SMOKY LAKE – A partnership between the Smoky Lake Region and Kosiv District in Ivano-Frankivska Oblast, Ukraine, remains strong since its inception two years ago. The partnership was officially established in January of 2020, when the four municipalities of the Smoky Lake Region entered into a Joint Agreement to establish the provision of its ‘Ukrainian Twinning Committee.’
The committee is composed of Smoky Lake County, the Town of Smoky Lake, the Village of Waskatenau, and the Village of Vilna.
Michelle Wright, economic development officer of the Smoky Lake Region, explains that back in 2019, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress set up twinning opportunities for Canadian and Ukrainian communities. It was an opportunity the Smoky Lake Region took advantage of.
Wright said the region has a strong Ukrainian heritage due to a large immigration of Ukrainians who came to Smoky Lake in the early 1900s. “So, we felt that twinning with Ukraine would be the best fit for us as a large Ukrainian community.”
During the early stages of the twinning, the committee explored opportunities in economic development, cultural opportunities, and community connections, according to Wright. For example, “We did a couple of artisan workshops virtually where we had Kosiv artists present ceramics and weaving, which is part of their cultural heritage in Kosiv.”
Wright said this was promoted regionally and across the province, attracting people to join Zoom calls to watch the Kosiv artisans do their work. One day, Wright said the committee hopes artisans from Kosiv can visit Smoky Lake to provide a “much broader cultural and artisan opportunity.”
Also, “we worked with Alberta Beekeepers Association,” said Wright. “Ukraine has a very strong beekeeping skill set. They actually go to university for their beekeeping.”
"We were working with them to bring bees to help our beekeepers here in Canada,” she said, explaining the bees were coming from the Carpathian Mountains, a range of mountains located in central Europe.
The project allowed the committee to work with Kosiv to get Ukrainian queen bees to Canada. She explained the initiative benefited beekeepers who typically get their bees from the United States.
“So, if there’s a problem with the supply for example, like if our beekeepers don’t have enough queen bees – it's great that we have another type of queen bee that is very resilient to our type of weather conditions,” explains Wright.
In February of 2022, war broke out.
Wright said the committee remains in regular contact with representatives in Kosiv, talking about what they are experiencing.
“They’re having power outages because they’re only allowed so many hours of power every day... Obviously, their internet comes up and down, and they’re also constantly hearing sirens and having to relocate to safer locations,” said Wright. “These could happen right in the middle of our meetings.”
Wright recalled one of the meetings held after the war broke out, where representatives in Kosiv said they would be unable to do anything. “I think they were prepared for us to say, ‘We’ll see you when it’s over.’”
"But we didn't, our leadership didn't. We said, 'No we're building this relationship. That's what this twinning is about, it's the relationship. Projects will come up as they come up. We will stand by you, what do you need,’” said Wright.
In the beginning, the committee did not know how they were going to help.
"Like, what would really help? Because we're not going to worry about education and cultural exchanges and having business trade missions and things like that.”
Wright added, “Now, it's up to Kosiv to tell us what they need our help with, and then that's what we turned our attention to."
The local committee shifted to a more “humanitarian approach,” which involved raising funds for those in Kosiv. So far, $9,000 has been raised and gone directly to the region.
Other fundraising activities include a virtual silent auction that began in September last year, running until the end of November. With the help of a Polish volunteer, the group in Kosiv shipped “beautiful work” to Smoky Lake, including “carved wooden boxes, woven garments, embroidered dresses, socks, ornaments, and jewelries.”
“Then people were bidding online,” and once the auction closed, the money raised was all sent back to Kosiv. “Our community really responded and did a lot of bidding on those items, and they were so unique.”
Wright said the funds that have been sent to Kosiv are being used for items including soldier boots, backpacks, parkas, as well as non-military items helpful to Kosiv citizens who are fighting in the war.
While there are many challenges with the twinning between the Smoky Lake Region and Kosiv, like being unable to move forward with direct business-to-business development right now, “we are moving forward with a very strong relationship building,” said Wright.
Eventually, the committee hopes to have a cultural and business exchange, as well as educational cooperation with Kosiv.
The committee will also be hosting a Family Cultural Gala on Feb. 25 to raise money for Kosiv. Wright said there will be a dinner, a dance, a live and silent auction, and Ukrainian music during the event, held at the Smoky Lake Agricultural Complex.
People interested in attending or donating silent or live auction items for the gala can get ahold of Wright at: [email protected]
For people unable to attend the event, but would like to donate, they can also get in touch with Wright.
“We’ve shifted our focus from the business relationship to the humanitarian relationship knowing that they would do the same for us,” if the Smoky Lake region was ever in crisis. “I can guarantee that they would be asking how they could help us.”