This First Person column is the experience of Tanya Pacholok who is a third-generation Ukrainian Canadian. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
I was at Vancouver’s solidarity rally with Ukraine when I realized there was another protest a few blocks down.
Both groups claimed they were fighting for freedom, but I was struck by how different their understandings were of that word. At the other protest, two women carried Canadian flags on hockey sticks and a man waited at a hot dog stand with a sign that read “NO MEDICAL TYRANNY!!” This was clearly part of the protest convoys across the country against what many participants feel is government overreach in imposing vaccine and masking rules during the pandemic, and restricting their choice to not follow those mandates.
Meanwhile, we stood nearby at a rally in solidarity with Ukraine, a country and people who have been fighting a creeping tyranny that has escalated into a full-scale invasion and compromised their right to statehood and self-determination.
I walked clutching my own cardboard sign: “Мир Yкраїні” (Peace for Ukraine) beneath which I had drawn part of Ukraine’s coat of arms — a тризуб — a symbol of freedom for Ukraine.
I was dismayed. The physical juxtaposition of the freedom fight for Ukraine against what organizers called the Freedom Convoy and its grievances made me reflect on the use of such loaded words: freedom and tyranny.
It illuminated a different, perhaps sheltered and misguided, understanding of freedom — growing into entitlement when the same words were used by a polished, organized line of massive trucks armed with fireworks, portable saunas and bouncy castles.
As a third-generation Ukrainian Canadian, I can’t personally comprehend what tyranny is. But the wounds of tyranny are etched into my family and community history. My dido (grandfather) left Ukraine after being told that he could either join the Soviet army or be shot. His brother died in the Holodomor, the genocide by famine orchestrated by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin that killed millions of Ukrainians. On the other side of the family, my baba (grandmother) told me of how her family immigrated to Canada in hopes of farming their own land and escaping Soviet class structures that exploited Ukrainian peasant farmers.
Our story is not unique. My family was among the thousands of Ukrainians who eventually moved to Canada seeking freedom.
Over the past few days, I’ve spoken to friends and family in Ukraine affected by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent invasion. They are all scared, yet resilient and determined. We had a teary video call with my mom’s cousin who made the heart-wrenching decision to flee Ukraine to keep her daughter safe, separating from the rest of her family. This cousin’s brother is forced to stay due to the ban on 18 to 60 year old males leaving the country due to martial law.
Another friend posted videos on social media outlining how to use FIM-92 Stingers. I Googled to learn that these are man-portable air-defence systems that operate as infrared homing surface-to-air missiles. He is patrolling the front line in constant danger and I am safe at my desk. He is fighting for freedom in a manner I can scarcely comprehend.
I desperately support however I can, although my efforts at raising donations and going to rallies feel feeble in comparison. As I joined the rally in Vancouver, the woman next to me was FaceTiming a loved one, proudly showing the hordes of people. All of a sudden, she ended the call saying: “Ідіть, ховайтеся” (go hide). I imagined whoever she was talking to in similar situations to people I know in Ukraine — hiding in a basement since they don’t have access to bomb shelters.
In stark contrast, I do not fear for my life when I attend a protest. As a bisexual woman in Canada, I have a constitutional right to love whomever I love. My stomach reels as I read about what is referred to as Putin’s “kill list” that includes 2SLGBTQIA+ and other marginalized folks in Ukraine if he gains control.
I am reminded of the Orange Revolution and ongoing fights for dignity, not just in Ukraine but around the world. When repeated accounts of free democratic elections were compromised. When political leaders were poisoned. When governments violently came down on the freedom to protest peacefully in the streets of Kyiv. When Crimea was annexed. When Ukraine fought and continues to fight today for true freedom and independence laying their bodies on the line.
As I reflect on the grievances raised by each protest, I wonder if the privilege of living in a secure country such as Canada has clouded our understanding of what “freedom” really is?
The opening lines of Ukraine’s national anthem are: “Ukraine has not yet perished, nor its glory, nor its freedom.” At the rally, I feel gutted as we continue, “Душу й тіло ми положим за нашу свободу” (Souls and bodies we will lay down for our freedom).
To me, a healthy democracy involves citizens engaged in rigorous and respectful deliberation. However, has the desire for freedom and choice come to mean something different?
Does our desire for freedoms come at the expense of others? When it comes to public health, should an individual be allowed unlimited freedoms even at the expense of others, particularly vulnerable or immunocompromised others? Who gets to decide?
While my relatives in Ukraine are grasping for their right to statehood, self-determination and true freedom, what about my privilege in living on stolen lands? Do I have any right to talk about freedom and sovereignty when Indigenous Peoples are fighting for the same things here in Canada?
I’m learning, unlearning and working through those questions. But I also know I am filled with admiration, respect and fiery passion for Ukrainian citizens of all genders and ages coming together towards their collective belief in democracy and Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Do you have a compelling personal story that can bring understanding or help others? We want to hear from you. Here’s more info on how to pitch to us.