REGINA — A somber crowd gathered at the legislative building in Regina on Friday evening, in a demonstration of support for Ukraine following the violent invasion by Russia earlier this week.
Some were carrying and proudly waving the official Ukrainian flag, while others had the blue and yellow wrapped around their soldiers or painted on their cheeks. Many carried signs declaring support for Ukraine and denouncing war, as the crowd chanted, prayed and sang as one.
It's not the first rally held in Saskatchewan to show solidarity with Ukraine and Ukrainian people, but organizers and attendees felt it was just as important as any other action performed across the world this week.
Orest Warnyca, president of the Regina branch of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, said the peaceful demonstration was a place for Saskatchewan Ukrainians to express support for Ukrainian independence.
“It's about the cause, for democratic freedom,” said Warnyca. “This is to show support, for Ukrainians to show support for what’s happening to them, to their families.”
Approximately 15 per cent of Saskatchewan’s population, or around 140,000 individuals, can trace their heritage back to Ukraine, according to Stats Canada.
Many of those individuals have loved ones still in Ukraine, said Warnyca, leaving them in an increasingly tense situation as they watch events unfold overseas.
Warnyca said there is definitely importance in holding public events such as this, to make visible to community members who are struggling that they aren’t alone and to connect them together.
“I think a lot of supporters here are not just Ukrainian,” said Warnyca, of the rally. “I think there are people here just for the cause, because of what’s happening.”
For rally organizer Anastasiia Sheichuk, who came to Regina in 2019 for her masters degree, the demonstration was both intensely personal and importantly political.
“We are standing for a free Ukraine,” said Sheichuk. “We are standing for the basic human rights and democratic rights for any country to choose what they want and for the people to live the life they want.”
Sheichuk shared that she has many friends and family in Ukraine, including some now waiting in bomb shelters in the capital city of Kyiv, who are terrified.
She said her parents went to sleep on Thursday night fully dressed and ready to evacuate from where they are staying, if bombing began.
“They’re suffering tremendously, waiting,” said Sheichuk. “The situation is very bad, everywhere, but everyone is so strong.”
Sheichuk said there is substantial fear and concern from many about what will come next. She compared Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions to those of Adolf Hitler and his invasion of Poland.
“We don’t know what can happen,” said Sheichuk. “People like this don’t stop [and] that’s why this is a danger to the whole world.”
For both Warnyca and Sheichuk, an important part of this kind of public noise-making is to wave a warning flag to other countries.
“This is not just an attack on Ukraine,” said Sheichuk. “This is an attack on the whole world.”
“If it happens in Ukraine, it could be happening in other parts of the world, [even] very soon,” echoed Warnyca.
The demonstration in Regina was meant to be a show of strength for Ukraine, said Sheichuk, but also a space to call on national and international actions to intervene in further violence.
Sheichuk called for immediate and vigorous sanctions against Russia and any politicians or oligarchs connected to the country, to “shake the system, crumble the economy.”
She also called for legal action from international bodies to condemn Putin’s actions as war crimes.
“The whole world needs to fight back and show solidarity, that there is no tolerance for such actions in this world,” said Sheichuk. “And we want everyone in Canada to know that this is important, to take action.”
Vitaly Jaroshevsky, a member of the Belarus community in Saskatchewan, said that he chose to attend the rally to stand against the use of his home country to impose “aggression and war.”
Russian military convoys reportedly crossed Ukraine’s northern border from Belarus, before travelling south to Kyiv.
“It is a real tragedy for all of us [and] we are here today to support our brothers and sisters in Ukraine, to support all Ukrainian people around the world,” said Jaroshevsky.
He echoed similar calls for sanctions against Russian imports, including the removal of Russian-made products from retail shelves in Canada.
In addition to retaliatory sanctions, Sheichuk said aid efforts are also much needed right now, including both humanitarian and military support.
Many signs on display at the rally called for action to “close the sky,” meaning the closure of Ukrainian airspace to aid military on the ground.
“The Ukrainian army is incredibly brave, but they need much more support in the air,” said Sheichuk.
Canada has already approved the fast-tracking of immigration protocols for refugees from Ukraine. Saskatchewan has said it will be prioritizing applications from Ukrainian applicants and that the province will welcome refugees.
The Ukrainian community in Regina also held candlelight vigils and prayer services this week, first at the Descent of the Holy Spirit Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Sobor on Thursday night and then at the St. Basil’s Ukrainian Catholic Church on Friday.