I walked in solidarity with Ukraine. In front of us was another ‘Rally of Freedom’

This first-person chronicle is the experience of Tanya Pacholok, a third-generation Ukrainian Canadian. For more information on CBC’s First Person Stories, please see the FAQ.

I was at the Vancouver Ukraine Solidarity Rally when I realized there was another protest a few blocks away.

Both groups claimed they were fighting for freedom, but I was struck by the difference in understanding of this word. At the other protest, two women were carrying Canadian flags on hockey sticks and a man was waiting at a hot dog stand with a sign that said “NO MEDICAL TYRANNY!” It was clearly part of the protest convoys across the country against what many participants feel is the government’s overreach in imposing vaccination and masking rules during the pandemic, and restricting their choice not to follow these mandates.

Meanwhile, we stood close at a rally in solidarity with Ukraine, a country and people who fought a creeping tyranny that turned into a full-scale invasion and compromised their right to a state and self-determination.

I walked clutching my own cardboard sign: “Мир Yкраїні” (Peace for Ukraine) under which I had drawn part of The coat of arms of Ukraine — a тризуб — a symbol of freedom for Ukraine.

I was appalled. The physical juxtaposition of the freedom struggle for Ukraine with what the organizers called the Freedom Convoy and its grievances got me thinking about the use of such loaded words: freedom and tyranny.

Solidarity marches in support of Ukraine took place across Canada, including in Vancouver (left). Tanya Pacholok was at a rally in support on February 26 when she took a picture of a ‘Freedom Rally’ placard (right). (Ben Nelms/CBC, Tanya Pacholok)

It illuminated a different, perhaps sheltered and misguided understanding of freedom – becoming a right when the same words were used by a polite, organized line of massive trucks armed with fireworks, portable saunas and castles inflatables.

As a third generation Ukrainian Canadian, I personally do not understand what tyranny is. But the wounds of tyranny are etched in the history of my family and my community. My didon (grandfather) left Ukraine after learning that he could either join the Soviet army or be shot. His brother died in the Holodomor, genocide by famine orchestrated by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin who killed millions of Ukrainians. On the other side of the family, my baba (grandmother) told me how her family immigrated to Canada in hopes of farming their own land and escaping Soviet class structures that exploited Ukrainian peasants.

Our story is not unique. My family was among the thousands of Ukrainians who eventually moved to Canada in search of freedom.

Tanya Pacholok’s parents, Alex, Ahafiya and John Pacholok, came to Alberta from Ukraine in 1930. Others arrived in 1952. (Tanya Pacholok)

Over the past few days I have spoken to friends and family in Ukraine affected by the recent invasion of Russian President Vladimir Putin. They are all scared, but resilient and determined. We had a tearful video call with my mother’s cousin who made the heartbreaking decision to flee Ukraine to protect her daughter, separating her from the rest of her family. This cousin’s brother is forced to stay because of the ban on men between the ages of 18 and 60 leaving the country due to martial law.

Another friend posted videos on social media explaining how to use the FIM-92 Stingers. I googled to learn that these were man-portable air defense systems that function like infrared homing surface-to-air missiles. He patrols the front line in constant danger and I’m safe at my desk. He fights for freedom in a way I can barely understand.

I desperately support as much as I can, though my efforts to collect donations and participate in rallies seem small in comparison. As I joined the rally in Vancouver, the woman next to me was FaceTiming a loved one, proudly pointing at the hordes of people. All of a sudden she ended the call saying: “Ідіть, ховайтеся” (go hide). I imagined the person she was talking to in similar situations to people I know in Ukraine – hiding in a basement because they don’t have access to bomb shelters.

On the other hand, I don’t fear for my life when I attend a demonstration. As a bisexual woman in Canada, I have the constitutional right to love who I love. My stomach churns reading what is called Putin’s kill list this includes 2SLGBTQIA+ and other marginalized people in Ukraine if he takes control.

I remember the orange revolution and the ongoing struggles for dignity, not just in Ukraine but around the world. When repeated tales of free democratic elections have been compromised. When political leaders were poisoned. When governments violently opposed the freedom to demonstrate peacefully in the streets of Kyiv. When Crimea was annexed. When Ukraine fought and continues to fight today for true freedom and independence, putting its body at risk.

Tanya Pacholok and her brother are pictured as children with their grandparents in Edmonton. (Tanya Pacholok)

As I reflect on the grievances raised by each protest, I wonder if the privilege of living in a safe place a country like Canada has clouded our understanding of what “freedom” really is?

The first lines of the national anthem of Ukraine are: “Ukraine has not yet perished, neither its glory nor its freedom. At the rally, I feel drained as we continue, “Душу й тіло ми положим за нашу свободу” (The souls and bodies we will lay down for our freedom).

Tome, 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? In terms of public health, should an individual enjoy unlimited freedoms even to the detriment of others, particularly vulnerable or immunocompromised? Who’s deciding ?

Tanya Pacholok, wearing the black coat in the front row of students, is pictured at the burial site of Taras Shevchenko, one of Ukraine’s most famous freedom fighters, during a school trip in 2010. (Tanya Pacholok)

While my loved ones in Ukraine claim their right to a state, self-determination and true freedom, what about my privilege to live on stolen land? Am I allowed to talk about freedom and sovereignty when Indigenous peoples are fighting for the same things here in Canada?

I learn, unlearn and work on these issues. But I also know that I am filled with admiration, respect and a burning passion for Ukrainian citizens of all genders and ages who come together around their collective belief in democracy and the sovereignty of the Ukraine.


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