Lifelong east Toronto resident Chris Yaccato’s passion for politics, world events and culture has recently taken him to Ukraine.
Yaccato, who by day works as the executive assistant to Brant, Ont., MPP and Speaker of the House Dave Levac, voluntarily travelled to the east European country late last month to serve as an independent observer for that country’s Oct. 28 parliamentary elections.
“It was a very different world, a real eye-opening experience. It’s definitely a different set of rules (there) but there are a lot of similarities,” said Yaccato, adding that like in Canada, residents expressed concerns about rising taxes, job security and caring for their families.
“I didn’t know what to expect. It was very humbling to know our two countries are very similar and we can definitely learn from one another.”
He said the most notable difference he saw was the economic disparity in Ukraine’s suburban areas.
Yaccato, who unsuccessfully ran for Ward 32 Councillor in 2003 and has worked on a number of election campaigns over the years, was part of a team of 430 short- and long-term observers from across Canada sent over to Ukraine by CANADEM – Canada’s Civilian Reserve, a non-profit agency dedicated to advancing international peace and security.
The organization maintains a roster of more than 15,000 experienced Canadian and international experts in various fields and from all walks of life.
“(Going to Ukraine as an election observer) was a natural fit for me and I’m certainly honoured to have been chosen,” said Yaccato, who lives near Main Street and Danforth Avenue. “It was a great way to understand the Ukrainian people, culture and lifestyle.”
Initially, he said he’d hoped to serve as an observer for Ukraine’s presidential election in January 2010, but applied late and wasn’t accepted.
The active east-end volunteer/community leader reapplied this summer and was invited in September to take part in the Oct. 28 parliamentary elections.
“This time I wanted to make sure I went,” said Yaccato, whose interest and connection with Ukraine began some time ago when he was involved in drafting legislation to establish Holodomor Memorial Day in Ontario.
Holodomor is the name given to the genocide by famine that occurred in Ukraine in 1932 and 1933.
An estimated 10 million Ukrainians, up to 25,000 daily at its peak, died as a result of the man-made famine under Joseph Stalin’s regime.
This year’s Holodomor Memorial Day is Saturday.
Yaccato’s journey to the former Eastern Block nation began on Oct. 18 when he travelled to Ottawa for briefings. His CANADEM team left Canada the following day, arriving in Ukraine’s capital city of Kiev Saturday, Oct. 20. Two more days of briefings/training followed.
In the evenings, Yaccato visited a few tourist spots such as Freedom Square, the site of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution.
The Orange Revolution took place from late November 2004 to January 2005 when the Ukrainians protested an election with civil disobedience, sit-ins and general strikes. The protest resulted in a new election being called with a “free and fair” vote taking place in December 2004. The new government was sworn in in January 2005.
He also passed by the federal parliament buildings.
Yaccato was then part of a smaller group of about 15 people deployed to the southeastern city of Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine’s fourth largest municipality.
As an election observer, his role was to visit various polling stations in his designated region and work to determine if there were any abnormalities in the election process.
“We were to report on any observances of voter intimidation, if they didn’t receive ballots or if things seemed out of place,” Yaccato explained.
“We weren’t there to intervene or assist, but to report.”
That data was then analyzed and complied into a report, he said, adding from his experience everything went smoothly and overall the election process was well organized.
Sunday, Oct. 28 was an especially long day for Yaccato who was up before dawn and didn’t get to bed until the afternoon of Monday, Oct. 29 as his role was also to observe the ballot count and closing procedures.
The region where Yaccato was working has 82 Precinct Election Commissions (PEC), each of which was required to report their results to the district electoral commission on a first come, first serve basis.
Yaccato’s PEC didn’t have the chance to report its results until 12:30 p.m. the following day.
“That was a long night. We were pretty delirious, but I’d do it again. It was definitely worth it,” he laughed. “If Canada sends a mission to Ukraine’s 2015 presidential elections, I’d love to apply.”