
In a year-less-two-days, the Ukrainians of Calgary Association was able to raise more than $300,000 to help people, mainly in hospitals, in Ukraine.
The evening’s events concluded with performances by evacuees from Ukraine, including singer Alina Gonchar who has been holding concerts to raise money for humanitarian aid.
Government support continues for Ukraine
Members of all orders of government, including Mayor Jyoti Gondek, Alberta’s Minister of Justice Tyler Shandro, and Calgary Shepherd MP Tom Kmiec spoke at the event about the unwavering support that Canada is providing to Ukraine.
“I know we will have support of all the parties to continue supporting Ukraine in the face of Russian Federation aggression, and Putin’s unprovoked war on the Ukrainian people,” said Kmiec.
Mayor Gondek also provided strong words of support for Calgary’s Ukrainian community, calling the war immoral and unjustifiable.
“Three-hundred sixty-five days ago, Putin and his tyrants launched an illegal and immoral war on Ukraine. Three-hundred sixty-five days that should remind us that our fight for a civil society, for global justice in broad-based democracy, that fight is not over,” the mayor said.
“I stand with you in solidarity today, along with my colleagues from Council.”
Mayor Gondek also listed off other Calgary organizations that are continuing to stand in solidary, including the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, Calgary Economic Development, and the Calgary Stampede. The Stampede was represented by CEO Joel Cowley for the evening’s event.
“Their leaders, many of whom are here today, have clearly stated that this war is a threat on democracy. And it jeopardizes things like energy security and things like food security on a global level,” Mayor Gondek said.
“We stand with all organizations in our city and our region that have stepped up to help those who are escaping violence. We will also be with Ukraine when the time comes for recovery, and we will stand with you, we will build Ukraine back together.”
Minister Shandro took the occasion to thank former Premier Jason Kenney for his work in Ukraine during Kenney’s time in federal office as the Minister of Defence.
“It was under him that the Canadian Armed Forces were sent to Ukraine under Operation Unifier.”
That operation, which began in 2015, sought to modernize the Ukrainian armed forces through training by the Canadian Armed Forces. It was also under this operation, which has been ongoing for almost a decade, that training is being provided to Ukrainian soldiers for use of the four Leopard 2A4 tanks provided to that nation by Canada for use in the war.
“The work that was done there was commemorated when Poroshenko would come to visit Edmonton. And in Edmonton, Poroshenko said that Jason was actually the godfather of the modern Ukrainian army,” Minister Shandro said.
Both former Premier Kenney and Mayor Gondek were the targets of Russian retaliatory sanctions in 2022, as are prevented from entering the Russian Federation. Speaking to the media last year, neither were concerned by Russia’s sections or expressed any interest in visiting Russia.