‘Canada has a dark history with Nazis’: political scandal prompts reckoning

<span>Photograph: AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Standing in the House of Commons this week, Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, apologized after a war veteran who fought alongside the Nazis was invited into the country’s parliament, called a “hero” and celebrated with two standing ovations.

Trudeau said all lawmakers “regret deeply” having stood and clapped – “even though we [did] so unaware of the context”, adding that the event was a disservice to the memory of millions “targeted by the Nazi genocide”.

Related: Canada parliament speaker resigns after calling Ukrainian Nazi veteran a ‘hero’

“Every year there are fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors to share firsthand the horrors of what they experienced,” said Trudeau. “And it is therefore incumbent upon us all to ensure that no one ever forgets what happened.”

But the momentary amnesia – a forgetfulness seemingly shared by all lawmakers who applauded that day – has transformed into a costly political scandal and prompted a broader re-examination of the legacy of Nazi-linked Ukrainian groups in Canada.

During the second world war, Ukraine was one of the main battlefields of the eastern front. About 4.5 million Ukrainians fought in the Red Army; far fewer – approximately 250,000 – aligned themselves with Nazi Germany. Some factions at different times fought both Soviet and German forces; some were involved in the mass killing of Ukrainian Jews.

Yaroslav Hunka, the 98-year-old veteran lauded in Canada’s parliament, was a member of the SS 14th Waffen Division, a volunteer unit also known as the “Galicia Division”.

Towards the end of the second world war, the group was also known as the First Ukrainian Division of the Ukrainian National Army, which in the following years had the effect of obscuring its links to the Nazi regime.

Yaroslav Hunka, the 98-year-old veteran who was lauded in Canada’s parliament.
Yaroslav Hunka, the 98-year-old veteran who was lauded in Canada’s parliament. Photograph: Patrick Doyle/AP

After the war, thousands of Ukrainians moved to Canada, and many who had lived through Stalin’s terror and the ensuing mass starvation held strongly anti-Soviet views. But possible links and sympathies to the Nazis were largely overlooked as the cold war set in, said Ivan Katchanovski, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa.

Despite the Galicia Division’s links to war crimes, a cenotaph celebrating the unit was erected in Canada’s largest Ukrainian cemetery. The memorial has long been source of frustration for Polish and Jewish groups. In June 2020 the words “Nazi war monument” were spray-painted on the cenotaph.

“The group, and the memorials to the fighters, have really escaped scrutiny because so few people know the First Ukrainian Division was just a different name for the SS 14th Waffen Division. And this was one of the reasons, unfortunately, why no one raised the issue in the parliament last week,” said Katchanovski.

When he took the stage of Canada’s parliament a week ago, Zelenskiy praised the city of Edmonton for being the first place in the world to erect a commemoration of the Holodomor famine, a deliberate policy from the Soviet Union which killed millions of Ukrainians.

Five miles north, a bust of the Ukrainian military leader Roman Shukhevych atop a stone plinth has long outraged Jewish and Polish groups. Shukhevych, who fought for Ukrainian independence, served with the Nazis and is believed to have been a perpetrator of massacres in Volhynia and eastern Galicia.

Diplomats from Poland and Israel condemned a similar memorial in Ukraine recently, alleging Shukhevych was responsible for the murder of tens of thousands “by bullets, fire, rape, torture and other beastly methods – only because they prayed to God in Polish or Hebrew”.

While many Canadians may have been surprised to learn of statues venerating such figures, these monuments have long been a “painful source of tension” for the Jewish community, said Dan Panneton at the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre.

“I feel like a lot of people are only now learning truly how deep this pain goes. But the reality is, the monuments are on private property. And over the years, we’ve seen a reluctance with specific, nationalistic facets of the community to engage with negative aspects of Nazi collaboration and participation in the Holocaust.”

The row over Hunka’s invitation has also reopened debate over the hundreds of suspected war criminals who settled in the country.

“Canada has a really dark history with Nazis in Canada,” the immigration minister, Marc Miller, told reporters ahead of the prime minister’s apology. “There was a point in our history where it was easier to get [into Canada] as a Nazi than it was as a Jewish person. I think that’s a history we have to reconcile.”

Prominent Jewish groups, including the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre, have called for all records about the admittance of former Nazi soldiers to be made public, including the entirety of a landmark 1986 report on war criminals evading justice within Canada.

The 1985 Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals in Canada, colloquially known as the Deschênes Commission, probed whether the country was a haven for war criminals and Nazi sympathizers. The commission was prompted in part, by reports that the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele had attempted to immigrate to Canada in the early 1960s.

But only redacted portions of the report have been released over the years, omitting an appendix with the names of 240 alleged Nazi war criminals who might be living in Canada.

“Charges of war crimes against members of the Galicia Division have never been substantiated,” said the final report. The federal government has only prosecuted four individuals of war crimes – but none of those attempts have ended in conviction. Due to the secretive nature of the report’s contents, it remains unclear how much the government investigated other individuals suspected of war crimes.

“Remembering the Holocaust means not just remembering the victims,” David Matas of B’nai Brith Canada wrote in a recent editorial. “It means also remembering their murderers.”