One by one, they answered the call.
On Feb. 27, 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his country needed fighters, and foreigners were welcome to the front lines.
Russia invaded Ukraine three days before, flooding the eastern regions of the country with troops and tanks.
Artillery and missiles darkened the skies, leaving massive scars across the face of the countryside and gaping holes where civilians once lived, worked and celebrated life’s milestones.
Canadians were among the first to answer Zelenskyy’s call. Solo or in groups, completely green or veterans of combat, many made their way to Ukraine to help however they could in the initial days of the war. The Ukrainian Foreign Legion told CTV News in March 2022 that Canadians were "one of the most numerous nationalities" represented among its ranks.
Three never made it home, killed in assaults by Russian troops.
Despite the danger, Canadian federal agencies say they aren’t monitoring anyone going to Ukraine -- to fight or to provide aid.
A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada said in an email to CTV News that “the government of Canada does not track how many citizens have left the country to fight in Ukraine.”
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) all told CTV News they were not keeping track of Canadians in Ukraine, either.
The Ukrainian Embassy in Ottawa, an essential paperwork pit stop for those hoping to sign up for Ukraine’s foreign legion, also said it was not monitoring those who chose to go.
“The Embassy of Ukraine highly appreciates contribution of Canadian citizens in resisting unjustified armed Russian aggression against Ukraine,” the embassy’s emailed statement to CTV News reads. “The Embassy does not have any statistics or databases regarding the Canadian volunteers who serve in the International Legion of Defence of Ukraine.”
Stephanie Carvin, former CSIS security analyst and Carleton University associate professor, told CTV News in an interview recently that it’s not illegal for a private Canadian citizen to go and fight for Ukraine, but there are security considerations for keeping tabs on those choosing to do so.
“The concern from a national security perspective is: people can join whatever group they want because what they are looking for is combat experience,” she said.
“They’ve gotten training, they’ve gotten skills,” Carvin said, adding the big question is: “what are they coming back and using them for?”
The Foreign Enlistment Act of 1937 restricts when people can fight in wars that do not directly involve Canada, and bans Canadians from fighting against countries it considers to be friendly. Those volunteering in Ukraine have to understand that they could be charged in Canada under the Criminal Code or under the Ukrainian legal system, if they engage in activities deemed illegal, such as travelling to Ukraine to get training to be used in extremist attacks.
Through social media posts and geo-locating of landmarks, CTV News has tracked at least 18 Canadians who are, or were, in Ukraine as fighters or as part of humanitarian efforts.
Those posts also made them targets of pro-Kremlin Telegram accounts meant to "expose" foreign fighters – but they say they're determined to continue.
STORIES FROM THE FRONT LINE
“The Russians love artillery, love it, and mortars – we had that a lot.”
James, a moniker that CTV News has agreed to use for security purposes, is recounting his time on the front lines of Ukraine.
“Once you get to safety, you laugh,” the British Columbia man said, mimicking the whistle a mortar makes. “You can hear a little (whistle sound) and you're like, ‘That's coming close’… We kind of heard a boom go off in the distance and we all looked up and listened, and then we heard them getting closer and closer. Then all of us get up and just start sprinting back to our respective areas.”
James is a veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) who retired in 2018. He saw the invasion of Ukraine through the eyes of his grandmother, a Finnish woman whose family was actively involved in the Winter War of 1939, when the Soviet Union invaded Finland three months after the outbreak of the Second World War.
“Seeing the videos of what was happening there, and then the stories from my family that came under Russian invasion -- it just felt like the right thing to do,” he said.
He left Canada within a few weeks of the invasion, initially joining the Norman Brigade, a fighting force of volunteers from several different countries commanded by a CAF veteran who goes by “Hrulf.”
That didn’t last long.
“It didn’t smell right to me," James said, alleging that he and Hrulf had a falling out over how the unit was managed.
He and a few others left and joined the Foreign Legion instead. Hrulf says he kicked them out.
Speaking about James’ allegations in a series of messages to CTV News from Ukraine, Hrulf categorically denied his version of events, saying “ego has no room in this war.”
But even with the complications when he arrived, James was clear on why he would volunteer to fight on the front lines of another country’s war.
“Why did we liberate France from the Nazis? You can definitely see throughout the world there is a democratic decline and a rise in authoritarian countries, and democracies have to stick together.”
For many of the Canadians CTV News was able to track to Ukraine, there is a specific moment they can recall as the catalyst for their decision.
For Jordan Mullins of Ontario, it was a single headline.
“I read a story that a woman was sexually assaulted in front of her six-year-old son by Russian soldiers,” Mullins said in an interview with CTV News. “I left four days later.”
Flying to London and then driving across Europe to Ukraine is the route Mullins took with complete strangers, all of whom had the same goal.
Mullins ended up with the Georgian Legion, where he spent the first couple of months, before being wounded, as a logistical specialist and platoon leader.
“The first day of actually being shot at…it just kind of rang my bell a little bit, but I knew that the momentum behind my driving force was very real, I kept the evil the Russians were doing in my heart,” he said. “I tried not to become like them (the Russians) while we were fighting…I am not a f---ing animal.”
But the realities of war saw Mullins suffer a traumatic brain injury while in the field.
“One of my teammates stepped on a mine…and it took off his leg below the knee,” he said. “At that time we also started taking indirect fire…so I hop-scotched back across the field to get him.”
Mullins said a shell landed close by while he was running back to the treeline with his comrade, causing him to collapse and wake up in a field hospital. He has been working on regaining cognitive function since then.
Despite the significant injury, Mullins told CTV News he wishes he could be back on the front lines.
A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN
Speedy, Tanto and Shadow, three French-Canadians CTV News has agreed to identify solely by their call signs due to security concerns, have been making waves on the front line.
Originally signed up with the Norman Brigade like James, they too splintered off, but had only good things to say about their former commander in recent interviews with CTV News.
“I still speak with Hrulf, I will probably go back (to Ukraine) with him…I have nothing against the Norman Brigade,” Speedy said, adding that in the first days of the war, logistics and supply were chaotic.
Speedy, who spent four years in the Canadian Armed Forces, was on the ground in Ukraine within two weeks of the invasion.
“I cannot be here doing nothing while people are getting blown up, women are getting raped, kids are getting beat up,” he said.
Tanto had a similar story.
“I saw some video, it was a kid crossing the border to Poland, but only with his passport and his toys, no parents because they died,” Tanto said in a telephone interview with CTV News. “So that very touch my heart (sic), and that's one of the reasons why I go there.”
Shadow describes it more as a calling.
“I learned what a ‘freedom fighter’ was in 2015 when I saw people from all around the world joining the fight in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State. It completely blew my mind,” Shadow told CTV News via email from Ukraine.
Shadow, who has 12 years of Canadian military experience, said “everything changed” for him four days after the Russians invaded, when Zelenskyy put out the call for foreign fighters to join the war effort.
“I was on the plane on the way to Ukraine on the same day. At that time, Ukraine vs. Russia felt like David vs. Goliath. They had no chance to win or survive, so I knew I would not come back, but I knew this war was my mission in life,” he wrote.
All three say they have seen combat, and have spent time training Ukrainian soldiers, with Shadow currently in the east on the front lines.
All three say they’ve spent thousands self-financing their trips to Ukraine, and to help alleviate costs and do some good, they’ve started a brand together called the Black Maple Company, selling patches and merchandise with their logo – with half their profits going towards Ukraine, they said.
They say the funds have been used to bring food to wounded soldiers in hospitals to boost morale, to buy a four-by-four vehicle, tactical gear and hundreds of dollars' worth of medical supplies for field hospitals.
When asked about whether they’re afraid to volunteer on the front lines, Shadow replied: “You need to be at peace with death. I had the chance to live 32 years in a free country. Here there are two- to three-days-old newborns getting killed by Russian cruise missiles.”
For Speedy, there is no shame in admitting there are moments when he gets scared, but that doesn’t stop him.
“It just feels so unfair…there's a lot of civilian people that don't deserve to live or work in a war zone,” he said.
KEEPING THE ENEMY IN HIS SIGHTS
Perhaps one of the most recognizable faces on the front line due to his popular Facebook page about his time in Ukraine is Wali, a sniper who told CTV News on Sunday that “the line was crossed” for him when Russia invaded Ukraine, spurring him to join the conflict, and even go into territory under Russian control – like Bucha.
“I went into places where the Russians were,” Wali said in an interview with CTV News Sunday. “I actually ate sushi…and just a few hundred metres from that place was a mass grave.”
Like many professional soldiers, Wali is pragmatic about the horrors of war, but that doesn’t mean he is unaffected by them.
“You talk to people who have been to other battle zones, and you can sense how hard the situation is just by looking at how the people coming back from those places look,” he said. “Places like Severodonetsk, and Bakhmut, recently, I have seen lots of people going there smiling and coming back not smiling, and I am talking about very good soldiers.”
“I can tell you that it’s kind of fun to talk about war stories after they happen,” he continued. “But when you are in the actual moments, it’s not fun…its very dangerous, it’s very violent, war is not pretty.”
Wali said over time, the stories of the atrocities Russia was committing in Ukraine changed how he thought about the country and its people.
Describing a moment on the front line where he had gathered in a map room with a Ukrainian commander while being bombarded in Irpin, Wali said the Ukrainians were discussing messages they were receiving about “atrocities going on” behind their front line.
“I asked the Ukrainians, ‘Are you sure that’s true? Be honest,’” he said. “I thought maybe it’s exaggeration, or there might be a few incidents but it’s not planned or spread (sic)..I was thinking maybe it was propaganda.”
The news of well-documented cases of torture, rape and killings in places like Bucha changed that.
When the Ukrainian commander asked him how he felt about Russians now, Wali said that even with everything he knew he could not hate them.
“He turned to me and said, ‘You don’t need to hate them, you just need to kill them.’”
He plans to continue fighting in the war for as long as he can.
KEEPING YOUR HUMANITY AMONGST HORRORS
While some Canadians took up arms in Ukraine, others decided to dedicate themselves to humanitarian aid.
Chad McFarland of Winnipeg has a specific story he repeats every time he’s asked about his decision to go to Ukraine.
He and two other men with either law enforcement or first responder training created the “Canada EH-Team” out of donations and self-financing to help get humanitarian aid into the embattled country where they could.
“We were bringing in medical supplies into Ukraine from Poland, going through one of the border crossings,” McFarland said in a recent interview with CTV News, adding that due to language barriers it initially took some time for his team to understand local officials.
“The Ukrainian border officers were there. They didn't speak English, we didn't speak Ukrainian or Russian, or have a good way of communicating with them, and what we got out of them is, ‘Do you have adult diapers?’” he said.
McFarland said eventually they were able to get more answers, with the border guards telling them the adult diapers were “for Bucha.”
“We had just started hearing about the atrocities that had happened in Bucha,” he said, recalling that another humanitarian team had asked his group to pick up two suitcases and bring them to Bucha as soon as possible. “The suitcases were filled with the drug Plan B (an emergency contraception pill) and then we realized…we're carrying Plan B, then what they needed the adult diapers for was for the women who were raped and tortured.”
“Our hearts just sank,” he continued. “We would have turned around and got whatever was needed for that situation.”
McFarland said eventually the suitcases were delivered to Lviv, Ukraine, and an all-female team eventually took the Plan B pills into Bucha, a city where Russia has allegedly committed some of the worst crimes since the invasion began.
Despite not having ties to the country, McFarland said the first images coming out from the war spurred his decision to leave his family behind and help where he could.
“I have a daughter… I was watching a news spot and this young Ukrainian girl about my daughter's age and the same look as my daughter was filling up a Molotov cocktail,” he said. “It seems cliché to say it's a fight for freedom. But I think that here in Canada, we take it so for granted.”
As part of his work in Ukraine, McFarland worked as an instructor with a local territorial defence brigade out of Odessa and other foreigners to teach combat casualty care training and logistics.
“My role was to get the needed logistics into the areas where the military needed them, or humanitarian aid groups, the field hospitals or the mobile clinics,” he said. “I was working with all of those different…governmental organizations in Ukraine.”
That role put him squarely in the sights of a Russian Telegram social media group that has targeted every foreign fighter it can dig up information on. McFarland says he is not worried.
“I'm in Canada. The FSB (Russia’s Federal Security Service) can come find me if they want to. Like, I'm not concerned over here. I won't be concerned when I go back to Ukraine for another humanitarian mission. Frankly, it's just I'm a very small fish in the entire pond,” he said.
Despite all the tragedy, McFarland is undaunted when it comes to planning his next mission in the country.
“Frankly, if we're not willing to step up… then why do we deserve our freedom when the Ukrainians are over there fighting tooth and nail just to preserve their freedom and their way of life?”