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Some Canadians want to answer Ukraine’s call for foreign fighters


Canada’s Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly said Sunday the choices to go fight were ‘individual decisions’

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As Canada responds to Russia’s war on Ukraine with condemnation, sanctions and munitions, some Canadians are preparing to respond more directly, hoping to answer the call of Ukraine’s president to come take up arms in a newly formed “international brigade.”

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And, so far, Canada’s government has stopped short of urging its citizens not to do so. Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly said Sunday the choices to go fight were “individual decisions,” and on Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged some Canadians would choose direct action, beyond making donations or assisting refugees.

“Some Canadians may choose to take more active steps,” Trudeau said. “We will of course look at ways to make sure that we’re keeping Canadians safe. That remains our priority every step of the way and we encourage Canadians as we have been for many, many months — many weeks, anyway — to leave Ukraine if they’re in Ukraine right now.”

On Sunday, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s president, posted a request for foreigners to come assist in the fighting, a call that has been repeated on embassy social media pages around the world — including in Canada.

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“All foreigners wishing to join the resistance against the Russian occupiers and protect global security are invited by the Ukrainian leadership to come to our state and join the ranks of the territorial defense forces,” Zelenskyy said, according to multiple news reports.

I just felt like I wanted to be over there, I wanted to help,

Bryson Woolse

Bryson Woolsey told the National Post Monday that he has been looking at flights from Vancouver to Warsaw, Poland, and plans to travel across the border into Ukraine. The 33-year-old cook is seeking to go, even though he has no combat experience or personal ties to the country.

“I just felt like I wanted to be over there, I wanted to help,” Woolsey said. “What’s happening over there is pretty awful and I feel it’s our responsibility to help them.”

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Just outside of Halifax, a 34-year-old social worker, who asked that his name not be used, said he is preparing to fly to Poland on Thursday. He said he finds Zelenskyy “extremely inspiring.” He also has no combat or military experience, but said he knows his way around firearms.

“Ukraine seems to be fighting for democracy and for their freedom from authoritarianism,” he said. “I think people are just feeling super inspired. I also think people are kind of bored, you know what I mean?… They just want to find some meaning in their lives.”

Woolsey said he’s been packing some equipment at home, such as a sleeping bag, but the understanding of those who are seeking to join is that once they get to Ukraine, they’ll be kitted out for combat.

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“I’m not totally blind to the realities of what’s going on, right, and that I might never come back,” Woolsey said. “But I just don’t feel comfortable just sitting and while this stuff’s going on, right?”

The request for foreign fighters is reminiscent of historical instances of foreign legions going off to fight on foreign shores in distant wars. Perhaps most famously, during the Spanish Civil War, tens of thousands of foreigners — including roughly 1,500 Canadians in the MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion — travelled to Spain to fight.

Ukraine, which has been fighting with Russian-backed separatists for years, has also long been a destination for foreign fighters. While there are conflicting reports, perhaps as many as 17,000 foreign fighters have picked up weapons on both sides of the conflict since 2014.

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On Monday, Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s deputy minister of defence, said in a statement posted to social media that “thousands” of requests from foreigners had come in.

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Responses from foreign governments to Ukraine’s plea for volunteer assistance have been mixed.

On Sunday, Joly, said the Canadian government is “very supportive of any form of support to Ukrainians right now.”

“We understand that people of Ukrainian descent want to support their fellow Ukrainians and also that there’s a desire to defend the motherland. In that sense, it’s their own individual decisions,” Joly said.

The National Post sought further comment from Global Affairs Canada about whether or not the government’s official position supports Canadians travelling abroad to fight for a foreign government against Russia. A spokesperson for Joly referred the Post to the foreign minister’s comments on Sunday.

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Anita Anand, the defence minister, said Sunday: “We understand the desire to go, but our responsibility as a government is to indicate the security risk with undertaking travel to Ukraine.”

Michael Chong, the Conservative party’s foreign affairs critic, declined a request for an interview about Joly’s response to the request for foreign fighters, with his office citing a “busy parliamentary schedule.”

Joly’s comments echo those of Liz Truss, the United Kingdom’s foreign secretary, who said Sunday morning on the BBC that she “absolutely” would support Britons who went to Ukraine to fight Russian aggression.

“I do support that, and of course, that is something that people can make their own decisions about. They are fighting, the people of Ukraine, are fighting for freedom and democracy, not just for Ukraine but for the whole of Europe,” Truss said.

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Downing Street distanced itself from Truss’s comments, with a spokesperson for Prime Minister Boris Johnson noting to the Guardian newspaper that going to Ukraine to fight would contradict the government’s official travel advice. Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative parliamentarian and soldier, said on Twitter that those without combat experience should not go fight in Ukraine.

“You may get yourself and others who have to look after you, killed,” he wrote.

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The Norwegian government said it’s not illegal for nationals to go fight for Ukraine, and Mette Frederiksen, Denmark’s prime minister, said, “there is nothing at first sight that would legally prevent someone from going to Ukraine to participate in the conflict, on the Ukrainian side.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned against it.

“I can understand, absolutely, the strong feelings and motivations for people to go,” Morrison said. “But I would say at this time, the legality of such actions are uncertain.”

On Monday, Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s finance minister, called the struggle for Ukraine a fight between “freedom and tyranny” and compared it to the Battle of Gettysburg, a major battle in the U.S. Civil War, and the battles against Naziism in the Second World War.

“This is one of those times and one of those places where freedom confronts tyranny. We are determined that freedom will triumph,” Freeland said.

Trudeau described Ukraine’s actions as a “heroic defence.”

“The whole world is inspired by the strength and intensity of their resistance,” he said.

• Email: tdawson@postmedia.com | Twitter:

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