Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs Melanie Joly and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba attend their news conference in Kyiv, Ukraine

‘We have the means to support them’: Canada prepares to welcome thousands of Ukrainian refugees

At a rally in Toronto to protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many Ukrainian Canadians said they are keeping close track of their relatives back home.

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Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs Melanie Joly and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba attend their news conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, Jan. 18, 2022.

Ukrainian Foreign Ministry Press Office via AP/File photo

Ukrainian Canadians are gearing up for a sizable group of newcomers after Canada’s government said it would prioritize applications from Ukrainians who want to come to the country.

Canada has the third-largest Ukrainian population in the world after Ukraine and Russia. And Ukrainian Canadians say they can easily support tens of thousands of newcomers. 

At a rally in Toronto to protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many Ukrainian Canadians said they are keeping close track of their relatives back home.

Related: For many Syrians, Russia's invasion of Ukraine feels painfully familiar

Vlad Kyrychenko arrived in Canada from western Ukraine with his wife and their infant daughter 20 years ago, hoping for more economic opportunities. Most of their family still lives near Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, and he said that he and his wife are on the phone with them every day.

"My grandma, who is 98 years old, she’s in complete shock and disbelief at what is going on."

Vlad Kyrychenko, Ukrainian who's lived in Canada for 20 years

"My grandma, who is 98 years old, she’s in complete shock and disbelief at what is going on," Kyrychenko, a financial analyst in Toronto, said. “She lived through the Second World War and now, at this age, she’s in the middle of [a] war again.”

Wally Dmytruszko, a retired steelworker who came to Canada from western Ukraine as a child, also has family there. He said that he was outraged by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assault.

Related: Poland prepares to accept thousands of refugees from Ukraine

“He’s massacring our people for no reason. And that’s why we’re here, to tell the world that we do care about our people.”

Dmytruszko’s cousins and uncles live near the cities of Odessa and Lviv, but he said that he can’t contact them.

There’s been peace for 30 years, and now we’re hurting because our people are dying..."

Wally Dmytruszko, retired steelworker who came to Canada from western Ukraine

“It’s a tough, tough situation. There’s been peace for 30 years, and now, we’re hurting because our people are dying. So, it bothers me,” he said.

Ukrainians have played an important role in Canada’s development since the late 19th century. The government gave out free land on the Canadian Prairies — a region in western Canada — as a way to settle the area. Nearly 170,000 Ukrainian peasants took up the offer.

Jars Balan, a Ukrainian Canadian historian who specializes in the history of this development, said that for many it was a dream come true.

Back then, 160 acres "for a peasant from western Ukraine was a huge amount of land, and they could just, you know, fantasize about how rich they were going to be with that kind of a grubstake,” he said.

There have been four waves of Ukrainian immigration since. The most recent group has arrived since the time Ukraine gained independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. Now, 1.4 million Canadians claim Ukrainian heritage.

Balan said that most of the latest arrivals are well-educated and integrated into Canadian society, but remain fiercely proud of their heritage.

“Very quickly, many of them start to think about, OK, we want our kids to learn Ukrainian. We want our kids to feel Ukrainian. So, what can we do? What kind of activities? And so, you can have Ukrainian soccer clubs. Ukrainian dancing is absolutely huge,” he added.

The size of the community also gives Ukrainians a lot of political influence. They’re in all the major political parties. The Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is of Ukrainian heritage.

Related: Ukrainians abroad return to defend their homeland

Andy Semotiuk, an immigration lawyer and former president of the Canada Ukraine Foundation, said he’s depending on his community’s relationship with the government to help find a way to bring Ukrainian refugees to Canada.

“It’s especially urgent, especially because it's a looming crisis, both humanitarian as well as financial and social,” he said.

Semotiuk has been leading talks with the Canadian government on setting up a special program for Ukrainians fleeing the war. He said that currently, there is no program available for Ukrainians who want to claim refugee status. Ukrainians must have a visa to enter Canada, but visas are not being issued because the Canadian Embassy in Ukraine is closed.

Semotiuk estimates that 200,000 to 300,000 Ukrainins could resettle in Canada over the next five years.

Related: The invasion in Ukraine could mean less reliance on energy from Russia, analyst says

Immigration consultant Iryna Matsuik said that the Ukrainian community can accommodate most of them.

“Considering there are 1.4 million of us, I think that, as a community, we have the means to support [the arrival of Ukrainians].”

Iryna Matsuik, immigration consultant

“Considering there are 1.4 million of us, I think that, as a community, we have the means to support [them],” said Matsuik, who is based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Matsuik has been working with other volunteers across Canada to raise money and help find jobs and accommodation for the Ukrainians who may be arriving soon.

She said they will also need financial support from the Canadian government. So far, the government has said that Ukrainians already in Canada on temporary visas can stay. But any other changes remain a work in progress.

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