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Oakville resident appeared on Russia’s list of barred Canadians

Katherine Vellinga and her Zirkova Vodka
Katherine Vellinga and her Zirkova Vodka

The list of barred Canadians was last updated in November 2022. It mentioned politicians Peter MacKay and Jean Charest, actor Jim Carrey, author Margaret Atwood and other prominent figures, including Oakville residents, founder of Zirkova Vodka Katherine Vellinga together with her husband and co-founder of the brand John Vellinga.

Katherine Vellinga told Oakville News she is unsure why they were included on Russia's sanctions list. However, the family is a vocal advocate and supporter of Ukraine. The Vellingas have been producing vodka, Zirkova One and Zirkova Together, in Ukraine for over 25 years – even now, when Russian vodkas have been pulled off the shelves across Canada.

Vellinga admitted, "I consider it somewhat of an honour to be sanctioned by Putin’s criminal regime because it means we are making a difference."

When the full-scale invasion began, Vellinga and her husband decided to donate 100% of the profits from their vodka sales at the LCBO until they ran out of inventory. Then the couple created Zirkova Unity, produced in Canada, to donate 100% of profits to funds that support Ukraine. In the meantime, they were able to restart production in Ukraine.

"It is unnerving to me that someone in the Russian state has targeted our business, my husband, and myself, but we are committed to working to support Ukraine. Our Ukrainian employees and partners have inspired us with their strength, bravery, and resilience," the business leader said.

"From the beginning, we decided together that Zirkova will continue to stand firmly with Ukraine, that we will stay true to our brand purpose and promise, and that we must survive, no matter what the challenges, because Putin will not steal our dreams."

Interesting fact: while living in Ukraine and researching the documents around the origins of vodka itself, Katherine Vellinga discovered that vodka began in the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth in a place called Cherkaska. Cherkaska is the capital of the Cherkasy region in modern-day Ukraine.

The family wanted to educate people and change the narrative about where vodka began, and that’s how they started their brand Zirkova.

Katherine Vellinga and her Zirkova Vodka
Katherine Vellinga and her Zirkova Vodka

Vellinga uses her platform to bring awareness of the hardships and atrocities in Ukraine. Recently, Kathrine and her twin sister, Lenna Koszarny, spoke at Rebuild Ukraine Conference and presented a cheque for $25,185 to Canada-Ukraine Foundation.

Also, Vellinga donated to Dattalion, an organization of mainly Ukrainian women, who have created the most extensive free, independent, open-source database of Ukraine war footage, and verified eyewitness accounts of Russian aggression and war crimes. 

"As a Ukrainian-Canadian, I am so proud of my ancestral heritage and the strength and resilience Ukraine people have shown in the face of adversity," said Katherine Vellinga. "As a proud Canadian, I am so grateful to my fellow Canadians for making a massive difference in helping and supporting Ukraine and its people."

As Canadians stepped up in fundraising, volunteering, taking in families, and vocally supporting Ukraine, the business leader assured that everyone could find a way to help.

Vellinga picked organizations that "focus on Ukraine, are local to Canada, and have the experience to know what they are doing" – like the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.

While all sectors require help, Katherine Vellinga believes people should not feel overwhelmed.

"Every action helps, and collectively we make it better for the people of Ukraine. We pray for a speedy end to the conflict in Ukraine. It will be a harsh, long cold winter, and Ukrainians will require our support even more. I do not doubt that Canadians and my fellow citizens of Oakville will continue to be supportive," said Vellinga.