The fisherman and the entrepreneur: How Canadians are helping in Ukraine

One is a Nova Scotia lobster fisherman who delivers supplies to frontline towns. The other is an entrepreneur from Toronto who enlisted in Ukraine’s foreign legion.

Lex Brukovskiy and Igor Volzhanin might have different roles, but they are among many Canadians helping Ukraine respond to the Russian invasion.

Canadians have been evacuating civilians from areas under Russian attack, housing refugees and keeping hospitals stocked with medicines.

They have also been serving in Ukraine’s armed forces, both in combat roles and, like Volzhanin, as administrators.

Read more: Ukraine’s citizen soldiers ‘the last line of defence’ against Russia

Not all are Ukrainian-Canadians, but a good number are and said they felt compelled to come to the country’s defence after it was attacked.

“I always loved Ukraine and just watching it from my home in Canada was just driving me nuts,” Brukovskiy told Global News in an interview.

Sipping coffee at the kitchen table in his family’s apartment in Lviv, Brukovskiy looked exhausted, and maybe a bit haunted.

In just over a month, he’d gone from hauling in lobster traps in the Atlantic to getting shelled in Ukraine as he delivered supplies to those in need.

Lex Brukovskiy, a Nova Scotia lobster fisherman, transporting supplies in Ukraine. Facebook

Brukovskiy grew up in west Ukraine before moving to Toronto in 1995. He lived in Calgary, and eventually settled in Meteghan, N.S. President of Local 9 of the Maritimes Fishermen’s Union, he fishes the winter lobster season from November to May.

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When President Vladimir Putin launched his assault on Ukraine on Feb. 24, he watched the news on TV. After three days, he knew he needed to be there.

He convinced a colleague to take over his fishing boat and started fundraising for Ukraine, although initially he wasn’t sure how to contribute.

Lex Brukovskiy’s tightly-packed van. Facebook

His first plan was to support refugees arriving in Poland. But once he got there, he decided to take a bus across the border to Ukraine.

A youth volunteer organization in Lviv put him to work as a driver. They gave him lists of supplies and he loaded up his van.

The fisherman travelled alone, in a van so tightly-packed with bottled water, baby food, diapers and other necessities that even the front passenger seat was filled.

His first trip took him right across Ukraine to the eastern cities of Poltava, Kharkiv and Dnipro. Instead of returning home empty, he collected passengers along the way.

“We picked up a lady with her young daughter, a wounded soldier from the hospital in Poltava,” he said. He returned with five passengers altogether.

Read more: As Russia pulls back, life slowly returns to Kyiv

It can get hairy. On a recent trip to Chernihiv, he arrived just as the Russian forces began raining the area with artillery.

He was able to unload his aid delivery and fill his van with passengers, but the shelling made it too dangerous to leave.

Buses trying to evacuate civilians were hit, as well as a bridge that civilians were crossing as they tried to flee the fighting, he said.

“It was mind-boggling; I couldn’t believe that this was happening. I heard that civilians were getting targeted, but until I seen it with my own eyes, I felt…,” he said, and paused.

“I can’t even find the words to describe what I felt.”

The Ukrainian soldiers noticed that he was unfamiliar with shelling and told him he needed to get out of his van and lie flat when he heard artillery coming.

He learned that when he the artillery canons boomed, he had about five seconds before the shells would come down — too fast to really do anything about it.

He was trapped in Chernihiv there for five days. The bodies of civilians lay all over, he said. Nobody collected them because of all the shelling.

Seeing the dead and the Russian targeting of buildings with no apparent military value was an eye-opener for Brukovskiy.

“It kind of wakes you up a little bit.”

Lex Brukovskiy driving his van in Lviv, Ukraine. Tim Lee/Global News

The Russian forces have since been expelled from around Chernihiv, northeast of Kyiv, and Brukovskiy plans a return trip to deliver supplies.

To make the deliveries simpler, the volunteers who prepare the boxes mark them with coloured tape. Each colour goes to a specific address.

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“It’s organized through the volunteer centre, so they already know who needs what and where. They just basically give me an address, so the medication will go here, and the food is going to go here,” he said.

“We also deliver some non-lethal military aid like bulletproof vests and stuff like that, and night vision goggles.”

Since volunteering as a driver in Ukraine, Lex Brukovskiy said he had seen devastation. Facebook

He said he intended to keep going until he ran out of money. So far he has raised about $35,000. He also needs to get back to his boat for the fall fishing season.

“I don’t regret coming here,” he said. “I think what I’m doing, I hope it helps. And I know, for example, these guys there, they need people, they need drivers,” he said.

He said plenty of humanitarian aid was coming in from Europe and elsewhere, but someone had to deliver it to the hot spots where it was needed.

“So for me, you know, if that’s something I could do, then that’s what I’m going to do.”

Read more: Inside Kharkiv, a city once close to Russia comes under daily bombardment

Global News met several Canadian volunteers who similarly had taken on unofficial roles in Ukraine, but for others their involvement was more formalized.

In downtown Lviv, a 34-year-old Canadian stood outside the national opera house wearing a camouflage jacket and an army green toque.

“I was actually, in a way, pleasantly surprised that so many Canadians have come here,” to join the international legion, Volzhanin said.

“They’ve come from all over Canada.”

Canadian Igor Volzhanin outside the national opera house in Lviv, Ukraine, April 9, 2022. Global News

Volzhanin attended Meadowvale Secondary School in Mississauga, Ont., before studying at Queen’s University and the University of Victoria.

He worked for the government in Ottawa, and at a start-up in the United Kingdom, but he was born in Ukraine and was in Kyiv when Russia invaded.

He wanted to help but wasn’t sure how until President Volodymyr Zelenskyy created the International Legion of Territorial Defence of Ukraine.

The branch of the Armed Forces of Ukraine was specifically for foreign volunteers, and Volzhanin “realized that was the place for me.”

The Canadian was, in fact, the second person to join, after Frenchman Damien Magrou, who is the unit’s official spokesperson.

Igor Volzhanin. Handout

Although he had no military experience, Volzhanin spoke several languages and believed he had skills to offer.

“I felt that somebody like me who had a background running companies and being able to organize things could contribute quite a bit to the military,” he said.

Upon enlisting, he was taken to a military base where he was unsure what awaited him, he said.

“I’ve never been to a military base. The whole ride I was scared that I would actually just be handed over a weapon and told to go to the front,” he said.

Instead, he was given a coordinating role that involves recruitment, logistics and procurement. He provides translation, so armed forces members from various backgrounds can speak to each other.

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“I’m the first face that foreigners see when they’re accepted into the legion, making sure that their lives are as comfortable as possible, making sure that they’re able to go to the front as quickly as possible and they’re aware of what’s awaiting them,” he said.

“So in a way I’ve been doing a lot of the organizational activities that I had been doing in my start-up life,” he told Global News.

Igor Volzhanin wears the oatch of the Ukrainian military’s international legion on his uniform. Global News

The war is not only about Ukraine, it is a global war between Russian-style rule and Western values, he said.

If the evidence of Russian war crimes surfacing as Putin’s forces retreat from towns like Bucha was a turning point in the conflict, that saddened him.

“I think it’s terrible when we wait for atrocities to be committed,” he said, urging Canadians to help, even if just by voicing their concerns to their MPs.

Were he to enlist today, Volzhanin would be rejected from the international legion. Since he joined, Ukraine has announced it would only take foreign volunteers with combat experience.

But he felt he was contributing.

“I think at the moment, I’m actually probably in the most ideal place to be able to help with the skills that I have,” he said.

Stewart.Bell@globalnews.ca

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More international aid coming as Ukraine braces for next major Russian assault

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