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A government ad campaign in the early 1900s that aimed to lure skilled farmers to the West brought thousands of Ukrainians to Canada. Now, their descendants are feeling the impacts of Russia’s invasion – both emotionally and economically

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Ernie Sirski walks with his dogs at his farm west of Dauphin, Manitoba. Sirski is part of a group of volunteers that have created the Parkland Ukrainian Family 'Trust Fund' to help Ukrainian families relocate to the Dauphin area.Tim Smith/The Globe and Mail

Dotted along the sweeping landscapes of the Canadian Prairies, nestled amidst the yellow wheat fields and rusted grain elevators, are the telltale signs of the region’s connections with Ukraine.

In Canora, Sask., Lesia, a statue of a girl in Ukrainian traditional dress, welcomes visitors to the town with bread and salt. The village of Glendon, Alta., hosts an annual pyrogy festival.

In Vegreville, Alta., there’s the giant pysanka – a rotating Ukrainian Easter egg. In recent weeks, there have also been signs of a community in grief: at the pysanka, there’s a bouquet of sunflowers, the national flower of Ukraine.

Demographics tell part of the story. About 11 per cent of the population of the Prairie provinces is ethnically Ukrainian. The region’s history is also intertwined with stories of Ukrainian settlement.

So, across the Prairies, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been deeply felt – especially within farming communities. Farmers, many of them Ukrainian-Canadian, have in recent weeks hosted rallies, raised money and attempted to secure the safety of family and friends back home.

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Mr. Sirski is a second-generation Ukrainian-Canadian farmer. His parents settled in the Prairies in the late 1920s.Tim Smith/The Globe and Mail

“I go to bed almost every night and think, ‘Thank God my parents came to this country,’” said Ernie Sirski, a second-generation Ukrainian-Canadian farmer. His parents moved from the Lviv region in western Ukraine to the Prairies in the late 1920s.

Over the past few weeks, Mr. Sirski and his family have been doing what they can to help from their farm in Manitoba. Last week, his wife helped organized a rally in the small city of Dauphin that drew hundreds of people, who huddled next to snowbanks, draped in blue and yellow – the colours of Ukraine’s flag. And Mr. Sirski stepped up to the mic to sing the Ukrainian national anthem.

His phone keeps ringing with offers of help. The local farm-equipment dealer, Reit-Syd Equipment, offered to donate $25,000. Mr. Sirski’s landlord offered a house in case he knew of someone who needed a place to live in Canada.

“He phoned up and said, ‘I have a five-bedroom house, it’s yours. Take it.’”

Mr. Sirski has also been in regular contact with relatives in Ukraine. “Their response is, ‘No, we don’t want to go there. Send us helmets and bulletproof vests and boots, and we’ll stay and fight.’” He paused. “I can’t imagine.”

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Above, Mr. Sirski, left, and Don Tarrant are part of a group of volunteers that created the Parkland Ukrainian Family 'Trust Fund,' which was initiated through Reit-Syd Equipment and is being administered by The Ukrainian Folk Arts Centre and Museum Inc. Below, Mr. Sirski and his fellow farmers attend the annual Farm Outlook conference put on by the Dauphin Agricultural Society.Tim Smith/The Globe and Mail

Still, Mr. Sirski had to step back from such efforts over the past few days, partly because he’s busy with his farm.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had a complicated series of economic effects across the Prairies. Even farmers without personal ties to Ukraine have felt the impact. The war has sent the prices of many of their main inputs skyrocketing.

Globally, the conflict has also left countries stumbling to fill the void left by the agricultural powerhouses of Ukraine and Russia, and has raised concerns about the potential for widespread food shortages.

At the same time, Canada competes with the region on a range of agricultural products, meaning the conflict has opened up potential opportunities here, too.

For farmers such as Mr. Sirski, that’s an uncomfortable reality.

“I struggle with this in the sense that we’re getting an advantage here in the western hemisphere,” said Mr. Sirski. “I struggle with this.”

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The connection between the Prairies and Ukraine has continued to deepen in recent years, with many farmers turning to the country when hiring workers.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

They were called the “sons of the soil.”

At the turn of the 20th century, the Canadian government sent ads to Europe – hand-painted posters of sprawling wheat fields set against brilliant blue skies. It was an attempt to lure skilled farmers to help settle the West. Part of the promise was land: One-hundred and sixty acres to each farmer.

Ukraine was targeted as part of that campaign. From the 1890s to 1914, an estimated 170,000 Ukrainians answered the call. Sons of the Soil, a 1959 book by Ukrainian-Canadian writer Illia Kiriak, describes the lives of those early immigrants.

“They’ve always been stewards of the land,” said Gerald Luciuk, a third-generation Ukrainian-Canadian whose grandparents set up a farm in Saskatchewan. “They were very well suited to opening up Prairie agriculture … and turning them into very productive agricultural enterprises.”

The availability of land was just one part of Canada’s appeal. So, too, was its soil. Mr. Luciuk, a soil scientist who had a long career at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, said the land, climate and soil quality on the Prairies provided familiar conditions for Ukrainian settlers.

Canada lacks the “black earth” soil of Ukraine, which exported US$22-billion worth of agricultural products in 2020. Still, the Prairie soil was “very, very productive,” said Mr. Luciuk – enough so that farmers were able to help develop the region into the major grain and oilseed exporter it is today.

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Ken Krawetz, a former deputy premier of Saskatchewan, is the grandson of John and Mary Krawetz, farmers who came from the Bukovina region of Ukraine in the early 1900s.The Canadian Press

Among the early farmers were John and Mary Krawetz, who came from the Bukovina region of Ukraine in the early 1900s.

“It was the prospects of a new life, a life of freedom,” said their grandson, Ken Krawetz, a former deputy premier of Saskatchewan. Mr. Krawetz’s baba and gedo set up their farm near the town of Invermay, Sask.

With 13 per cent of the province’s population comprised of Ukrainian-Canadians, Mr. Krawetz grew up on the farm surrounded by other Ukrainian-Canadian families. They attended a Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The local school scheduled its calendar around Ukrainian holidays.

In recent years, the connection between the Prairies and Ukraine has continued to deepen. Many farmers still turn to the country when hiring workers. And governments and universities in Canada have organized exchanges to collaborate in agricultural research.

Mr. Krawetz has participated in some of these exchanges. While serving as an MLA in 2015, he was put in charge of Saskatchewan-Ukraine relations. That such a role exists is a testament to the relationship. It also points back to why many Ukrainian-Canadians feel so deeply about the war.

“It’s shocking,” he said. “It’s just shocking. There’s a lot of disbelief right now.”

At Jake Leguee’s 14,500-acre farm in southeast Saskatchewan, his family used to refer to them as “black swans.” Such adverse events – drought, flooding or pests – can wipe out a crop and cause temporary destruction. But the family would recover and move on.

In recent years, however, he’s dropped the reference. It no longer makes sense, Mr. Leguee said. “We’re having so many of them.”

Before the Ukraine invasion, there was the COVID-19 pandemic, which wreaked havoc on supply chains farmers depend on. Last year, the Prairies saw severe droughts.

The prices of farmers’ main inputs, oil and fertilizer, have also been steadily increasing. From January of last year to this January, the cost of fertilizer roughly doubled. And the price of diesel fuel in Saskatchewan climbed steeply, from about $1 a litre to $1.41.

“Now here we are,” said Mr. Leguee, referring to the conflict in Ukraine, “probably the biggest one of them all.”

Sanctions on Russia and Belarus (both major suppliers of potash) have again sent fertilizer prices skyrocketing. Mr. Leguee, who grows canola and wheat, estimates his fertilizer bill for 2022 will be at least 2.5 times what it was last year.

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A heart made of plastic cups in the colours of the Ukrainian flag is visible on the fence outside a school in Dauphin, a sign of support from the local community.Tim Smith/The Globe and Mail

Meanwhile, Saskatoon-based Nutrien Ltd., the world’s largest fertilizer producer, has seen its share price soar. In a statement, Nutrien spokeswoman Megan Fielding said the company hopes to see a quick end to the conflict and that it has plans to increase production over the next year.

“We cannot predict the specific impact that the conflict will have on our business but we are aware that it may mean diminished volumes of potash, nitrogen and phosphates for the global market, at least in the short term,” Ms. Fielding said.

Oil prices have also skyrocketed. This week, those prices pushed gasoline above $1.80 a litre, up 20 cents from just a week earlier.

“And of course we require a lot of it,” said Mr. Leguee. “So can we get everything that we need?”

The flip side is that wheat prices have also taken off. Ukraine and Russia, combined, produce about 30 per cent of the world’s wheat supply. The conflict has also threatened global supplies of corn, vegetable oil and other grains.

For the regions that rely most on Ukraine and Russia – Asia and the Middle East – this could mean widespread food shortages. Globally, already record-high food prices are likely to climb even further.

This week, U.S. wheat futures rose to a 14-year high, with a bushel of wheat hitting US$12.94, an increase of 50 per cent since Russia invaded Ukraine.

For Prairie farmers, this potentially offsets some of their higher costs – at least for those who still have grain left to sell after last year’s droughts. Some are even looking at possible profits.

It’s a fact that Mr. Leguee – who is not of Ukrainian descent – says is not lost on farmers around him.

“One of the things that’s always a little bit challenging in an emotional way as a farmer, is that we tend to often be benefited in terms of our grain prices from problems in other areas,” he said.

He’s in an online chat group of farmers around the world. One of them, who’s still in Ukraine, has been sending messages in recent days about what he’s facing.

“We’re sort of struggling watching this, thinking about what that would be like as a farmer in Ukraine, having to walk away from an operation you’ve built up for potentially generations,” he said. “It’s on everybody’s minds, that’s for sure.”

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Over the past few weeks, Mr. Sirski and his family have been doing what they can to help, including organizing a rally in the small city of Dauphin that drew hundreds of people.Tim Smith/The Globe and Mail

It’s definitely on the mind of Mr. Sirski, the farmer in Manitoba.

“We’re seeing values of some of the products that literally I’ve never seen in my lifetime,” said Mr. Sirski. He’s been farming since 1974.

“If I leave my emotions aside and look at it strictly from a business standpoint, this is a huge opportunity,” he said. Then he paused. “But from the emotional side, it’s because of the hardship that 44 million people are going through that’s causing this.”

At the Dauphin rally last week, where Mr. Sirski sang the Ukrainian national anthem, he did so standing next to a bronze statue of a Ukrainian pioneer woman.

The name of the statue, which shows the woman with a loaf of bread at an oven, was fitting for the occasion. It’s called Perseverance.

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