Were Canadians used as “pawns” in Ukraine uprising?

Canadian embassy in Kyiv let protesters fleeing from armed police take refuge in their halls. Now they've come under scrutiny for the "security breach"

There was a brief window before ISIS started sawing off heads on Youtube and ebola flared up in West Africa that the international media’s attention was on Kyiv back in February 2014, where the ongoing protests against the pro-Russian government suddenly erupted into violence. 

I was in Ukraine at the time, recording music for a film and writing about the extraordinary situation unfolding around me. I didn’t expect to find myself in the middle of a conflict that would leave hundreds dead, thousands injured, and a city in shambles as the country’s president fled to Russia.

Like many foreigners, I certainly wasn’t expecting to be dragging medical supplies out of burning buildings and rebuilding barricades amidst bodies covered in blood-soaked flags with men who would eventually go to war and a woman who would become my wife. We were all weakened by our desire to help our fellow man. Even workers at the Canadian embassy let protestors fleeing from armed police take refuge in their halls. Now they’ve come under scrutiny for the “security breach.”

A recent Canadian Press story by correspondent Murray Brewster, and picked up by media here at home, says the embassy was “used as a pawn” during the 2014 uprising. According to Brewster’s account the embassy “was used as a haven for several days by anti-government protesters [after] one of the protesters being chased by riot police waved a Canadian passport at embassy security.” 

The Ukraine uprising was the “Revolution of Dignity.” Humanity was like a virus. Whether you were Ukrainian or not, you helped in any way you could. The most popular answer to any question was “Yes, I can do that.”

This compassion metastasized as the protests transformed into a full-scale war in the east. Volunteers changed their lives to accommodate the needs of the men and women who went to the front to stave off a Russian invasion. When individual resources ran out, Ukrainians looked outside their borders, first unofficially, then officially.

And Canadians responded. University student unions sold blue-and-yellow bandanas at fundraising concerts and sent the money to self-defence battalions. Torontonian Ruslana Wrzesnewskyj converted her resort in the Carpathian mountains into a retreat for widows of fallen soldiers and their families. Mark and Ulana Suprun of Winnipeg created an organization called Patriot Defence to provide first aid training for combatants heading to the Anti-Terrorist Operation zone in eastern Ukraine. Krystina Waler from St. Catharines helped organize a medical mission to send volunteer professionals to Ukraine to perform reconstructive surgery and teach local surgeons how to attend to special cases.

My future wife Marichka and I volunteered in unofficial humanitarian aid convoys that brought needed supplies to civilians and guerrillas alike whose daily lives now encompassed Grad rocket fire and sniper attack.

When we returned to Canada, we wrote a play about our experiences. Its 11-show run sold-out in Toronto. A few months later, we were married in Dufferin Grove park in a public wedding that got picked up by Reuters. Instead of gifts, we asked that people make donations to Patriot Defence. Torontonians raised $20,000.

Maybe Brewster is right. It’s absolutely possible that a handful of battered protesters who had spent months in subzero temperatures eating nothing but broth, white bread and pig lard orchestrated a scenario to allow a few men to take advantage of Canadian charity.

But Brewster wasn’t there. If Canadians were “used as pawns” it’s because they were sick with compassion. And that’s a sickness we can all stand to let into our lives and that I hope never loses its place in what it means to be Canadian.

Mark Marczyk and his wife Marichka’s Ukrainian folk opera Counting Sheep about the 2014 Urkaine uprising will be presented with Lemon Bucket Orkestra at Blackbox Theatre August 10-17 as part of Summerworks.

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