When Canada’s parliament unwittingly paid homage to a Nazi veteran, it opened the door to questions about its postwar past. The incident highlights broader issues of historical distortion and the country’s history of harboring Nazi war criminals.

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau speaking to the House of Commons in Ottawa on September 22, 2023. (Sean Kilpatrick / AFP via Getty Images)

On Friday, September 22, a packed Canadian parliament honored a Nazi.

It was inevitable that such would happen in a nation with a well-documented, historic, and essentially unaddressed problem of suspected Nazi war criminals who were allowed to settle in the country in the immediate postwar period. This is to say nothing of official commemorations that equate Nazism with Communism.

“We have here in the chamber today a Ukrainian-Canadian war veteran from the Second World War who fought for Ukrainian independence against the Russians and continues to support the troops today even at his age of ninety-eight,” said Speaker of the House of Commons Anthony Rota.

“His name is Yaroslav Hunka. I am very proud to say that he is from North Bay and from my riding of Nipissing—Timiskaming. He is a Ukrainian hero and a Canadian hero, and we thank him for all his service.”

Hunka is a veteran of the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, also known as the 1st Galician Division. The unit was renamed “First Ukrainian Division” toward the end of the war, and it is under this unit’s name that Hunka was initially identified in an AP wire photo.

Canada has at least two monuments dedicated to the veterans of this unit, one located in the Toronto suburb of Oakville, and another located in Edmonton. Recent incidents of anti-fascist vandalism in both locations prompted local police to launch hate crimes investigations. Jacobin has previously reported on Canada’s Nazi war monument problem.

Canadians are learning a harsh lesson, which is a regrettable trait shared by most World War II Allied nations: their country, too, served as a refuge for fascists, collaborators, and suspected war criminals.

The Blunder Seen Around the World

“The 14th Waffen SS ‘Galicia’ Division was formed in 1943 under German command from Ukrainian volunteers,” says Ivan Katchanovski, a Ukrainian-Canadian professor of political science at the University of Ottawa. “Members of this division were involved in mass killings of Jews, Poles, and Ukrainians. They massacred Polish civilians, including close to 1,000 in the village of Huta Peniatska.”

The occasion for Hunka’s dubious distinction was Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to Ottawa and speech before Canadian parliament, part of the Ukrainian leader’s effort to drum up further support for his embattled nation’s defense.

Apart from the Hunka incident, Zelensky’s visit to Ottawa was largely successful. He received a warm reception, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to allocate CAD $650 million for the purchase of fifty Canadian-made armored vehicles for Ukraine, which means Canadian defense firms will have an opportunity to profit from the conflict.

These happy goings-on would, of course, be marred by the deeply mortifying revelation that parliament had honored an SS soldier during its tribute to Zelensky. While the sordid farce rightly provoked incredulity in observers and analysts, the fact that it happened at all is hard to credit to regular, workaday incompetence.

That the Soviet Union fought on the side of the Allies against the Nazis in World War II is not an obscure piece of niche historical trivia, but a rather well-known fact, taught in most high school world history courses. Nonetheless, it appeared that almost the entire assembly leapt to its feet to applaud Hunka, including Canada’s top general, Chief of the Defence Staff Wayne Eyre, who was seated just a few spots down in the parliamentary gallery. Eyre has declined to apologize for lauding Hunka, his office instead indicating that Speaker Rota had already apologized for the matter.

Indeed, not only did Rota apologize, but he also resigned from his position on Tuesday, September 26, taking full responsibility for his actions after spending most of Monday resisting calls to resign. Rota maintained that he alone was responsible for the lapse in vetting the invited guest, although he later mentioned that his son has been the one to initially contact Hunka.

Who knew what and when is still an open question. While it didn’t take Canadian leftists on social media too long to figure out precisely what “fought the Russians in the Second World War” implied, Canadian parliamentarians seemed to have a far more tenuous grasp on world history. Initially, many of them placed blame on Trudeau and Rota. However, they refrained from explaining why they themselves had honored a man whose wartime allegiance was evident.

Blaming Russia

In his initial statement on the matter, Trudeau said the incident was upsetting and embarrassing for all Canadians. He then shifted the conversation, stating that he was thinking of all Jewish Canadians who were commemorating Yom Kippur on Monday, September 25. Finally, he reiterated the importance of collectively resisting the Russian bogeyman: “I think it’s going to be really important that all of us push back against Russian propaganda, Russian disinformation, and continue our steadfast and unequivocal support for Ukraine.”

Connecting the historical record with alleged Russian disinformation or propaganda is not a new tactic for Trudeau or the high-ranking members of his party. When it was discovered that Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland’s maternal grandfather had edited a virulently antisemitic and pro-Nazi newspaper during the war, her office initially dismissed this as Russian propaganda. This narrative was also invoked by the leadership of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC), an ultranationalist organization that claims to represent Canada’s Ukrainian community.

The UCC actively advocated for the admission of Galicia Division veterans into Canada during the 1950s, persuaded war crimes investigators to discount Soviet intelligence reports in the 1980s, and in 2010, publicly honored Ukrainian World War II veterans who had fought against the Soviet Union. An associated group, the League of Ukrainian Canadians, has, according to scholar Per Anders Rudling, even attempted to convince the Canadian government to extend veteran pensions and other aid programs to the Ukrainian veterans of SS units and collaborationist militias.

Contrary to their initial denials, conclusive evidence later confirmed that Michael Chomiak, Freeland’s grandfather, had collaborated with the Nazis. This fact was underscored by Freeland’s own involvement in editing a scholarly article about her grandfather, which was published in a 1996 volume of the Journal of Ukrainian Studies. It is worth noting that Freeland had been aware of this connection for two decades, despite her initial dismissal of the allegations as mere Russian propaganda.

When Freeland tweeted — and then deleted — a photo of herself holding a scarf with the red and black colors and slogan of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) at a Toronto rally in March of 2022, her office again blamed Russian disinformation efforts — as well as the long defunct KGB. The UPA was the armed wing of Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), an ultranationalist, antisemitic, and fascist organization that collaborated with the Nazis during the war. Remarkably, when questions about the incident were sent to Freeland’s office, her response and allegation of Russian propaganda efforts were made in tandem with a statement from the UCC.

In their effort to make the historical record fit contemporary geopolitical narratives, Canadian officials are quick to accuse Russia of a propaganda campaign. But they themselves seem to be engaging in disinformation. On Tuesday, September 26, Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, Bob Rae, tweeted “the Russians were on the side of the Nazis between 1939 and 1941” in response to a comment made by Dr Zachary Paikin. Paikin, a research fellow with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, expressed incredulity that “MPs mindlessly rose to their feet and applauded” a man introduced as having fought against the Russians during the war.

Reframing Historical Narratives

While it is true that the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany in 1939, it’s important to note that this occurred after the United Kingdom and France had already signed the Munich Agreement with Germany in 1938, which contributed to the Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia.

Moreover, the Soviets attempted to form a military alliance with France and the United Kingdom in 1939, which was rebuffed by the Western Allies. Rae’s insinuation that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were “on the same side” or allied during the period from 1939 to 1941 is plainly historically illiterate. The Soviet Union did not participate in the Holocaust, nor assist Nazi Germany in any of their military campaigns.

The reframing of the historical record to fit contemporary geopolitical narratives has been a prominent feature of the Canadian political and media discourse for the better part of the last decade, particularly since Russian invaded and occupied Crimea in 2014. Influential Eastern European diaspora communities with political connections played a significant role in shaping Canadian foreign policy. Unbeknownst to the Canadian public, they were instrumental in orchestrating official recognitions of the antisemitic and ahistorical Black Ribbon Day. Additionally, they were engaged in a concerted effort spanning over a decade to establish a monument commemorating the victims of Communism.

“I would like to present unreserved apologies for what took place on Friday and to President Zelensky and the Ukrainian delegation for the position they were put in,” said Trudeau on Tuesday in his apology to parliament, and theoretically, to the nation. “For all of us present, to have unknowingly recognized this individual, was a terrible mistake, and a violation of the memory of those who suffered grievously at the hands of the Nazi regime.”

If Trudeau and the several hundred others present were genuinely unaware of what “veteran of the Second World War who fought the Russians” implies, then it certainly suggests a rather low threshold of historical knowledge required to become a Canadian legislator. It’s challenging to wrap one’s head around this lack of awareness, especially given the frequent and unfounded claims that the historical record is tainted by Russian propaganda. Moreover, the history of Nazis finding refuge in Canada after the war is not a hidden fact.

If Trudeau and the several hundred others present were genuinely unaware of what ‘veteran of the Second World War who fought the Russians’ implies, then it certainly suggests a low threshold of historical knowledge required to become a Canadian legislator.

It was well-known in the immediate postwar period that Canada had welcomed thousands of displaced persons who were unable to return to their homes after the Soviet victory over Adolf Hitler in Eastern Europe. Writing for the Ukrainian Canadian in January of 1949, correspondent Michael Korol described the arrival of “displaced persons” (shortened to “DPs”) in the mining region of Northern Ontario:

The primary purpose for which the DPs are being brought into Canada is not only to provide cheap and willing labor, but also to be used to beat down the gains made by the organized working class of our country. We are letting into this country not pro-democratic elements who through no fault of their own were not able to return to their homeland, but some of Hitler’s SS men on whose hands is the blood of innocent men, women and children.

Ukrainian Nazis Become Canadian Blacklegs

Canada had already been welcoming Ukrainians who had fought for or alongside the Nazis in the war for several years, but by 1950 this policy became official. During a Thanksgiving children’s concert that year, organized as part of a larger effort by Canada’s previous and far more left-wing Ukrainian immigrant community to dissuade the government from importing any more of their fascistic countrymen, Ukrainian Nazis detonated a bomb at the Toronto Ukrainian Farmer-Labour Temple. The same thugs who enthusiastically rounded up Jews and other ethnic groups for extermination during the war were set loose in Canada to disrupt and undermine organized labor.

Much of this dark history would come to light in the 1980s, at a time of renewed interest in the subject of suspected war criminals who had managed to escape prosecution and found refuge in allied nations, including Canada. Though never officially kept secret, the issue gained wider public attention in part due to the unlikely popularity of the monograph None Is Too Many, by historians Harold Troper and Irving Abella.

The same thugs who enthusiastically rounded up Jews and other ethnic groups for extermination during the war were set loose in Canada to disrupt and undermine organized labor.

In the book, Abella and Troper exposed the long history of official antisemitism in Canadian immigration policy, an antisemitism that resulted in Canada denying docking rights to the MS St Louis in May of 1939, which was carrying more than nine hundred Jewish German refugees. Nearly all the passengers wound up being murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust.

These revelations caused a sensation as it fractured Canadians’ self-styled mythology of an open, tolerant, multicultural society. American investigations into suspected war criminals living in the United States — such as that of John Demjanjuk — prompted similar inquiries by Canadian authorities, albeit reluctantly. In a 1997 interview with Mike Wallace of the television newsmagazine 60 Minutes, Abella stated that former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau — Justin’s father — was aware of Canada’s role as a haven for alleged Eastern European war criminals. However, he refrained from taking action, fearing it would lead to conflicts among various diaspora groups.

The investigation led by Justice Jules Deschênes, initiated by Pierre Trudeau’s successor, Brian Mulroney, was ultimately hamstrung by its own self-imposed limitations such as refusing to consult Soviet records. The Deschênes Commission arrived at the remarkable conclusion that the members of the Galicia Division did not bear collective responsibility for the actions of the SS, even though this had already been established by the Nuremberg Trials forty years earlier.

Even though prominent Jewish groups had independently compiled a list of roughly two thousand names of suspected war criminals, the Deschênes Commission failed to take action on it. To this day, the second half of the commission’s two-part report — the portion that allegedly contains the sensitive information collected by the commission pertaining to just how many war criminals are actually living in Canada in the mid-1980s — remains strictly off-limits and unavailable to the Canadian public.

The Past Is Not Dead

What comes of the Hunka blunder remains to be seen. Canadian Jewish groups have once again demanded the second half of the Deschênes Commission’s final report be made public, though there are likely few men left alive to prosecute. The Polish government has indicated that they want Hunka extradited, though it is unclear if they have actually begun the process. Once again, Canadian Jewish groups are requesting that Canada remove the various monuments to SS units, or fascist collaborators, found across the country. Canadian politicians, happy to accuse one another of aiding and abetting the honoring of an actual Nazi, so far refuse to come out and condemn the presence of monuments built in their honor.

Trudeau and his inner circle, entrusted with managing this crisis in public, have been consistent with the messaging, not only in their many attempts to place the blame — somehow — on a vague Russian disinformation campaign, but also in framing this as something particularly injurious to Canada’s Jewish population.

The presence of suspected war criminals throughout Canada — for nearly eighty years — as well as the government’s disinterest in dealing with this problem, is insulting to all Canadians, irrespective of their religious inclinations or ethnic origins.

By apologizing to Canada’s Jewish community first and foremost, Trudeau maintains the idea that this is primarily a problem between diaspora communities, much like his father believed some forty odd years ago. There was no apology to Canada’s Russian community, members of which either fought against Nazi Germany, have relatives who did, or who count relatives amongst the estimated twenty-seven million Soviet citizens who died in the war. Similarly, while there was an apology to the Ukrainian delegation, there wasn’t one for Canada’s Ukrainian population, whose good name has been dragged through the mud.

By apologizing explicitly to the Jewish community, Trudeau reinforces a distorted and narrow view of history and World War II, which is essentially the same underlying problem that caused this mess in the first place. Canada’s default contemporary geopolitical worldview — that “Old World” problems are simply unresolvable ancient conflicts between two groups of equally victimized peoples in faraway lands — rarely fits with the historical record, though is easy for the public to digest and to build policy around. World War II was not a battle between Jews and Nazis, but that’s essentially how Trudeau’s reductionist approach treats it.

By failing to recognize the broader issues at play — such as the fact that Canada’s government actively encouraged the resettlement of suspected war criminals primarily due to their staunch anticommunism, later utilizing them to suppress strikes and terrorize socialist organizations — Trudeau maintains Canada’s central illusion of a largely performative multicultural harmony. Central to that foundational myth is the idea that all diaspora groups can lay equal claim to their own victimhood in their lands of origin.

This approach is insulting and belittling to the descendants of Canada’s postwar Jewish community because it conceals the broader historical truth regarding the “how and the why” of World War II, including why the Allies avoided helping the Soviet Union for about as long as they could and why they immediately returned to an antagonistic posture toward the Soviet Union at the conclusion of the war. That thousands of suspected war criminals found refuge in postwar Canada is a symptom of the bigger problem, not the problem itself.

While Trudeau hopes to shut the door on another week of scandal in the twilight years of his administration, history’s ghosts have thrown a spotlight on a closet full of skeletons.

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