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Ukrainian-Canadian war effort recognized in new documentary

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WATCH: A Canadian War Story documents the contributions of Ukrainian Canadians during the Second World War – Nov 11, 2020

When Canadians stormed Juno Beach on D-Day, Wally Bunka was far from his home in Aberdeen, Sask.

He left a landing craft, waded through the frigid water and crept up to the heavily fortified beach at Normandy. After success on June 6, 1944, Bunka went on to help liberate the Netherlands.

Despite being wounded twice, he made it home. He is now 94 years old.

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“His story is absolutely remarkable,” said Jars Balan with the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta.

Balan met Bunka through a connection at an Edmonton Ukrainian Orthodox Church. With Bunka’s permission, Balan interviewed him. The contents of their discussion are included in A Canadian War Story, a documentary that made its digital premiere last week.

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It focuses on the contributions of Ukrainian Canadians during the Second World War.

Growing up about 40 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon, Bunka and his Ukrainian Canadian family found themselves in the grips of the Great Depression. He had a Grade 6 education and worked on the farm before enlisting in the Second World War.

He joined the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, also known as the Little Black Devils.

Ukrainian-Canadian Wally Bunka fought on D-Day. Jars Balan / Supplied

“One next to me got it in the stomach, but we couldn’t stop. We just kept going,” Bunka says in the documentary.

“We had rolling waves, so that helped us hide from the German guns.”

Following D-Day, Bunka helped liberate the Netherlands before returning home to Canada.

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His journey is one of 15 Saskatchewan stories featured in A Canadian War Story, along with nine from Manitoba and six from Alberta. Compiled through sources like newspapers, books and Royal Canadian Legion newsletters, each story is unique.

Yet there are some common themes. Anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 Ukrainian Canadians participated in the war, Balan said. Most of them were from the Prairies and many came from small farming towns.

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A lot of Ukrainian Canadians at the time were the children of immigrants who were identified as “enemy aliens” and interned in Canadian camps during the First World War. Some feared a similar fate when war broke out again in 1939.

“For the Ukrainian community in particular, there was, I think, a feeling that it was an opportunity to demonstrate that they were loyal to Canada,” Balan said.

Winnipeg-based filmmaker John Paskievich describes it as a “coming of age story” that saw Ukrainians emerge as equal citizens following the war.

“It’s an ongoing story. It’s the story of Canada.”

He hopes that his film shows viewers the justness of a war effort in the face of unspeakable evil.

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“I would also like to salute the courage and the sacrifice of these young men and women, he said.

A Canadian War Story is available for purchase online.