Though he leavened his address to Canadian university students on 22 June 2022 with humour – “We know who is Voldemort in this one and who is Harry Potter, so we know how the war will end,” in answer to one question – Volodymyr Zelenskyy spared the students gathered at 11 universities none of the horror his nation is living through.
Ukraine’s president, the first speaker invited to talk to Canadian students who had to speak from an undisclosed location, said that over the past three years he has worked, as he promised at a meeting in Toronto, to make Ukraine’s institutions more transparent. Then he added: “Today the walls of our buildings are transparent. Literally. They are destroyed by Russian missiles and bombs.”
Some of the word pictures he sketched during the address sponsored by the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy were familiar and inspiring: the farmer who used his tractor to close the road to the Russian tanks, “the ordinary woman in our village who went out and stopped the armoured vehicles with her hands”.
Others were painful, made all the more so when recalling them after the talk. For, shortly before he finished speaking, the president answered the question ‘Why did you go into politics’ by pointing to his own daughters, 17 and 9, and asking the students to imagine “look[ing] at your children” and wanting to make their country a better place.
Earlier, he had eulogised “the beautiful children who sat in their apartments when the enemy missiles hit their house, and, unfortunately, [now] they rest in peace, and in our history and memory”.
Save for the refugees from Ukraine in the audience, the students, from six of Canada’s 10 provinces, could not have helped but ask themselves what it would be like for them to have their professors “teaching from the frontlines”.