In the world’s second-largest Ukrainian diaspora, business is booming at Ukrainian-owned stores

March 11, 2022, 9:00 PM UTC

At Kalyna Ukrainian market, an Eastern European grocery and deli in a strip mall in Calgary in Alberta, Canada, many of the store’s shelves and fridges sit bare. Kalyna’s owner, Tetiana Usenko and shopkeeper Nadiia Snihur, are struggling to keep up with the influx of customers.

“Pierogies and cabbage rolls…to borscht, fried meat pies, honey and poppyseed cakes, and smoked sausages” have flown off the shelves in recent days, says Snihur. “Basically, anything Ukrainian and homemade” has been popular among old and new customers, she says.

When I visited Kalyna last week nearing the shop’s closing time, a winter storm was blowing through the city, and road conditions were terrible—the highways were icy, and the sky was black. Yet the store was still filled with customers. They lingered in the store, chatting with the shopkeepers and buying blue-and-yellow flags and lawn signs and Ukrainian food and snacks.

Ukrainian flags are sold out at Kalyna, and Snihur is now recruiting volunteers to buy yellow and blue fabric to sew more. “We’ve already bought up all the yellow and blue fabric from five Fabricland stores in the city,” Snihur says.

Since Feb. 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine, the number of Kalyna’s weekday customers has increased eightfold, and the store’s sales have surged 10 times as high as usual. “Before the war, we used to get around 25 people coming into the shop on weekdays, and maybe 50 on the weekends. Now, over 200 people are coming in everyday and buying so much more,” says 30-year-old Snihur, who moved to Canada alone nine years ago to find better economic opportunities to support her family back in Lviv, Ukraine.

Snihur is one of 1.4 million Canadians who identify as Ukrainian-Canadian or having Ukrainian heritage, which makes Canada’s Ukrainian diaspora the largest outside Ukraine and Russia. As Russia’s war drags into its third week, Canadians—91% of whom back Ukraine in the conflict, according to a poll conducted by Maru Public Opinion—are supporting their neighbors of Ukrainian descent with their wallets, flocking to Ukrainian grocery stores and markets (and booze) in solidarity.

Photo of shopkeeper Nadiia Snihur at Kalyna Ukrainian Market in Calgary, Alberta, Canada on March 8, 2022.
Shopkeeper Nadiia Snihur holds blue and yellow flowers at the Kalyna Ukrainian market in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on March 8, 2022.
Yvonne Lau

Ukraine in Canada

Early in the 20th century, the Canadian government actively recruited Ukrainians with the promise of cheap farmland, hoping they would help settle the country’s three prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Around 150,000 Ukrainians immigrated to Canada from 1891 to 1914.

The second wave of Ukrainian immigration to Canada occurred between the World Wars, when Ukrainians, mostly from western Ukraine, fled to Canada to escape Polish rule. The aftermath of World War II sparked the third wave of Ukrainian immigrants into Canada.

The prairies are still home to the bulk of Ukrainian Canadians: Around 37% of all Canadians who identify as Ukrainian-born or having Ukrainian heritage reside in the three provinces that otherwise make up 3% of the country’s population.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Canada on March 3 announced a new immigration program for Ukrainians, which could spur a fourth wave of immigration. The new scheme will prioritize and expedite Ukrainians’ applications to enter Canada. All Ukrainians who apply will be eligible for work permits, the Canadian government said in a statement last Thursday. Canada will also streamline the reunification process for Ukrainian family members of Canadian citizens and permanent residents. “There will be no limit to the number of Ukrainians who can apply…and [the program] eliminates many of the normal visa requirements,” the government said.

Snihur’s relatives back in Ukraine have been reluctant to leave their homeland to join Snihur in Canada; they have deep roots in Ukraine and worry about settling somewhere new and unfamiliar. But the escalating danger of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and Canada’s new immigration program persuaded Snihur’s mom and two brothers to apply to move to Canada. Another brother and her sister are staying put in Ukraine. Snihur is relieved that some members of her family are bound for Canada but understands why her siblings want to stay behind: “Our whole extended family is in the country. They’re not ready to leave. They’re settled there,” she says.

For Snihur and other Ukrainian-Canadians, evenings are the most difficult time of day since it coincides with dawn in Ukraine. That’s when the Russian bombing begins. As soon as Snihur finishes her evening shift at Kalyna, she calls her family to “make sure they’re still alive.” Myroslava Kushnir, the owner of Smak, a Ukrainian supermarket based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, says she can’t sleep at night, because “that’s when all the bombings and activity starts in Ukraine. Family and friends are call us…and we hear sirens and people fleeing to the bomb shelters every night,” she says.

Kushnir and her husband opened Smak in 2014, seven years after they moved to Canada from Chernivtsi, in western Ukraine. The small red-and-white supermarket featuring a wall mural of the Ukrainian countryside, sells traditional Ukrainian food, clothes, and souvenirs. Business was good initially so the couple opened a second location in Yorkton, a city 331 kilometers east of Saskatoon, in 2020.

But they’ve never seen demand like this. Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, sales at Smak in Saskatoon, a city of 273,000, have jumped around 30% to 40%, thanks to an influx of customers—Ukrainians and other Canadians alike. The most popular products haven’t been grocery items, Kushnir says, but uniquely Ukrainian goods like kokum scarves, vyshyvanka embroidered shirts, and “anything yellow and blue.” Smak’s vyshyvanka are almost sold out. Customers are asking how they can help beyond making purchases. “We tell people that organizations helping Ukrainians need sleeping bags and medicine,” Kushnir says. “And they bring sleeping bags and medicine.”

A photo of demonstrators protesting against Russia's War on Ukraine in downtown Toronto in March 2022.
Demonstrators bearing Ukrainian flags protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in downtown Toronto.
Anatoliy Cherkasov—NurPhoto/Getty Images

Canada’s support for Ukraine extends beyond the community level.

Provincial liquor regulators banned the sale of Russian products in the days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On Feb. 25, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) announced that it would no longer stock any made-in-Russia products at its 679 stores in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, or sell any Russian-produced goods to any stores or wholesale customers. “The LCBO stands with Ukraine, and the Ukrainian-Canadian community here in Ontario,” the agency said in a statement.

The Alberta Gaming, Liquor, and Cannabis Commission (AGLC) on Feb. 27 halted all new registrations of Russian-made liquor and has stopped accepting any new stock, a spokesperson said. It has also prohibited retail shops from buying Russian liquor products and “recommends” retailers remove previously purchased Russian goods from store shelves. Alberta’s ban covers eight brands and 33 products, which include popular Russian vodka makers Beluga, Moskovskaya, and Russian Standard.

Canada imported $3.8 million worth of Russian alcoholic beverages in 2021, roughly 1% of the $310 million in total alcohol imports, making bans mostly symbolic. Sales volume of Ukrainian-made liquor products, meanwhile, remain low. In Alberta, Ukrainian spirits make up 0.02% of all liquor sales in the province, says the AGLC. Still, Canadian liquor retailers are experiencing growing demand for Ukrainian products (though official data isn’t available yet). Several liquor store workers in Alberta, who declined to be named because they’re not authorized to speak to media, say that they’ve seen an uptick in customers looking for Ukrainian-made liquor specifically. Two stores were sold out of Ukrainian vodka.

At the federal level, Canada recently announced new sanctions against 10 individuals close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. On Feb. 28, Canada became the first G7 nation to ban Russian oil.

Even with the spike in sales at Kalyna, Snihur says “the future of the business is very uncertain,” since factory stoppages and border closures in Ukraine will disrupt the supply of Ukrainian goods to Canada. Snihur and shop owner Usenko are now focusing on producing more homemade food, from Ukrainian soup to savory pastries and desserts, to cope with any supply delays.

Despite widespread government and community support, Ukrainian-Canadian business owners say they have also experienced abuse from some customers who don’t agree with their anti-war stance.

Last month, Kalyna’s main grocery supplier threatened to cut off the shop’s supply of Ukrainian and Eastern European goods and raise prices threefold after store owner Usenko halted all orders of Russian goods. Verbal harassment from a few customers compelled Usenko to post a sign on the front door, which reads: “People who support Putin and war, you are not welcome here.”

At Smak in Saskatoon, Kushnir fields phone calls from people demanding proof that Ukraine is being bombed, and that a war is actually taking place.

Still, Kushnir says, her store has become a place for Ukrainian-Canadians and their supporters to find a sense of community as they fret about the war 5,000 miles away. Kushnir and her husband are especially worried about a hospice center in Mariupol that they have supported with donations since 2014. “Right before the war started, we were able to send them money to buy ramen, water, and fuel. We’ve now lost connection with them. We don’t know if they or many of our friends in Mariupol will survive or not,” she says.

In recent days, Russian troops have showered the city with bombs. On Wednesday, Ukrainian authorities accused Russian troops of dropping several bombs on a children’s and maternity hospital in Mariupol, leaving at least 17 people injured.

Ukrainians come into Smak and share their own fears. They tell Kushnir how their “mom’s house has been bombed, or their old school,” Kushnir says. “It’s really personal.”

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