President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday urged Ukrainian students who have sought refuge at Canadian universities during the conflict with Russia to learn what they can while abroad and prepare to return and rebuild their country.
Speaking to an audience of students across the country held by the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, Mr. Zelensky thanked Canadian institutions for opening their doors to Ukrainian students and asked students in this country to keep the war in Ukraine at the top of the political agenda.
He said the war will be long and some people may tire of hearing about it, but Ukraine needs weapons, money and humanitarian aid from Western democracies to keep up its fight.
“We are fighting for our future, our freedom,” Mr. Zelensky said.
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Mr. Zelensky, who appeared via video link dressed in military camouflage, spoke for nearly an hour to students at 11 Canadian campuses, including the University of Alberta, the University of Montreal and the University of Prince Edward Island.
Dozens of Canadian universities have created bursaries or waived fees or provided other funding to Ukrainian students in recent months, pledging to bring more students to Canada to allow them to continue their studies at a time when parts of the country are under siege.
At the event Wednesday the University of Toronto announced it will bring up to 30 students from the Kyiv School of Economics to the Munk School on exchange in September, in addition to the 100 Ukrainian students per term it is already committed to bringing to U of T.
Mr. Zelensky was introduced by Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who pledged the government’s support for the Ukrainian cause.
“For as long as it takes Canada will be there for Ukraine,” Ms. Freeland said. “We will persist, we will not tire, we will be there.”
Ms. Freeland said when she was in Ukraine as a student in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Westerners were sought-after as teachers in Ukraine. But today Ukraine is teaching the rest of the world about the fight for democracy, she said.
Mr. Zelensky took questions from the audience, including one from Moscow-born U of T student Anya Broytman, who asked what historical or literary figures inspired a man who has been compared to Britain’s wartime prime minister Winston Churchill and the fictional wizard Harry Potter.
The question drew a laugh from Mr. Zelensky, who said everyone knows who’s playing the role of Potter’s nemesis Lord Voldemort in this war. He added that his role models are the ordinary Ukrainians who demonstrate courage in difficult circumstances, citing the example of a farmer who used his tractor to block a road and slow the advance of Russian tanks.
Emma Patterson, a student of European and Russian affairs at U of T, asked about the use of martial law in Ukraine, particularly at a time when it’s seeking candidate status at the European Union. Mr. Zelensky, who said he’s confident that the EU’s member states will support Ukraine’s candidate status this week, replied that it’s sometimes necessary to move quickly with non-democratic means to protect democracy and freedom.
Kateryna Luchka is on exchange at U of T from the National University Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Her hometown was surrounded by Russian troops early in the war and she fled to Western Ukraine, where she stayed with relatives before coming to Canada last month. She filled out her application while air raid sirens were ringing, she said. She asked Mr. Zelensky what students in her situation could do for their country. He called on Ukrainian students abroad to return with new skills and ideas to help rebuild the country. Afterward, Ms. Luchka said she was inspired.
“I want this generation to come back,” Ms. Luchka said. “I want to build Ukraine. My friends, my family are there.”
Mr. Zelensky’s remarks were greeted with more than one standing ovation.
Peter Loewen, director of the Munk School, said even though he’s leading a country at war, Mr. Zelensky attends events like this because he recognizes the importance of international public support for his cause.
“I think he really understands that he has to keep up support for this effort,” Prof. Loewen said.
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