Navigating friendship and animosity: Exploring the dynamic between Canada's Ukrainian and Russian Communities - New Canadian Media
Left, Oleg Gritsev. Right, Anton Burinkov and Alisa Zavialova. (Submitted photo).

Navigating friendship and animosity: Exploring the dynamic between Canada’s Ukrainian and Russian Communities

A newcomer’s experiences help her shed light on the intricate relationship between Ukrainian and Russian communities in Canada, with stories of solidarity, division, and hopes for the future.

As a Kazakh immigrant who has just arrived in Toronto, I couldn’t help but notice people conversing in Russian and Ukrainian, sometimes transitioning from one to another with ease. Russian is Kazakhstan’s second official language. 

Even more so, Russian is a mother-tongue for many Kazakhs who grew up in regions along the Russian border. 

I come from the deep south, far from Russia. However, due to my mother’s influence, who had been a raging russophile until February of 2022, I learned to speak Russian fluently. 

A lot has changed in Kazakhs’ minds since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but that is another story. The more I overheard Russian and Ukrainian conversations in grocery stores and parks, the more I became invested in them, eavesdropping as if I were a spy during the Cold War. 

But mostly, it was sheer curiosity that led me to question the dynamic between Ukrainians and Russians. Do these two separate but closely knit ethnic groups find common ground in their new home of Canada? Or do they  carry their traumas into their new life in a new country, finding it hard to reconcile with each other?

To understand this, I interviewed immigrants who arrived in Canada years before the invasion, and primarily, Ukrainians who have  recently arrived. 

In response to the war in Ukraine, the Canadian government set up a special program, the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for emergency travel (CUAET), aimed at helping Ukrainian nationals and their family members to seek refuge and safety in Canada. 

As of Oct. 14, 2023, more than 198,000 Ukrainians had arrived in Canada under this program, which grants them a temporary resident status for three years with the option to apply for an open work permit. 

Darya, whose name was changed for this story on her request, is one of the program’s beneficiaries.She reveals fresh and vivid memories of the war that resonate with a deep-seated anger directed against Russia and its people.

Prior to coming to Canada, she and her family lived in the outskirts of Kyiv, right across the river from the towns of Irpin and Bucha. She heard the bombardments and killings in the early months of the war. She refused to comment on what she thinks of Russians in Canada, but the reason behind her insistence not to mention her real name in the article spoke volumes to me. Darya fears that even in a safe country like Canada, “mad” Russians can harm her family.

Another Ukrainian woman, who also requested anonymity for the same reason as Darya, arrived in Toronto a year ago with her husband and three children.

Anna” said that she does not seek to connect with either Ukrainians or Russians in Canada, instead prioritising a full integration into a new country. However, she did give insights into the discussions within the Ukrainian community. Seeing a Russian flag adorning cars on the streets of Canadian cities can upset some Ukrainians, based on her observations in the social media groups of Canadian Ukrainians. Anna continued to talk about a scandal involving the Russian flag in April of this year, when Cirque du Soleil put up its tents on the site of the former Mr. Christie’s Factory in Etobicoke, a neighbourhood with a high concentration of Ukrainian diaspora.

Outraged by the display of the Russian flag at the entrance of the show, local Ukrainians took to the streets to protest Cirque du Soleil. Anna, beaming with satisfaction, said, “Eventually, the flag was removed.”

Alisa Zavialova and her husband, Anton Burinkov, are naturalised citizens of Canada. They originally come from Mykolaiv, a Ukrainian town which sits between Kherson and Odessa. The latter two cities have been under attack by Russian soldiers. 

Back in the fall of 2012, Zavialova recalls her visit to the Embassy of Russia in Ottawa as part of her internship at the Canadian Parliament. “It was before the events of 2013. There was no big tension; we didn’t feel super comfortable, but we didn’t feel uncomfortable either. Nine years later, I stood in front of the same embassy in Ottawa protesting against the Russian invasion. In retrospect, it felt ridiculous knowing my time inside the embassy in 2012.” Zavialova went on to say:  “The world before 2022, and the world after it are two different worlds. We can’t go back. What we felt about Russia and Russians before, and what we feel about them now are completely different.”

When Zavialova managed a language instruction program for newcomers, she experienced uneasiness when dealing with a Russian woman who studied alongside Ukrainian refugees. “The Russian lady has been living in Canada for a while. I don’t know her beliefs and views. As a program manager, it would be inappropriate of me to pull her from the class and ask her ‘do you support Putin or not, because if you do, I am going to expel you from the program.’ I have no right to do that. Do I feel uncomfortable seeing them (Russians) next to Ukrainian refugees and knowing that at some point they could have prevented Putin? Yes, I do. Can I openly state it in the workplace environment? No, I can’t,” Zavialova concluded.

Burinkov shares a similar sentiment to that of his wife when it comes to his views of Russia and Russians.

If Burinkov were to have a Russian coworker, he would act professionally with him or her, but outside the workplace he wouldn’t seek a friendly relationship. I asked, “Do you state that there are no friendly relations between Russians and Ukrainians for the time being?” Burinkov replied: “There is no reconciliation between Russia and Ukraine, probably for a generation or two. It is simply impossible. There is no easy forgiveness for what they have done to our country, to our people and children. It will not happen while the living memory exists in the people who lived through it. Fifty years might pass and then some sort of reconciliation will be possible but only after Russia shows any kind of remorse, trying to repay for what they have done.”

Oleg Gritsev, who is half Ukrainian and half Russian, gave a different view of his relationship with Ukrainians and Russians in Canada. He arrived in Canada 15 years ago and became a naturalised Canadian citizen. Born and raised in Ukraine, while also being influenced by his paternal Russian heritage, Oleg knows the intricacies of both worlds.

As a proud Canadian business owner, he told me his clientele includes the government, the police, lawyers and insurance companies. Due to the nature of his business, he interacts with people of varying backgrounds, including Russians.  “I cannot stop dealing with Russian partners both from Canada and Russia,” Gritsev said. “I cannot stop purchasing Russian equipment for my business because of the war (in Ukraine). I also have numerous business partners from Ukraine, and we have good relations despite the ongoing conflict.” To Gritsev, politics aside, business is business.

When it comes to the recent newcomers from Ukraine and Russia, Gritsev takes issue with some of them, saying that Ukrainians were given many privileges, including $3,000 for each new adult Ukrainian under the CUAET program.  He alleges that the Ukrainians who have recently arrived in Canada rely heavily on government support, and in some cases, they express dissatisfaction when such help is not provided. He says he tried to help his fellow Ukrainians in online forums but was quickly discouraged when they inquired about basic information, with some individuals requesting financial support for their journey to Canada. However, Gritsev is positive when asked whether Ukrainians and Russians would ever be able to have friendly relations again. He made an unusual assumption that Ukraine and Russia could even unite against a bigger threat, pointing to rising tensions in the Middle East.

While the war in Ukraine continues, the present relations between Ukrainian and Russian immigrants in Canada are doomed to remain gloomy. We do not know what the future will hold for these two different yet closely intertwined ethnic groups. But we can all hope that whatever happens with the war, both Ukrainians and Russians will feel safe and at home in Canada.

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Makhabbat Aitekenova, a journalist from Kazakhstan, is a graduate of Nazarbayev University, the country's top institution known for its English-language instruction. With over five years of experience in broadcast journalism and digital media, Makhabbat is skilled in writing for television, radio and newspapers. She recently arrived in Canada in September 2023, with plans to further her career in journalism, focusing on local and immigrant stories. In her spare time, Makhabbat enjoys reading books about Canada, with her latest literary delight being 'The Colony of Unrequited Dreams' by Wayne Johnston. You are welcome to follow her on LinkedIn and X.

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