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SGPS Senator – Statement on the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

The following statement was read at Queen’s University Senate on Tuesday March 1st 2022 by Emīls Matīss, SGPS Graduate Student Senator.

Dear fellow senators, today I am grateful to be given the opportunity to bring our attention to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I will start by highlighting key events, share my family’s story, and then discuss what is currently being done at Queen’s and what I believe we must prepare for.

Events

In 1991 Ukrainians overwhelmingly voted to declare their independence from the Soviet Union. Ukraine has been subject to Russian aggression since its people have sought to escape the Russian sphere of influence. Each movement for increased cooperation and integration with the West has resulted in threats and retaliation from Russia. The current state of war began in 2014 when Russia illegally annexed Crimea. In the spring of 2021 Russia started amassing its troops on its border with Ukraine. On February 22nd, 2022, after months of denying that an invasion was imminent, Putin ordered an invasion of two eastern regions, Luhansk and Donetsk, under the guise of peacekeeping after recognizing them as sovereign states. Two days later, at 03:00 GMT, Russia launched a full-scale attack on Ukraine.

It is important to note that calling the Russian Invasion of Ukraine a ‘crisis’ or ‘conflict’ is inappropriate. It conveys a sense of neutrality or equal responsibility that does not reflect the naked aggression Russia is perpetrating on Ukraine. For those wondering why we have stopped referring to Ukraine as “the Ukraine”, it is because Ukraina roughly translates to “the borderlands” and is an artifact of an outdated translation. Today using “The Ukraine” can be interpreted as undermining the sovereignty of the country, much as Putin’s condescendingly referring to Ukraine as “Russia’s little brother”.

Personal Story

Although I am not Ukrainian, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, to me, is personal. My ethnic background is Latvian, and although I was born in Canada, English is my second language. My family was forced to flee the Soviet invasion of Latvia in the 1940s. My grandparents, on both sides, met and married in Toronto after escaping foreign aggressors, and this is how I came to be born and raised in one of the largest diasporic Latvian communities in the world. It is in this community that I have thrived, where I celebrate my heritage, language, culture, and where I have shared it with others. I have previously served as the Treasurer, Auditor, and Chairperson of the Latvian National Youth Association of Canada.

My paternal grandfather, Uldis Matīss, was 17 when he was forced to leave his family home in Latvia in August of 1944. Eventually finding his way to Merbeck, Germany, he finished his high school education in a Latvian displaced persons camp. He then attended the Baltic University in Exile in Pinneberg, Germany, for two years before securing a visa to emigrate to Canada. Once here, he spent a year working on rail projects before attempting to return to post-secondary education. He found his way to Queen’s in 1950, where he was accepted in a Bachelor of Applied Science program and awarded a year’s credit for his prior education, graduating in 1953. He subsequently became a prominent electrical engineer. His choice of Queen’s wasn’t arbitrary. It was not the only school that accepted him. He chose Queen’s because it was further from his friends and surrounded by fewer distractions than there were in Toronto. He felt that he had already lost everything, risked so much, worked too hard, and that he couldn’t afford to lose what he saw as his one chance to rebuild a future robbed from him.

Growing up in Canada I attended Latvian elementary school, though with some reluctance, on Saturday mornings, and Latvian High School on Friday nights. We studied our language, culture and history — with the latter including discussion of Latvia’s long history as an occupied nation. The many war crimes our people suffered such as the Soviet deportations in 1941 and 1949 of more than 60,000 Latvian Nationals to remote and inhospitable regions in Siberia. Many subsequently perished in gulags. My Ukrainian friends share this background. In their Saturday Schools they learn about and commemorate the loss and suffering endured by their people in the Holodomor – The Terror-Famine that occurred from 1932 to 1933 when the USSR perpetrated genocide by starving the Ukrainian people. A tragedy that resulted in 4 million deaths and demographic losses estimated at about 10 million.

Like the countless brave people of Ukraine today, my great grandfather chose to stay and defend his country. He was executed by the KGB in 1960. For me, and those with similar stories, these events form our collective memories — and what we are now seeing in Ukraine evokes multigenerational trauma.

On Sunday, I joined my fellow Latvians to show solidarity and support for Ukrainians. Seeing the Ukrainian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian, Polish, Georgian, Azerbaijani, and countless other flags brought me to tears as I felt as though I was living in the photographs of decades past . More than 30,000 demonstrators marched from Yonge and Dundas Square to Nathan Phillips Square. My parents and grandparents demonstrated 31 years ago, sounding the alarm when Soviet forces tried to overthrow the government of Latvia that had just declared its restoration of independence, and to me, it feels like history is repeating itself.

Yesterday I participated in a call with Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness of Canada, Bill Blair, along with my colleagues representing the Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian, and Ukrainian youth organizations and groups. I am proud to report that Canada is responding to this unjust aggression and that more measures are underway. We heard calls by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress to recognize the studies Ukrainian students have completed when they find their way to Canada.

Our Ukrainian colleagues are grateful for our solidarity and assistance. I cannot fathom what they are experiencing, and I am in awe at their resolve.

Current State and Plan

I am pleased to inform you that Queen’s has responded to this war promptly. Ann Tierney, Vice- Provost and Dean of Student Affairs, has informed me that the following steps have already been taken:

  • Outreach has been made informing students that counselling support is available through Student Wellness Services
  • Queen’s University International Centre (QUIC) has reached out to students from Ukraine and Russia to extend counselling, immigration, and other assistance
  • Existing emergency bursaries remain available for students that may find their finances affected
  • Students have been advised that if they are experiencing distress that impacts their studies, academic consideration is available through Student Wellness Services

Future Actions

Queen’s already has systems in place for financial support and pathways to admission for refugees. Notably, these were used following the resettlement of 73,000 Syrian refugees in Canada. In preparation for the Ukrainian students that will seek refuge in Canada, and I suspect there will be many due to the existing community in Canada, Queen’s is coordinating with the World University Service Canada (WUSC) which will ensure a smooth pathway for sponsorship, immigration, and to admission.

QUIC has identified approximately 20 students from Ukraine and Russia, but this number is not representative of the impact on our community. Canada is home to many large diasporic populations — Balts (Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians), Russians, and many others — and it hosts the second largest Ukrainian diaspora in the world. We, the descendants of victims of tyranny, feel this aggression as if our own countries were under attack.

We will also see an increase in Russophobia globally, and I implore our community to recognize that while the actions taken by Russia are egregious, the reins of terror are in Putin’s hands. Russians in our community that do not stand or speak for the actions of Putin will suffer from his war. I am grateful for the brave Russian citizens demonstrating against the actions of their country. More than 2,700 protestors have been detained for expressing their vehement disapproval, and continue to gather despite not having the same means to self-organize as we do.

I also want to note that there have been disturbing events of anti-Black and other racism at the western border of Ukraine. We must stand simultaneously against racism and war, and stand united for justice for all people. I am anguished with sorrow for the Afghan refugees that have endured and fled one war, only to find themselves in another. Western media have done the Ukrainian people a disservice by somehow portraying that they are more deserving of our attention or less deserving of this war. War is never the answer and nobody deserves to endure it. In my fervent reaction to this war I am also reflecting on occupation in Canada. Queen’s is situated on traditional Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee Territory – and I cannot acknowledge the historic occupation of my people without also recognizing the pain and oppression of the Indigenous peoples in Canada. There is no justice unless there is justice for all.

I am grateful that Queen’s is prepared to accept students through WUSC, though I fear that we will see a far greater number of refugees than we are prepared for. As of this morning more than 660,000 refugees have made it across the border, and the UN projects more than 5 million will do so during this war. Ukraine has far exceeded expectations of its defence, and Russia has underestimated the will of its people. As we speak, a 65 km-long convoy of Russian forces has amassed to the north of Kyiv and has promised to attack the city with forces far deadlier than those we have seen so far.

Call to action

I call on Senate to affirm its commitment to supporting our students, faculty and staff affected by the Russian Invasion of Ukraine, and to welcome with open arms the refugees who will find their way to Queen’s — just as Queen’s welcomed my grandfather in 1950. I hope that this war will end imminently, resulting in the restoration of the freedom and sovereignty of the people of Ukraine. But I also look to the history my family knows too well, and this leaves me with pessimism. Should this war endure, we must be accommodating, flexible, and compassionate to ensure that we can do everything possible to ease the disruption of refugees’ lives — regardless from which conflict. In response to these times we must be prepared to cut the red tape that entrenches academia.

It’s not 1930 anymore; everyone is watching. It’s also not 2014 anymore. We are all taking action.

Slava Ukraini – Glory to Ukraine.
Emīls Matīss
SGPS Graduate Student Senator, Queen’s University