White hats and war zones: Ukraine pleads for aid amidst Calgary Stampede celebrations

Bill-WhitelawIt was the strangest of admixtures: white cowboy hats and murderous Russian landmines; colourful cowboy boots and dying Ukrainian civilians.

There was talk of devastation and despair. There was talk of victory and resilience. There was talk of rodeos and rock music.

But as strange a dialogue alchemy as it seemed, the combination made sense as a platform for a particular message.

For the diplomat who delivered it, the communique was uncharacteristically blunt – almost in the same way a laconic cowboy might declare something in the straightest of terms. But that frankness, infused with a strong sense of frustration, underscored the point she wanted to convey.

Calgary STampede Ukraine
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“Your companies have many beautiful words on their websites about the things that they value … now is the time for them to prove it …”

For Ukraine’s ambassador to Canada, Yuliya Kovaliv, the candour was tempered with a heartfelt plea – and it trumped all the talk about economic development potential.

In a nutshell: “We need your help … and we need it now.”

Background, colour, and context: as Calgarians, Albertans, Canadians and global visitors kicked off The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, a tiny corner of downtown Cowtown hosted a discussion about the Greatest Current Human Tragedy on Earth.

In the Calgary Petroleum Club’s Trophy Lounge, a small gathering of business leaders listened to the ambassador and Ukrainian parliamentarians discuss the daily realities of life in Ukraine. They did so with a candour and directness that was as raw as it was impassioned. And it provided a solemn reminder for a city revelling in its western cultural values that the whole world isn’t a big Stampede party.

Far from it.

This was about war. Its brutality. Its costs measured on so many scales, lives lost the heaviest weights. No calf roping or chuck racing applause. No midway games of chance and corndog competition. No beer garden gaieties and country music ribaldries.

Just a country, as parliamentarian Mykyta Poturaiev noted, fighting for its very existence.

But as he stressed, this is the world’s war, as much as it is Ukraine’s.

No one in the room disagreed.

Indeed, in the Trophy Lounge, there was optimism.

As is happening across Canada, people are stepping up. In this case, the Ukrainian Canadian Professional and Business Association of Calgary and the Ukraine-Alberta Chamber of Commerce co-ordinated the gathering, a precursor to a much larger Calgary assemblage this fall.

Much was made – and is to be made – about Canadian-Ukrainian relations that date back nearly 150 years, in particular the impact of immigration on western Canadian settlement.

Ambassador Kovaliv spoke of the opportunities postwar reconstruction will bring, across a diverse spectrum of sectors. Energy. Agriculture. Transportation. Infrastructure. Technology.

But while stressing the abundance of opportunities, she doubly stressed the context of global energy and food security that will underpin Ukraine’s effort to “build … and build better.”

Currently, received wisdom puts that impact number around $411 billion, but many consider that conservative. Others use trillions to define the carnage.

Kovaliv also addressed the dynamics of risk, and detailed steps already taken to deal with Ukraine’s long-standing challenges, real and perceived, with corruption.

The conflict has aged to the point where it falls in and out of the news cycle, but if anything, the need for outside help – “and mutually beneficial partnerships – continues to grow exponentially. That help is critical to victory.

“Since 2014, we’ve been fighting for Ukraine, but we have also been fighting for world order,” noted Kovaliv. “We will win … we will be victorious … and we will get there with your support.”

As often happens in Calgary, there was a “white hat” ceremony which confers official Calgarian status on the recipients.

It’s intended as a symbol of hope … and community.

Four white hats are headed back to a war zone – to the Greatest Current Human Tragedy on Earth.

Bill Whitelaw is the Managing Director of Strategy & Sustainability with Geologic Systems.

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