On June 22, the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy hosted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy via a live video. Zelenskyy addressed U of T students, as well as students from 11 other Canadian universities, who also attended the live event. 

The address comes as Ukraine faces its fifth month of war against Russia since Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February.

In his speech, Zelenskyy shared that Ukraine is in need of “permanent” sanctions on Russia, as well as more weaponry, financial, and humanitarian support to keep up its defence against the Russian invasion. 

He acknowledged that it may become tiring to hear of the war as more time passes, but he urged people not to forget about his country. He said to remember Ukraine “[in] your actions [on] social media, in your communication with friends, [and by] going out to rallies in your countries [to support] Ukraine.” 

“So with your actions, please do not allow anyone… to forget about what is going on in Ukraine,” continued Zelenskyy.

Opening remarks

In the opening remarks, Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland reiterated Canada’s commitment to supporting Ukraine. She stressed that Ukraine’s fight is not only for its own freedom but for freedom of democracies across the world.

Freeland announced that Canada has delivered $1.5 billion of its $1.87 billion pledged financial support to Ukraine. 

Freeland added that she spoke with Ukraine’s Finance Minister Sergii Marchenko the morning of the address to affirm Canada’s commitment to provide financial assistance to Ukraine. “For as long as it takes, Canada will be there for Ukraine,” assured Freeland.

In his opening remarks, U of T President Meric Gertler expressed how honoured he was that Zelenskyy took time to speak with students in Canada. 

Gertler discussed how Canadian universities, including U of T, are welcoming students and faculty from Ukraine: “Because we are inclined to build bridges rather than walls, we have also forged strong partnerships with leading universities in Ukraine.” 

In May, U of T announced that it would be welcoming students and faculty from universities in Ukraine. Of the over 200 students anticipated to arrive at U of T, many will come through an exchange program between the Faculty of Arts & Science and the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (KMA), while others through an exchange program between the Munk School and Kyiv School of Economics.

A future in Ukraine for Ukrainians studying abroad

Kateryna Luchka, an exchange student from KMA at U of T, asked Zelenskyy how his government would ensure Ukrainian students studying abroad could return to Ukraine and have a bright future.

Zelenskyy first praised the exchange programs between universities in Canada and Ukraine and thanked the Canadian government and universities for making the programs possible. 

In response to Luchka’s question, Zelenskyy stressed the importance of restoring peace and security in Ukraine: “We have to stand strong for our land, for our universities in cities, and use the capacity of our country… we have to start developing [this capacity] when peace comes to our land.” 

Zelenskyy also expressed his commitment to reform Ukraine’s institutions, saying he is dedicated to bringing a high level of liberty in both business and personal development and reducing “bureaucratic hurdles,” especially during war. 

Zelenskyy hopes these goals and achievements contribute to a foundation that allows future generations to thrive in Ukraine. However, he advised that without help from Ukrainians studying overseas and the application of their knowledge and experience, the reform may be complicated and slow.

“So, do come back with state-of-the-art knowledge and with the willingness to live and build an independent Ukraine,” said Zelenskyy. 

The shared fight for democracy 

Quinn Rozwadowski, a student from the University of Saskatchewan, asked Zelenskyy how to convince others that democracy is worth fighting for, even if the frontline is on the other side of the world.

Zelenskyy affirmed that Ukraine is fighting for the common values shared by the democratic world. 

He believes that these shared democratic values, particularly of choice in the manner in which one wishes to live, eliminate the distance of war: “We’re fighting for the same values, just like any other country [that] would like to live in the democratic world, and have the right to choose where to live, who to live with, what to do, and who to love.”

Zelenskyy explained that Ukraine’s fight to protect democratic principles may prevent such aggression from spreading to other countries.

“We need to move in a preventive manner… the world should respond to the aggressor in the same manner, the same way, as if this war was waged in your own country; [only] then [will the results] come,” answered Zelenskyy. 

Zelenskyy on maintaining democracy in war

Emma Patterson, a U of T student, asked Zelenskyy how his government is balancing democratic principles in times of conflict and under martial law, which Zelenskyy declared on February 24, following the onslaught of Russian attacks. 

Moreover, Patterson wondered how Ukraine’s present circumstances are affecting its bid for membership in the European Union (EU)

Zelenskyy acknowledged that the exercise of full democratic processes has been constrained since decisions have to be made swiftly, as opposed to procedurally, in response to new developments. 

Be that as it may, Zelenskyy asserted that in circumstances of war, specifically those in which many human lives are at stake, democracy may be defended through non-democratic means.

The decisive actions being taken now, he believes, would “bear good fruit” in Ukraine’s bid for EU membership when the war ends and full democracy is restored. 

Zelenskyy remarked that being granted membership in the EU would greatly bolster the morale of Ukrainians and the Ukrainian army, describing it as “going into the light from the darkness.” 

On June 23, members of the European Parliament voted in favour of granting Ukraine candidate status for membership.

Closing remarks

Zelenskyy was thanked by all participating universities across Canada. In-person attendees at the Munk School gave Zelenskyy a standing ovation at the end of his address.

In the closing remarks, Peter Loewen — director of the Munk School — applied a quote from Winston Churchill, originally used to describe Greek soldiers in World War II, to Ukrainians.

“Hence, we will not say that Ukrainians fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Ukrainians,” said Loewen to Zelenskyy. 

“We pledge our continued support [to] your struggle for freedom, for self-determination, and for democracy,” concluded Loewen.