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May. 25, 2022 | Wednesday
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NOTLers reflect on Ukraine, past and present
Andre and Kim Kostiuk, with their dog Emma, stand in front of their Hunter Road farm. The property was purchased by Andre's grandfather Omelan, who fled Ukraine for the freedom of Canada during the Second World War. (Richard Harley)

In the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, some Niagara-on-the-Lake residents with Ukrainian heritage are thinking back on their own families and when they moved to Canada.

Andre Kostiuk's thoughts have been of his father and grandfather.

"They left Ukraine just around the end of the Second World War because Poland was actually taking people from Ukraine and making them be part of their army,” Kostiuk says.

“My grandfather, he didn't want that and they were taking two of his sons to go into the army, so they decided to leave Ukraine.”

Kostiuk now lives on an 11-acre farm on Hunter Road, which his grandfather purchased for about $12,000 in 1952.

His grandparents, Omelan and Domka, came to Canada in the 1940s to escape war, moving first to B.C.

They both worked, farming in the summer and lumberjacking in the winter to support their four sons.

“They left everything they had. And there was a war going on. One of their sons was killed as they were leaving Ukraine so they had to just pick up and run. They wound up in Germany and then to get to Canada, they had to sign a contract and had to work two years on a beet farm out in B.C. So that's what they did,” Kostiuk says.

From there the family headed to Toronto. And eventually his grandfather, who didn’t drive, made the trek on foot to Niagara-on-the-Lake where he purchased the Hunter Road farm.

“The deed read they bought the parcel of land, a horse and a saddle,” Kostiuk says.

A few years later they bought another four-and-a-half acres. Eventually the property was passed down to Kostiuk’s father and uncle, and later sold to Kostiuk and his wife Kim, where the two raised three children, Dayna, William and James.

Looking at the state of Ukraine today, Kostiuk says it’s a sombre reminder of how fortunate they are to be in Canada.

Ukraine has been plagued with a history of conflict, Kostiuk says. And to see Russian leader Vladimir Putin attacking the country now based on bogus claims is just wrong.

He remembers his own father, Tom, who was held in a concentration camp for two years and forced to dig trenches.

His father was an orphan, born about 100 miles from Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.

Kostiuk still has strong Ukrainian roots. Growing up, he attended Ukrainian school and Ukrainian churches.

Ukrainians, he says, are “very passionate” about their culture.

“Ukrainian people really care for their land and where they grew up,” he says. “We are very proud to be Canadians but really proud of our background too.”

Kostiuk has memories of his father getting off a 12-hour shift at General Motors and heading back to the farm to pick him up for 6:30 a.m. so they could tend to the farm.

“And then my dad would go home, get four hours of sleep and go back to work. And that's two weeks of that. Like we spent so much time down here.”

Eventually Kostiuk and his brothers settled into Niagara-on-the-Lake, having started Green Acre Automotive on Lakeshore Road together. His brother still owns the business.

At the Kostiuk farm now, called “Legacy Farm” on the entrance to the property, Kostiuk and his wife Kim have just built a new home.

For years, they kept the tradition alive of keeping horses on the property. The two would take them out for rides through the peach orchards and around town.

Now, they’ve consolidated and no longer have horses.

It’s all a far cry from the things Ukrainians are dealing with in their home country. And while the Kostiuks no longer have ties to family in Ukraine, it’s an emotional time.

"We live in a great country. My dad came over with my grandfather and they come over with nothing, right? Just whatever was their clothes on their backs sort of thing and look what we were offered here,” Kostiuk says.

It’s bitter for him, because he knows a lot of Ukrainians didn’t want to leave their country. And it’s an echo of the past happening again today.

“"People did not leave Ukraine because they didn't like Ukraine, they left because of certain reasons that made them move on. And the heritage and the love for it is still there. And for this to be happening in 2022 is just honestly insane,” Kostiuk says.

“What gives (Putin) a right to just walk in? Those people didn't do anything. Ukrainians aren't doing anything to cause this to happen. They want to live their own lives. They're very proud of themselves. They're proud of their land, their country. Just trying to live in your own little corner of the world.”

He calls the whole situation “unfathomable.”

“I don't even know how (Putin) can think the way he's thinking.”

Even though he’s never visited Ukraine, he cares so much for the country he’s considered getting a tattoo of the nation’s flag, along with one of his three children.

He hopes to be able to visit the country one day, but wonders now if that will ever happen.

“I was angry when they took over the Black Sea, because really, I wanted to see it. I wanted to be there. And I wanted to go to Kyiv where my dad was born, or close to there. But I don't know if I'll be able to do that.”

Asked what his grandfather might say if he were alive today, Kostiuk says, plainly, “He’d be mad.”

His grandfather was a “very passionate man,” and paid close attention to issues surrounding Ukraine and Russia, he says.

“He would be very upset. But I'm sure he was glad that he left it and made a very good place for his family.”

He'd like to see more than just economic sanctions against Russia.

“I don't agree with war. I don't agree with all that stuff. Putin is a smart man. He has thought far enough in advance to figure it out that there will be things that will be retaliated to ... he's planned for this. He made this plan, he's doing it."

The sanctions so far are "not enough. No. And I'm not condoning violence in any way. But sanctions to me? Very nice. It's politically right. But for someone to take over another country and attack people and kill them because they want to, I don't think that's strong enough. No.”

“The sanctions should be enough that they're actually hurting the country. Not just a slap on the wrist, you did something bad, here, look what we're doing,” Kostiuk says.

“NATO's got to be strong and people have got to be strong, and they have to really show an outpouring, because he can do that to anyone.”

He believes if Putin is allowed to take Ukraine, it’s just the first domino.

“He was putting his toe in the pond when he took the Black Sea and he's now putting maybe half his foot in the pond and seeing 'What are they really gonna do to me?' and to him obviously it's value to do it or else he wouldn't be doing it."

"But what's next? He can do anything if they just don't make a very strong show of force now, because he's already done one thing too many.”

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