When Alecia Maslechko was a child in elementary school in Nelson, she chose Ukrainian culture as the subject of many school art projects.
She knew about Ukraine because she lived next door to her Ukrainian grandparents, Bill and Lecia Maslechko.
“They were like our second parents,” says Alecia, now 27 and working in the Vancouver film industry.
As young children, she and her younger sister Oksana sometimes dressed up in traditional Ukrainian clothing and had words in their daily vocabulary that were Ukrainian but they didn’t realize it. They painted Easter eggs (pysanka) in Ukrainian style.
Since then Alecia has continued to deepen her awareness of Ukrainian culture and her family history. So she was not surprised by the strong emotions she felt at a Feb. 24 demonstration in Vancouver in support of the Ukrainian people in their war with Russia.
She said the atmosphere on the street was passionate but sad, with many people holding back tears.
“It hurts, for a lot of people,” she said. “I think a lot of people still have family, and even closer family than I do, over there.”
Bill Maslechko was born in Manitoba after his parents arrived there as immigrants from Ukraine in the 1920s. Entering elementary school, he couldn’t speak English, and he found this “pretty tough” during a time when there was a lot of discrimination in Canada against immigrants from Eastern Europe.
He and his family moved to Nelson in 1977. Bill has visited Ukraine twice, most recently in 2005.
“It was just to get connected with the family. It was terrific to meet them and get to know them,” he says. “It was very welcoming.”
As a teenager, still living next door to her grandparents, Alecia became interested in genealogy and her family tree. Her grandmother’s death in 2016, when Alecia was in her early 20s, prompted deeper study.
She researched and developed a family tree populated by hundreds of people, and created an extensive network of Ukrainian friends on social media, including three third cousins her age in Ukraine whom she has never met but is regularly in touch with.
Alecia also follows many Instagram pages on Ukrainian culture, including photographers who do traditional costume photography, like the vyshyvanka, which are the traditional embroidered blouses, and vinok, the flower crown headdress.
“I think I have just been looking for more ways to feel connected to my grandmother,” she says.
Now the war has made that feeling more intense.
“Since this (the war) has all happened,” she says, “my desire to feel even more connected to Ukraine and my grandmother is becoming stronger.”
Alecia has some advice about grandparents.
“Everyone always says don’t waste time, talk to your grandparents, talk to your family, learn about their stories and their history while they’re here. And everyone always says, oh yeah, OK, fine. And then (after they’re gone) they wish they had talked to them more.”
Bill says he and his wife never specifically encouraged Alecia to learn about her family history.
“She just did it,” he says. “For whatever reason, she just got very interested in that. And so she has a good overview of our family.
“I feel very proud and great that she’s doing such a tremendous thing.”
Alecia says the gathering on the Vancouver streets on Feb. 24 reminded her of a family reunion in Manitoba, but very much bigger.
“Hearing so many people speaking Ukrainian and wearing the scarves and the headdresses, actually made me a really emotional.”
Her grandfather says he and other family members in Canada are monitoring their family’s situation in Ukraine daily.
“Our family in Ukraine hasn’t moved anywhere, really,” Bill said on March 3. “They’re just staying isolated in their homes. They’re not in Kyiv, they’re in other parts of the country. So they’re just staying quiet and inside and immobile.
“It’s very tough. While I say they’re not under bombing or anything like that, it’s still a very difficult time.”