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Canadians face barriers in bid to join international legion fighting in Ukraine

OTTAWA — When Paul Hughes crossed into Ukraine to help fight the Russians early last month, he expected he would be armed and taken to the front lines. But he couldn't get a weapon or ammunition.
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Burned cars and warehouses near the Antonov airport in Hostomel, outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, April 4, 2022. Canadians who want to take up arms to help Ukraine say they've faced unexpected obstacles. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Felipe Dana

OTTAWA — When Paul Hughes crossed into Ukraine to help fight the Russians early last month, he expected he would be armed and taken to the front lines. But he couldn't get a weapon or ammunition.

The 57-year-old Calgary native who served in the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry from 1983 to 1987 during the Cold War said he was disappointed. 

"I think you'd have to come up with a different word than disorganized," Hughes said in an interview from Lviv, describing the so-called International Legion for the Territorial Defense of Ukraine. 

"I don't think they were ready for that call to action."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called out in February for people around the world to help his country fight the Russians by joining an "international brigade," and Kyiv said about 20,000 foreigners answered.

But some Canadians who want to pick up arms for Ukraine said they have faced unexpected hurdles, with some such as Hughes finding a lack of organization even as others have been turned away before they can get out the door.

A group of Ukrainian legislators visiting Ottawa last week stood by the need for more foreign volunteers. Ukrainian MP Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze said "freedom fighters” are not only welcome, but an "inspiration and encouragement." 

She also qualified the invitation, saying Ukraine wants "everybody who knows how to fight, or who knows how to render medical aid" such as paramedics.

Bryson Woolsey, a 33-year-old cook from Powell River, B.C., said he was turned away because of a lack of combat experience. He was disappointed, especially since he talked publicly about his desire to help. 

"I felt like I had let people down," Woolsey said in Facebook text messages. 

"I guess in a way I felt disingenuous as well. Like I said, I was doing this thing and then I couldn't. That was tough."

Former Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj is part of a group of volunteers who offered to help the Ukrainian Embassy in Ottawa contact and vet Canadians wanting to answer Zelenskyy’s call to arms.

Despite the “tremendous” response, Wrzesnewskyj says his group’s work is in a “holding pattern” as Ukrainian officials struggle with the sheer volume of applications.

“It's important that those who volunteer have military combat experience,” he said. "Those are the types of individuals that are being called for.”

Retired Canadian major-general Denis Thompson said a lot has changed in Ukraine since February, with Ukrainian forces having since blunted Russia’s offensive in many areas and starting to push back.

“The call probably went out in those first few days when people erroneously thought that the Russians were really going to overrun the country,” Thompson said.

He said military training and the ability to communicate on the battlefield are critical to ensure volunteers are actually assets rather than liabilities.

It is not clear how many Canadians have actually gone to Ukraine to fight or who they are, but Wrzesnewskyj said none of those who were working with his group have been accepted.

"Having said that, it looks like a lot of Canadians are heading over without any vetting," he said. "They're doing it on their own."

The Ukrainian Embassy did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Those like Hughes who got to Ukraine have reported challenges, starting with a lack of weapons.

“What were we expected to do?” he said. “Hand-to-hand trench combat with the Russians? That ain't happening."

Thompson wondered whether such issues are related to poor logistics, and how much is because the Ukrainian government has had second thoughts or wants to more thoroughly vet volunteers first.

“For all we know, whoever shows up on your doorstep could just be a psychopath,” he said. “Or it could be a little romantic who really does think that he's doing the right thing, but frankly, is not going to be able to contribute.”

Hughes said he was told that he would need to sign a contract stating he couldn't leave until the war was over, though he could get out if he "really wanted."

He decided not to join.

While Wrzesnewskyj said others have also raised concerns about contracts, Thompson said such agreements are not unusual, noting Canadians who volunteered in the Second World War did so for the duration. 

Contracts formalize the volunteers’ standing in the Ukrainian military, Thompson said, establishing a legal framework for their participation in a conflict increasingly defined by alleged human rights violations and war crimes.

He pointed to the French Foreign Legion, which requires an initial contract for five years, as an example. This is a military force made up of foreign volunteers between the ages of 17 and 40 of any nationality.

“The famous French Foreign Legion is full of expats, but they're all sworn in correctly,” Thompson said. “And they're all considered to be soldiers of France when they take to the field, so that they're protected.”

Wrzesnewskyj encouraged Canadians to help Ukraine through humanitarian assistance and donations, which is what Hughes and Woolsey have done.

Woolsey said he's used his media spotlight to collect donations.

Hughes said he started an organization called Helping Ukraine Grassroots Support that offers medical and food supplies across the country. 

He's disappointed he isn't fighting, but said he’s thrilled to be making a real difference on the ground. He's fallen in love with the place and plans to stay as long as Ukraine will have him.

"Just this weird, twisted, freaking world I'm in right now," Hughes said. "I've never, not even in dreams, thought I'd experience this. I've been here a month, and I feel like I've been here for five years. Or a lifetime.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 5, 2022.

Hina Alam and Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press