During her interview with Folio, Natalia Khanenko-Friesen is simultaneously texting her father in Kyiv – urging him to find a landline before cellular networks are knocked out – while providing moral support to a colleague fleeing shelling in the city with a child.
As the director of the University of Alberta’s Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, Khanenko-Friesen is consumed personally and professionally with the Russian invasion of her home country.
“This is a Canadian crisis as much as a Ukrainian or European crisis,” said Khanenko-Friesen. “It is an assault on democracy.”
The Institute serves as a cultural and intellectual beacon for the third-largest Ukrainian population in the world, after Ukraine and Russia. There are almost 1.4 million Ukrainian Canadians in Canada, half of them in the Prairie provinces.
She points to Canada’s record standing shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine. In 1991 Canada became the first western country to recognize Ukraine’s independence, and after Russia’s illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, Canadian Forces joined Operation Unifier to train Ukraine’s security forces.
That history means that the Ukrainian people feel our support, said Khanenko-Friesen, and regard Canada as their number one ally.
As a middle power, there may be a limit to what Canada can do to force Russia’s retreat, given its limited defence budget and capacity for sanctions. Those tactics, along with humanitarian assistance, are crucial, said Khanenko-Friesen. But she insists there are ways Canadians can contribute on the home front, especially in the battle against misinformation.
False narratives have always been a key element of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s strategy of political destabilization, at home and abroad. That is where Khanenko-Friesen and her colleagues at CIUS are currently focusing their energy.
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The Institute is already recognized as one of the leading teams countering denials of the Holodomor, the deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainians by the Stalinist regime from 1932 to 1933.
“Our goal is to engage scholars to find misinformation on both mainstream and social media and fight it,” she said.
Being “digitally diligent” is also one way all Canadians can help the Ukrainian defence, she added.
“As responsible citizens, we need to pay attention to the source, be aware and think carefully about what to share further.”
She also advises Canadian journalists to exercise caution in their choice of words when describing the conflict, especially in headlines, referring to the people of Ukraine as “defenders” rather than “fighters,” to the Ukrainian “government” rather than “regime” – subtle signifiers that can skew the political reality.
| By Geoff McMaster
Geoff is a reporter with the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.
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