Joti Heir: Canada makes Ukraine promises, then struggles to deliver
Ukrainians think that when Canada announces a program, it's in place. Usually, of course, it's not even close.
By: Joti Heir
It’s almost as though the Canadian federal government is working buttocks-backward when it comes to the Ukrainian refugee file. After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, helping Ukrainian refugees get to a safe place fast was the biggest concern. However, now, close to three months later, the bigger concern is how to help the refugees that are in Canada or making their way here.
“We are seeing an increasing amount of frustration within our community about the pace with which programs and announcements are being implemented,” says Orest Zakydalsky, senior policy analyst with the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC).
“For example, a month ago, the prime minister announced income support when he co-hosted the [StandWithUkraine] telethon with the European Council president, he announced there would be income support for people coming to Canada. A month later, they're not available.”
The announcement on April 9 indicated that Ukrainian refugees would be able to access $500 per week for a period of up to six weeks. At the same time, it was also announced that housing support in the form of two-week hotel stays would be provided. Both programs do not appear to have been implemented.
“We appreciate this is a very difficult situation for governments, this is a crisis that emerged very suddenly,” says Zakydalsky.
“On the other side, the other problem is that the people that are in Europe, that have left Ukraine, that are looking to come to Canada, see these announcements and quite reasonably think that when a program is announced it is available.”
Close to 204,000 people have applied to the Canada-Ukraine Authorization For Emergency Travel (CUAET) and 91,500 applications have been approved. The program allows Ukrainian nationals and their family members to stay in Canada for up to three years while regular visitors can stay up to 6 months.
In mid-April, Canada opened up the Canadian Biometrics Operations Centre at the Global EXPO Centrum in Warsaw after Ukrainians had difficulty accessing biometrics services in the first weeks of the war. Then earlier this month, on May 4, the Canadian government announced the opening of a new information unit at the biometrics centre to answer applicant questions.
I visited the centre last week. It sits within the EXPO which is also home to a 300-bed shelter for Ukrainian refugees. There were no line-ups or crowds. Everyone I spoke to was very happy with the centre.
“It was very good, it was nice to see all the smiling people,” said Ivanka Pastukh, a student from Vinnytsia in west-central Ukraine. She just got her photograph taken and fingerprints done.
“It was very fast, three minutes, now I will wait here, they say maybe three weeks,” she says.
She says her mother, stepfather and younger stepbrother have stayed back in Vinnytsia and don’t plan to leave. But they sent her out of the country because they thought it would be better for her future.
She is a university student but says she plans to look for work when she gets to Canada.
“I can’t think about this [studying] now, just I must get there,’ she says.
If and when she gets to Canada, she will likely have to rely on the help of local grassroots agencies.
“The grassroots organizations have been doing a lot, helping people with homestays, and there’s been so much donated to those arriving,” explained Zakydalsky. “For example here in Ottawa, we have the Maidan market set up where people can pick up things they need.”
For homestays, settlement agencies in provinces across the country review applications from people that have offered their homes. They check out the home situation and decide whether or not it is appropriate before matching a home with a Ukrainian refugee.
It appears Canadians have taken on a lot of the burden of helping Ukrainians arriving in Canada and those that are still there.
In Edmonton, former MLA Thomas Lukaszuk, born in Poland, and Alberta’s former premier, Ed Stelmach, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, organized what they thought would be a small donations drive at the Polish Hall in Edmonton.
“On Monday, at the specified time, it just went out of control, I had to call Edmonton police to manage traffic because we were blocking major arteries in Edmonton,” says Lukaszuk.
At the end of two days, they had two warehouses full of supplies with an estimated value of $20 million, Lukaszuk says. The donations included a large number of medical supplies donated by medical clinics as well as surplus supplies donated by fire departments.
After making some phone calls Lukaszuk was able to connect with the president and CEO of Polish LOT airlines who agreed to send a Boeing 787 Dreamliner plane for free to Edmonton as long as they’d refuel it. Shell agreed to donate the fuel.
The plane would be coming over empty, with 230 free seats, so Lukaszuk thought it would be a good idea to get Ukrainian refugees on the plane. They had about a week to get a lot of the paperwork and security clearances processed.
“There were a lot of issues, first of all, many Ukrainians don’t have their documents, and then also there is also hesitancy now for Ukrainians wanting to come to Canada,” said Lukaszuk.
In the end, 64 Ukrainian refugees were able to land in Edmonton on that plane. Lukaszuk says they were able to manage homestays for all of them. He also says that many others had applied for a visa, got all their documents together, and were approved to come to Canada, but pulled out of boarding that plane.
"We have to accept the fact that Canada isn't their chosen place of destination. In most cases, they want to be close to Ukraine," says Luckazuk
The Canadian government had also promised to send free charter flights for Ukrainian refugees on that day of promises on April 9. Three flights have now been organized. They will take place over the next two weeks, ferrying Ukrainians from Poland to Winnipeg, Montreal and Halifax.
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