As a neighbourhood of embassies, Sandy Hill residents are used to gates, flags, and diplomatic license plates. But it’s possible that the neighbourhood has never seen seven months quite like the last because of Sandy Hill being home to the Embassy of Russia in Canada.
Many residents will remember the thousands of protesters who showed up in front of the embassy in the first chilly weekends of the war. In many ways, that was just the beginning.
It’s likely you’ve seen them, honked your horn, or flashed a peace sign as you walk by: a truly tenacious group of Ottawa residents — many who live in Sandy Hill — who have protested in front of the Russian Embassy almost daily for a remarkable 200+ days.
The core group is comprised of people from all walks of life, ethnic backgrounds, and ages. A chance to interview them around the six-month mark of their daily vigils found residents happy to explain the myriad of reasons why they keep showing up.
Ukrainian-Canadian Angela Kalyta described walking by the embassy in early March while two women stood holding a Ukrainian flag. “And I said, ‘yes. I have to do that.’ It means a lot to me what’s happening there. Now I’ve been doing it ever since,” said Kalyta.
Kalyta noted that the passing of time hasn’t impacted the group’s commitment. “We’re actually a bigger group now than when we started. […] As long as Russia is in Ukraine, we’re here in front of the Russian Embassy.”
Mariia Nepop, who moved from Ukraine to Ottawa with her immediate family in 2018, found the group by coincidence. “I live not far from here,” she explained. “I was sitting outside and I heard ‘Bayraktar’ [a popular Ukrainian pop song]. I couldn’t believe it. In Ottawa?”
Nepop, most of whose family remains in Ukraine, is especially grateful to local people with no connection to the country who protest simply on principle. “They keep doing it, like a job. They understand that there’s no shades in this. It’s just bad,” Nepop said.
She thinks the protest by ordinary Canadians has ruffled those inside the embassy. “What’s important, is that they feel it,” she says, gesturing at the embassy gates. “In this super peaceful town, they get all this pressure from people who are definitely not here for money, not for fame.”
Long-time Sandy Hill resident Irene Tomaszewski has a keen perspective on the politics and history of the region. Born in Poland in a Soviet concentration camp during the Second World War, she came with her family to Canada as resettled refugees in 1949. Connecting her own life story with the events of this year, Tomaszewski said bluntly: “This is Russia as I know it. They invade. They dispossess. They’ve been an empire from day one. It was an empire under the tsar. It’s an empire now.”
Tomaszewski described an altercation with one of the embassy staff who told her she wasn’t allowed to sit in front of its gates. “And I said, ‘You guys are really tough. You kill children and you tell old ladies they can’t sit down. I’m a Canadian.’”
Daryle Evan Kent, another daily protester, is First Nations and originally from Manitoba. “I don’t think the Russians should have done what they did,” said Kent. “And I admire the Ukrainians. I’ve learned about their history.”
“I’m here because I saw the images of the children leaving,” explained Judi Ward, another core protester. “There was a little boy who was walking. He couldn’t have been more than five or six. And he was carrying a bag, with all his belongings in the world. It was the winter, so he was wearing winter boots, and he was sobbing and walking, and dragging his feet. That broke my heart. I have three kids and a bunch of grandchildren. I’m here for the children.”
Matt McCaughey has been coming to the protests since March from Stittsville. He has become famous as “the bike guy,” bringing multiple “ghost bikes” painted in the colours of the Ukrainian flag as memorials to the children killed in Russian attacks.
McCaughey’s posters and activist art installations are a particular fixture, the latter festooned with heart chains made by Watergate apartment resident Flora Benoit and other group members. Each heart represents a child killed, with the chain now grown into the multiple hundreds. In recent weeks, the group has begun a solemn ceremony of reading the name of each murdered child aloud.
Karen Niven-Wigston, another of the “women of Watergate” wished to express how much the group appreciates the support from the Sandy Hill community. While protesters have every intention of disrupting Russian Embassy staff with music, chants, and horns, they try to be sensitive to residents whose homes are nearby. The group has delivered handwritten notes to the embassy’s immediate neighbours expressing thanks for their patience and quoting Elie Wiesel, a political activist, on the moral imperative to protest.
The night of August 24 was a major one for Ottawa’s supporters of Ukraine: it was both Ukrainian Independence Day and the six-month anniversary of the Russian invasion. Several hundreds of people marched from the usual spot in front of the Russian Embassy to Parliament Hill for speeches, songs, performances, and prayers.
As the sun set and the Ukrainian flags began to dwindle on Parliament Hill, I struck up a conversation with Alexandra, a young Ukrainian-Canadian woman.
Alexandra was passionate about the need for consequences for Russian crimes, whether on the international stage or here in Ottawa. And she stressed the need for the group to keep up the constant pressure and visibility, both in front of the Russian Embassy in Sandy Hill and anywhere around the city. “Every single person should know. When you see yellow and blue, you should know immediately what it’s all about.”
Editor’s note: Irene Tomaszewski and Daryle Evan Kent penned an opinion piece for the Ottawa Citizen on September 24 entitled “A protest to inspire us to look beyond ourselves.” You can read that column at: https://ottawacitizen.com/opinion/tomaszewski-and-kent-a-protest-to-inspire-us-to-look-beyond-ourselves