When Gerry Lenoski arrived in Ukraine last month, it was a stark contrast to his last visit 10 years earlier.
“There was so much commotion going on in parts of Ukraine and some unfortunate stirrings of violence and Russia-related issues,” the former South Surrey resident said. “Last time, it was quite a different case.”
The longtime civic and public affairs activist – who is also the vice-president of South Surrey-based veterans advocacy group EQUITAS – travelled to the European country on both occasions as an elections observer with the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
He was one of 900 people invited for the nine-day Ukrainian mission, which kicked off May 20, and one of approximately 135 Canadians who would observe and record the process of the presidential election in Ukraine, which resulted in Petro Poroshenko taking office from embattled president Viktor Yanukovych.
Upon arrival in Kiev, Lenoski was paired with a Parisian diplomat and embarked on their journey, covering hundreds of kilometres travelling to different oblasts – or provinces – in the southeast portion of Ukraine to visit major polling stations and follow an extensive checklist, which included monitoring gender distribution to ensure there was a proper seal on the ballot box.
Fortunately for monolingual Lenoski, his Parisian partner came in handy while travelling in a portion of the country where Russian is widely spoken.
“Boy, she was a dynamo,” Lenoski laughed. “She spoke French, Russia and English – she rode rings around me.”
The duo travelled to polling stations, with about 100 miles separating them from the turmoil ravaging Donetsk as Russian and Russian-loyal separatists stage a rebellion opposing centralized rule from the Ukrainian capital.
While Lenoski and his partner were a safe distance away from the action, he noted that the observer team intended for that area was pulled back.
“It was calm in many respects, but people were edgy. Certainly, the volunteers were a little anxious,” Lenoski said. “It’s really a humanitarian commitment that people make. Our role is taking the word ‘observer’ and being literal about it.
“If we saw anything that was out of sync with what should be the case in our view, our only recourse was to keep a record of it and to report it.”
But as Lenoski travelled to each oblast, the vast majority of what he observed was Ukrainians coming out in large numbers to cast their ballots – much more than those in his home country.
“Their turnout there seemed to be about 60 per cent plus. It came across to me that they really knew what they were doing. The vast majority of situations were of people who were proud to meet us and show us they knew what they were doing,” Lenoski recalled. “It reminds me of how precious democracy is and how people should participate more (in Canada).”
While he admitted there may be some who would scratch their heads at why Lenoski would travel the distance to a country that is in the midst of a burgeoning civil war, the third-generation Canadian said that aside from his family roots in Europe – including Ukraine – the need to contribute towards democracy in a too-often troubled world is too important to pass up.
“It’s a small world. A powder keg can result from the smallest enmities over borders or over languages. We have to be alert and work towards alleviating those issues. I’m glad to be part of an adventure that speaks to the importance of democracy,” he said.