Grief, defiance, hope, apprehension – for those attending a Toronto rally honouring the victims of last week’s violence in Ukraine, the challenge seemed to be which emotion to express first.
With the flags of Ukraine, Canada and the European Union rippling in the chill wind, roughly 2,000 people gathered before the Ontario provincial legislature for a service of remembrance and to declare support for anti-government demonstrators in Kiev, where a bloody confrontation with police last Thursday left more than 80 dead.
Since then, the speed at which events have unfolded – including the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych, the release from prison of a long-time political rival and the setting of an election day in May by the Ukrainian parliament – has left many with strong ties to the country of 46 million reeling.
“It’s been a roller-coaster. It’s very emotional.” said event organizer Olya Grod of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress. “When you sit down and look at the videos [from Kiev] it’s horrifying.”
Rallies were held this weekend in seven Canadian cities, said Marc Shwec, who has been co-ordinating aid for the protest movement, known as Maidan, on behalf of the UCC in Toronto. Observances were also held in Ukrainian churches across the country.
More than 1.2 million Canadians claim Ukrainian heritage, the largest number outside the boundaries of the former Soviet Union.
Mr. Shwec told the crowd that he had been in touch with organizers in Kiev who said donations from Canada had gone to the purchase of 45 bullet-proof vests that had saved the lives of some of those on the front lines of the violence.
Many who attended expressed their hopes that Ukraine, racked by political upheaval and government corruption since it gained independence in 1991, may at last be turning a corner.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Krystina Waler, a 29-year-old aid worker who spent a total of six weeks with demonstrators at Independence Square between November and January. She said that during her time in Kiev, she met protesters from across the Ukraine who appeared united in their desire for a more democratic government. But she said that she now feared that interference from Moscow could split the country between a Europe-leaning west and a Russia-leaning east.
Holding back tears, Ms. Waler said that she had received word that a Ukrainian friend, Alexander Kapinos, was among those killed last week.
“He was on Maidan from the first days,” she said. “He was just rebuilding barricades – he was not a violent person – and he got a grenade in the head.”
Svetlana Cherechin, who immigrated to Canada four years ago, said that her two brothers had taken part in the Maidan protest and would continue to “stand till the end.” Speaking in Ukrainian, she expressed her belief that the historic events of the past week would lead to a positive outcome.
Others said that Canada has a role to play in helping Ukraine achieve stability. “Now is the time for Canada to support economic growth in the country,” said Roman Coba, who was born in Toronto and does business in Ukraine.
Mr. Shwec said the Canadian government could do four things right away to help Ukraine during its crucial transition period including: recognize the new government; help institute an international monitoring commission that would document crimes against humanity; provide support for an economic recovery program; and supply medical aid.
Several Toronto politicians spoke in support of Ukraine at the rally including federal MP Olivia Chow and Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak.
“This is not just about Ukraine,” said Dipika Damerla, Liberal MPP from Mississauga East – Cooksville. “This is about anybody, anywhere who's fighting for freedom."
Reflecting on events of the past week, Chrystia Freeland, the recently elected Liberal MP for Toronto Centre, told the crowd in Ukrainian, “I don’t know whether to cry or sing.”
[Ms. Freeland, an author and former journalist of Ukrainian-Canadian heritage, was a deputy editor of The Globe and Mail from 1999 to 2001.]