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Seafarers from Ukraine now working on Great Lakes Ships

Story By Julie Gedeon. Originally published by Marine Delivers

Algoma, CSL, Groupe Desgagnés, and Hamilton’s McKeil Marine are among the Canadian ship owners that have welcomed qualified Ukrainian seafarers and other marine personnel after Russia invaded their homeland in February 2022.

Ruslan Butenko is eager to see his new work schedule as a Captain in Training on Algoma Central Corporation’s domestic vessels. He’s already sailed aboard the Algoma Intrepid, learning for the first time to operate the self-unloading eco-ship.

“No matter what my assignments, I’m grateful to be in Canada working for a company that has been supportive of this new start in my career and life,” says Capt. Butenko, who sought refuge for his young family from the war in Ukraine.

 Butenko was aboard a German vessel when the Russian invasion started. “I had to work by phone and Internet to help my wife and daughter, who was just four months old, to find their way to safety,” he says.

That journey involved his family escaping to neighbouring Moldova, traveling next to Bulgaria, followed by Cyprus, then Italy to complete the necessary identity biometrics for Canada, and his wife and daughter returning again to Cyprus to stay with her sister while he made his way here to begin his new job and find a place for them to live.

“It was so wonderful when I arrived at Pearson International Airport on December 6th and the Customs officer said, ‘Welcome to Canada. You and your family will be safe now,’” he recalls.


Needed seafarers

Said Bruce Burrows, President of the Marine Chamber of Commerce“We’d certainly like to see the federal government continue those policies, but also to clear the way for those who want to become permanent residents to do so,” he adds. “Canada is seriously lacking qualified maritime personnel, and Ukrainian seafarers are known to be some of the best in the world.”

Good corporate citizenry

Algoma has 15 people employed from Ukraine now, with more expected. “We’ve been considering foreign applicants since Transport Canada signed reciprocal agreements with maritime authorities in other countries but, for obvious reasons, the ones from Ukraine particularly caught our attention,” says Brooke Cameron, Algoma’s Senior Manager, Fleet Personnel. “We considered it good corporate citizenry to shift our focus to Ukrainian applicants seeking to escape the currently dire situation in their homeland.”

The company set up a recruitment team to help Ukrainian applicants to understand Canada’s work permit and visa processes, as well as Transport Canada’s maritime requirements.

He looks forward to working for about two months on a vessel and then having some time off with his family until his next assignment. “On international vessels, I often worked four months at a time, and then sometimes up to six months with the Covid restrictions,” he says. “It will be nice to spend more time with my young daughter.”

Iryna Upir had been working as a fleet coordinator for a Ukrainian branch of a Greek shipping company when Mariupol, Ukraine, came under Russian attack. Her seafaring husband was far away on a ship at the time. “Fortunately, my mother and I met this guy who told us about this one road leading out of Mariupol being clear,” she recalls. “My car had not been seriously damaged by the bombing and could go another 100 kilometres, so we put my two young children and some things in it and went.”

She reunited with her husband in Greece, where her mother had friends and decided to stay. “My husband and I had already been thinking of trying to move to Canada, so I found out about Algoma online and sent my application,” Upir shares.

“After my interview, Algoma offered me a data entry job, but said there might soon be a position opening in fleet personnel coordination,” she relates. “Luckily, we had applied for our visiting visas and work permits already, so I was able to start my new job as soon as I arrived last September 22nd – a date I will never forget because it changed our lives.”

Her husband, Sergyi, has found part-time work in St. Catharines, and is now applying to have his maritime training and experience recognized by Transport Canada so that he can apply to Canadian ship owners.

Like numerous other Ukrainians recently arriving in Canada, she has a six-year visiting visa and three-year work permit.

Iryna Upir, Algoma’s fleet personnel coordinator with husband Sergei and 5-year-old son Valerii. Sergei hoping Transport Canada will recognize his seafaring credentials

Already onboard at Desgagnés

Viacheslav Solianyk had already been working aboard Desgagnés vessels under contracts for five years as part of the crews hired for international routes. “When the Canada-Ukraine reciprocal maritime training recognition was established in March 2022, I submitted my candidacy to work on Desgagnés ships under the Canadian flag,” he shares. “I hoped this would provide the safety and stability that I need for my family.”

He was in Thailand aboard a chartered Desgagnés ship when he learnt about Russia’s invasion of his homeland. “I phoned my wife at 4 am her time and just told her to grab our young son and leave,” he shares. “Fortunately, my wife had been working in a management position for a French company in Ukraine and her boss, who was a kind woman headquartered in Paris, invited her our son to stay there as long as needed.”

Another big perk: “The food on the ship is really good!” he says.

Viacheslav Solianyk and family

Bergeron says Groupe Desgagnés is definitely interested in continuing foreign recruitment with labour shortages expected by all sectors in North America for a number of years to come.

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