WINNIPEG - More than 1,000 people turned out Tuesday to hear Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko speak outside the Manitoba legislature where he was greeted like royalty as he waded through well-wishers, hugging and kissing people young and old.
The Ukrainian presence in Winnipeg is strong and for many it was a rare chance to see the leader of Ukraine's democratic transformation. But it was also an emotional reminder of the homeland they left in darker times decades ago.
"I'm so happy, very very happy," said Anna Zubaty, moments after Yushchenko stopped to tenderly kiss her hand.
"I told him I'm glad he's here and I'm glad he's president in the Ukraine because he's not communist. He's Ukrainian."
Zubaty survived the famine of 1932-33, although her brother and father were sent to Siberia and died. She left in 1950 for a new life in Canada, where she worked two jobs that paid less than 40 cents an hour.
Yushchenko has been lobbying other nations to recognize the famine as an act of genocide by the Soviet Union - a move Prime Minister Stephen Harper said this week he supports.
Yushchenko told the crowd the famine took a toll on his grandmother, who hoarded bread long after the famine was over because she feared another.
"She would never leave a crumb on the table. Up in the attic, there would be three or four bags of bread crusts," he said in Ukrainian.
"Year by year, step by step, the truth came alive. Now we're creating a national register of victims of the Holomodor (famine)."
Yushchenko spoke of the warm welcome Canada has provided Ukrainian immigrants for decades. He also thanked Canada for supporting Ukraine's bid to join NATO.
Manitoba Premier Gary Doer called Yushchenko an international hero for democracy. He also promised to ensure the famine is featured in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, a national museum planned for Winnipeg, but which is still in the fundraising stage.
"Manitoba will not leave this tragedy underneath the table. It is a story that we will each tell to our children and grandchildren," Doer said.
Most in the crowd had little trouble following Yushchenko's entirely Ukrainian speech. The language is still spoken in many schools, and Ukrainian churches and cultural centres can be found throughout Manitoba.