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Information can land 'bigger blow' than weapons, Ukrainian President Zelensky tells Canadian students

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2022-06-22 CBC/Radio-Canada
Students at the University of Toronto listen to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. © Spencer Gallichan-lowe/CBC Students at the University of Toronto listen to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told university students across Canada via video link Wednesday that his country remains committed to democracy nearly four months after Russia invaded.

"We've already surprised the world," said Zelensky, who spoke through a translator. "We've come together to do the impossible and we shall prevail against all the odds for the free and democratic future."

The University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy is hosting the event, which is focused on how Canadian universities can help Ukraine during the conflict, which NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently said could "last for years."

Zelensky, who was introduced by Chrystia Freeland, Canada's finance minister, took questions from students across Canada, touching on a variety of topics. He spoke about how international communities could best support the besieged country and what prompted him to leave acting for public service. 

"I wanted to share my energy, my strength, my experience, my openness," Zelensky told an audience of students and scholars across Canada that enthusiastically welcomed him.

Anya Broytman, an incoming student at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs and Policy, said she was surprised by "how approachable and genuine President Zelensky is and how spontaneous and humorous he is in his reactions."

Broytman asked the first question on Wednesday — a question that made Zelensky smile and his audience chuckle. She noted that Zelensky had been compared to so many famous leaders, including the fictional Harry Potter. She asked who he counted as role models and where he got his inspiration from.

Zelensky said he drew strength and inspiration from ordinary Ukrainian people, but he acknowledged the comparisons.

"We know who is Voldemort in this war and we know who is Harry Potter," he said, "so we know how the war will end."

It's reactions like that that set Zelensky apart from Putin, said Broytman, who was born in Moscow. "Every interaction of this kind with Putin is carefully scripted," she said.

Broytman said she welcomed the opportunity to ask Zelensky a question as a way of supporting friends living in Russia who oppose Putin but cannot do so openly without facing fines, arrest, imprisonment, "or worse."

"I cherish the opportunity to be here for them," she told CBC News. "I know the world right now is very bitter … and that's understandable, but I just wanted everyone to know that Putin does not represent all of Russia." 

While Zelensky said he is grateful for international support, including weapons, he said information has proven a powerful weapon for Ukraine — particularly thanks to the internet and social media.

"We can cut distances between our countries and other countries, between the government and society," he said. "For us, internet is a kind of weapon because we can show what's going on."

Showing the world the details — which cities have been conquered, how many victims there are, how many casualties — "means freedom," Zelensky said.

"Information… sometimes can give a bigger blow than some types of weapons," he said.

Zelensky urged people not to "become tired of the war" and to continue rallying their communities to action.

"We need weapons, we need financial support, we need humanitarian support, and we need permanent 24/7 sanction pressure," he said. "No matter how many times I repeat this, it will never be one too many while the war is going on."

Students tuned in from the University of Calgary, University of Saskatchewan, Université de Montréal, University of Prince Edward Island, University of Alberta, and University of Manitoba.

They also tuned in from across Ontario, including at Western University, Queen's University, the University of Waterloo,and Wilfrid Laurier University. Students from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia are joining as well.

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