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Ukranians refugees arrive on ferry at the border crossing 2022 in Isaccea, Romania on March 7.Andreea Campeanu/Getty Images

Canada is about to face a humanitarian challenge different from any in this country’s history.

Thousands of Ukrainian refugees, mostly women and children, could soon be seeking asylum. They won’t want to be here and they won’t want to stay and God willing they will soon return home.

But if the war in Ukraine goes badly, then they could be with us for a long time, perhaps forever.

The 1.4 million Canadians of Ukrainian descent – the largest Ukrainian diaspora outside Russia – are ready and willing to welcome this latest wave of newcomers. But they will need help from federal and provincial governments and from other Canadians. It’s on all of us to rise to the occasion.

Over the past two weeks, the United Nations estimates two million have fled Ukraine, half of them children, most of the rest women. The men have been ordered to stay behind. No one anticipated such an exodus.

“The thinking on this has changed dramatically in the last five days,” Alexandra Chyczij, president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, said in an interview. “Whatever we were anticipating before the war started is now completely irrelevant.”

Many of these sudden refugees will likely want to stay close to Ukraine, hoping to reunite with their husbands and fathers, though, “I don’t know that those who are coming across the border are in a position to articulate what they want to do or where they want to go,” Ms. Chyczij said.

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Saskatchewan aims to be destination of choice for Ukrainian refugees, province’s immigration minister says

As the refugee numbers swell, European governments will struggle to accommodate them all. Canada is uniquely equipped to step up, because of our long tradition of welcoming refugees, and because of the outsized role Ukrainians have played in this country’s development.

In the 1890s, the young Dominion government needed to find settlers to fill the Prairies. “The government was concerned that if they didn’t settle the West, the Americans could cross the border and settle it for us,” explained Jars Balan, a former director at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at University of Alberta.

Then-interior minister Clifford Sifton hit on the notion of sending agents in Eastern Europe to recruit migrants. Hundreds of thousands of impoverished Eastern Europeans, many of them Ukrainian, answered the call.

As one former student of mine quipped: No Clifford Sifton; no Wayne Gretzky.

The new arrivals faced persecution from the older British and French stock. Most of the 8,500 “enemy aliens” who were interned during the First World War were Ukrainian.

Nevertheless, new waves of Ukrainian settlers came to our shores: seeking economic opportunity in the 1920s, fleeing Soviet armies after the Second World War, chasing freedom and opportunity after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In the 1960s and 1970s, while political elites debated how to reconcile the growing estrangement between the English and French in Canada, leaders of the country’s Ukrainian community argued forcefully that the dichotomy was false, that Canada possessed not just two but many cultures, each entitled to preserve its heritage within a united Canada.

“The second and third generation of Ukrainians and Poles and those from the Jewish community were active in creating multiculturalism, there’s no doubt about it,” said Roman Petryshyn, founder and first director of the Ukrainian Resource and Development Centre at MacEwan University in Edmonton. Ukrainians played a major role in enshrining multiculturalism within the national ethos.

Canada will no doubt benefit from this latest wave of Ukrainian new arrivals. But former prime minister Joe Clark, whose government in 1979 authorized the arrival of Indochinese refugees – the “boat people” – during a similar humanitarian crisis, warns that “the adoption of refugees is always problematic.”

The federal government will need to establish a support framework for the Ukrainians and prepare the public. “It’s going to have to be very carefully planned,” he cautioned.

The Liberal government has created application streams for Ukrainians seeking both temporary and permanent residence, while the Saskatchewan government has offered to take as many refugees as Ottawa lets in.

There should be no limits. Canada should welcome as many Ukrainians as want to come here, and let them stay for as long as it takes, until Ukraine is free once again.

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