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Canadians head to Ukraine amid questions, concerns

People from all walks of life are answering Kyiv’s call to arms
The flag of Russia flies at the Embassy of Russia in Ottawa behind a street sign calling for a free Ukraine, installed on posts adjacent to the road as a gesture of solidarity by the City of Ottawa, as Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine, on Wednesday, March 2, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Bryson Woolsey is trading in his chef’s apron and the luxury of home for ammunition and danger to help people in Ukraine during their time of crisis.

The 33-year-old cook from Powell River, B.C., said he “dropped the frying pan” to answer Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s call for foreigners to join an “international brigade” to defeat Russia.

“It’s not my desire to go into combat and just shoot people. That’s not the reason,” he said in an interview. “There’s something happening right now, and I have the capacity to help in some way.”

While heads of state hammer out sanctions to slow down and stop Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, people from all walks of life are answering Kyiv’s call to arms regardless of personal risk and training.

Yet while Ottawa has largely adopted a hands-off approach, saying the decision to fight is up to individuals, some are worried about the potential legal and national security questions of having a large number of Canadians head off to war.

Author and historian Tyler Wentzell, who has studied Canadians’ involvement in previous foreign conflicts, said it will be interesting to watch how people respond to this request for help considering Canada is home to the third-largest Ukrainian population.

“Foreign volunteers have a way of making things seem a little bit less foreign,” said Wentzell, who has written a book on Canadians fighting in the Spanish Civil War.

“So, if these volunteers go … we’re going to start to have Canadians sending back TikTok videos from the front lines. And I think that will fundamentally change how Canadians view the conflict.”

But Wentzell also noted that there is a difference between the official Ukrainian Armed Forces and “any number of oddball militias that already exist or may emerge” in such situations.

Some paramilitary units in Ukraine, and even certain segments of the Ukrainian military, have been linked to far-right extremism and hate, and even accused of past war crimes.

The Foreign Enlistment Act actually restricts when people can fight in a war that does not directly involve Canada. Passed in 1937, it was intended to keep Canada neutral during the Spanish Civil War and basically banned joining a foreign military to fight a country Canada considers “friendly.”

Wentzell, who has studied the act extensively, says he believes those going to fight for Ukraine would not be violating the law. The same might not be said for those who might join the Russian military, even though Canada and Russia are not at war.

At the same time, he said volunteers should be careful about joining Ukrainian paramilitary units as their conduct and affiliations with certain groups could put them afoul of Canadian law.

Kyiv has said anyone who wants to join the international brigade to contact the local Ukrainian Embassy. An email to the embassy in Ottawa asking for more information was answered Wednesday with a question about military and medical experience.

The federal government has not directly addressed the legality of Canadians fighting in Ukraine, or whether it supports those who want to do so. Federal ministers have instead couched the issue as a matter of personal risk.

“I will say that is an individual decision that Canadians are making for themselves, and our job as a government is to provide information about the severity of the situation on the ground in Ukraine,” Defence Minister Anita Anand said Tuesday.

The call for international volunteers to fight in Ukraine has raised other questions and concerns for Stephanie Carvin, a former national security analyst who now teaches at Carleton University.

Carvin noted extremist groups in Canada and elsewhere are always looking for ways to get military training, experience and credibility. Volunteering to fight in Ukraine could offer all three.

“There are national security implications to large numbers of Canadians going overseas and getting military experience by forces we don’t know,” she said.

“Because they may end up with the Ukrainian army, or they could end up with other factions there. And we do know the factions exist, and that could cause problems down the road.”

Woolsey noted Canada said that those who want to volunteer to fight for Ukraine are welcome to do it, adding that he’s aware of some other countries that have warned their citizens against it.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday warned those in his country against going to fight in Ukraine after his foreign secretary over the weekend got into hot water for voicing her support.

“It is clear that the people of Ukraine have right on their side and I can understand why people feel as they do,” Johnson said during a visit to Estonia. “But we have laws in our country about international conflicts and how they must be conducted.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has also advised people against going to Ukraine to fight citing legal logistics and informal militias that might mushroom in such situations.

“One: don’t do it, don’t do it,” he said during a news conference. “Secondly, the legal position at best is unclear. At best is unclear. And as a result, we would not be encouraging people to join in those efforts.”

Australian law prohibits its citizens, residents, and visa holders from “engaging in hostile activities” overseas unless serving in the armed forces of a foreign country, said a statement from the Department of Home Affairs.

“Foreign fighters who have returned to Australia who are suspected of committing a criminal offence will be investigated by law enforcement and security agencies,” it said.

The Australian government also has measures in place to proactively identify and take action against non-citizens who have engaged in criminal activity and behaviour of concern, it added.

However, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has taken a similar approach to Canada.

“Our travel advisory remains U.S. citizens should not travel to Ukraine,” White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday.

She added that “the State Department has issued travel advisories and warnings to help Americans make the most informed decisions about their safety, so that’s what I would refer you to.”

While Carvin didn’t want to suggest most Canadians want to do anything but help Ukraine and its people, she worried the government wasn’t being clear enough in its own position — or about the potential dangers.

Joshua Robertson of Barriere, B.C., whose grandfather came to Canada in the 1930s from Ukraine, said his connection to that country is “so deep” that it can’t be explained.

“It’s just something that’s calling me back home,” he said. “I need to go and help.”

The 31-year-old who is hoping to go to Ukraine by mid-March said he has no military experience and is pretty scared. But it’s something that needs to be done, he added.

“We’re ready to fight,” Robertson said. “We will lay down our lives.”

—Hina Alam and Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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