On September 11, 2014, the Canada Ukraine Foundation held the United for Ukraine Gala at the Toronto Congress Centre. The Gala was organized as a fundraising effort to support “Operation Rainbow” which will be sending a team of volunteer medical professionals to Ukraine in November 2014 to perform reconstructive surgeries on people injured during the Maidan Revolution and the ongoing war in the Donbas.
The event turned out to be a huge success. On September 11, in the morning, the organizers thought they would have 1,100 people attending (with the cost of $125 per person), and in the end the attendance reached 1,300 – the big hall was full.
The event began with introductions by the masters of ceremony, MP James Bezan and Krystina Waler. Victor Hetmanczuk, the President of the Canada Ukraine Foundation, explained the need for a cooperative program such as “Operation Rainbow” and light-heartedly pointed to his predecessor Bohdan Onyschuk saying that he was promised a low key presidency with only a couple of meetings during the year. Mr. Hetmanczuk has, however, managed to organize a team that was able to envision and create an evening that not only supported Ukraine but also saw the coming together of the Ukrainian-Canadian community for one very important cause: medical aid to Ukraine.
Eugene Melnyk, the owner of the Ottawa Senators NHL team, started with thanking all of the sponsors who financed and fundraised enough to get the medical team to Ukraine. Mr. Melnyk's speech contained one of the focal points of the evening when he introduced a surprise guest that the audience gave a standing ovation to: The Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky. In his speech, Mr. Gretzky reminisced about his childhood with his Ukrainian grandparents. He told the audience of how when he was growing up, his grandmother would yell at him in Ukrainian and that’s how he learned to behave. He stressed that he had “a lot of Ukrainian influence in [the] family.” He too stressed the importance of showing our solidarity with Ukraine and thanked everyone who has worked to create this gala and who work on helping Ukraine during this difficult time.
The Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper, introduced by MP Ted Opitz, was the evening's special guest. In his speech, he stressed the importance of Canada’s unity with Ukraine, not for political reasons but rather because it is the right thing to do. He also addressed the long history of Canadian support to Ukraine. “In 1960, former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker stood before the world and demanded free elections for Ukrainians, then under the boot of the Soviet Union. In 1991, Brian Mulroney’s government was the first in the West to recognize Ukraine’s independence from that Soviet Union. And in 2008, Canada became one of the first countries to recognize the Holodomor.”
Stephen Harper also announced two important developments in Canada’s relationship with Ukraine. The first is that the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko will be visiting Canada this week and addressing Parliament. The second was that Canada will once again send an election observation mission to Ukraine for its upcoming Parliamentary elections in October.
The Prime Minister ended off his emotional speech with explaining why Canadians have always been so invested in Ukrainian affairs, the question, which, according to Mr. Harper, he was asked by Russia's President Putin. “The answer, of course, is to be found in the generations of Ukrainians who have come here. Who have helped build this great country and who have inspired respect and admiration on the part of their fellow Canadians…Two Governors General, four provincial Premiers, and numerous entrepreneurs, artists, scientists and athletes of national and international acclaim. And, of course, countless numbers of good friends and neighbours.”
The Prime Minister’s address was met with a standing ovation by the attendants, including representatives of the Polish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Crimean Tatars, Jewish, Estonian, South African, Dutch, Trinidadian and Tobago, Russian, American, Portuguese, Indian and Belarussian communities.
After the speeches and before dinner, a special prayer was performed by Rabbi Frydman-Kohl and Fathers Makarenko and Lozynsky who represented the Ukrainian Orthodox and Ukrainian Greek Catholic communities, respectively. All three prayed for peace in Ukraine and Rabbi Frydman-Kohl wanted all in the audience to remember all those who have suffered.
After the dinner, Dr. Oleh Antonyshyn explained to the audience what “Operation Rainbow” will be doing in Ukraine. The medical team will perform specialized surgeries but also foster Ukrainian surgical centers and educate them in the best possible care of their patients. The ultimate aim for this mission is to help build relationships between local surgeons in Ukraine with their international consultants.
The evening ended with a special thank you from the President of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, Paul Grod, who also gave out a special gift to all the organizers of the event – a signed copy of Prime Minister Harper’s book “A Great Game” which was also signed by Wayne Gretzky. Paul Grod ended his speech by thanking the Canadian government’s stance toward Russia but also had a special plea to the Canadian government: support Ukraine militarily, medically and stop Putin’s tyranny. Although PM Stephen Harper did not announce any particular new aid to Ukraine in his speech at the Gala, one could gather that something may be announced during President Poroshenko's visit to Canada this week.