canada controversy

Pressure mounts on Canadian government to bring Nazis in the country to justice

Call to release full contents of WWII immigration report follows House of Commons recognition of Nazi collaborator; ‘There are wounds in this country,’ B’nai Brith official says


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers a speech in the Canadian House of Commons in Ottawa on September 22, 2023.

The recent celebration of a Nazi collaborator in Canada’s House of Commons drew an international uproar that has forced the resignation of a top parliamentary official and elicited a public apology from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who last week called the incident “a horrendous violation of the memory of the millions of people who died in the Holocaust.”

But leading Jewish advocacy groups in Canada insist that such measures remain largely inadequate as the fallout from the controversy reopens a fraught national debate over Canada’s record of bringing Nazi perpetrators to justice, which has long been criticized as unusually lenient.

“More than an apology needs to happen,” Richard Robertson, the manager of research and advocacy at B’nai Brith Canada, said in an interview with Jewish Insider last week. “We need action, and the action the government can take is long overdue.”

Among other efforts spurred by the incident last month, B’nai Brith is now stepping up a long-standing campaign urging the Canadian government to release the full contents of a multipart report examining Canada’s approach to Nazi war criminals who entered the country after World War II. The key findings of the so-called Deschênes Commission report, issued in 1986, have been redacted for decades, including the names of 20 alleged Nazi war criminals warranting “urgent attention” as well as 218 other suspected Nazi collaborators.

B’nai Brith is also calling for the publication, in its entirety, of a heavily censored accompanying report written by the Ottawa-based historian Alti Rodal, who has carefully documented Canada’s indifference and even outright resistance to pursuing legal action against Nazi perpetrators who were frequently admitted into the country with little screening by immigration officials.

“We really want these records to open up so we can understand Canada’s past and begin to heal from it,” Robertson said, citing Canada’s uniquely restrictive immigration policy toward Jewish refugees from Europe before, during and after the Holocaust. “There are wounds in this country, and we have a right to the information. Our main issue is to ensure that this never happens again.”

The Jewish human rights group isn’t alone in advocating for increased accountability after Canadian lawmakers unwittingly gave a standing ovation to a former Ukrainian Nazi, Yaroslav Hunka, who was invited to attend a joint session of Parliament during Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky’s recent visit to Ottawa.

The 98-year-old Nazi veteran served in the Waffen-SS Galician Division, where he swore a “holy oath” to Adolf Hitler before immigrating to Canada after the Nazis were defeated. In the packed chamber late last month, he was hailed simply as a “hero” who “fought for Ukrainian independence against the Russian aggressors,” drawing a raised fist from Zelensky, a Ukrainian-born Jew who lost family in the Holocaust. 

After Jewish groups spoke out against the event, Anthony Rota, the former speaker of the House of Commons, apologized for having invited Hunka, a constituent in northeastern Ontario, and said he had been unaware of his Nazi background. Rota stepped down days later amid mounting calls for his resignation.

Trudeau, who has also faced scrutiny for his participation in the event last month, described the incident as “deeply embarrassing to the Parliament of Canada and by extension to all Canadians.”

The episode underscored what critics have characterized as an increasingly glaring need for the Canadian government to publicly reckon with its own policies toward Nazi collaborators and war criminals.

“This clearly shows that Canada should release more information about Nazi immigration to Canada and bring war criminals to justice,” Günther Jikeli, the associate director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University, told JI. “It’s beyond me why Canada hasn’t fully opened its archives at this point.”

For her part, Rodal, whose historical assessment remains largely censored, emphasized that it is “high time for the Canadian government to release an unredacted version of” the auxiliary report she prepared for the Deschênes Commission nearly four decades ago. Doing so, she argued, would be in keeping with guidance from Justice Jules Deschênes, the retired Superior Court judge who led the commission. In his own report, Rodal recalled, Deschênes had praised her analysis as an “outstanding contribution” that should be “widely distributed.”

“However, bureaucrats in the Privy Council Office decided to comb through it and excise many sections,” she explained in an email to JI. Rodal, who is now the founder and co-director of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, speculated that politics had contributed to the redaction of her report. “I think that it was largely to protect their own reputations because of the role they played in blocking action on this issue.”

The prime minister’s office last week referred a request for comment to the Privy Council Office, which forwarded questions to Canada’s Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship. The Canadian government “is aware of requests for the release of the full report of” the Deschênes Commission, a department spokesperson said in a statement to JI on Saturday, “and will look to see if any additional information can be released, subject to requirements of the Privacy Act and related to national security.”  

“What happened in Canada’s House of Commons was unacceptable,” the spokesperson said. “It was a horrendous violation of the memory of the millions of people who died in the Holocaust and Canadians who fought to liberate Europe from the Nazis, and it was deeply painful for Jewish people, Polish people, Roma people, 2SLGBTQI+ people, people with disabilities, racialized people, and the many millions who were targeted by the Nazi genocide. It is vital that we ensure that this tragic chapter in world history is never forgotten.”

While scholars and activists are eager to see the reports released in full, Ivan Katchanovski, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa who specializes in Ukrainian studies, suggested that the establishment of what he called a Canadian “truth commission” could also provide additional transparency that “would be helpful not only for academic research by historians but also for promoting justice.”

It remains unclear how many Nazis entered Canada after the war, when monitoring such perpetrators was not widely recognized as a high priority amid mounting concerns over the spread of communism, among other considerations that likely contributed to a more permissive vetting process.

On the other hand, Holocaust experts have estimated that some 2,000 former members of the Galician Division alone were admitted into Canada after the war. In a decision that continues to stir controversy, the Deschênes Commission would later conclude that Hunka and members of his unit were not war criminals and “should not be indicted as a group,” even as the Nuremberg Trial had ruled otherwise.

Janice Rosen, the archives director at the Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives, told JI that an in-house search did not turn up any mentions of Hunka, who recalled in a 2011 post for a Ukrainian-language blog run by SS Galicia veterans that he had enlisted with the unit when it was created in 1943.  

“I think the fact that he was very young at the time and that he started his SS service in Ukraine at a period after most of the Jews had already been sent away or massacred,” Rosen said in an email last week, “meant that whatever he did in the war was not directly documented by Jewish survivors.”  

In the blog post, Hunka said he had joined the Nazis to protect his homeland but did not include details of his wartime service. He said he was held in a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy after the war. Later, he lived in England before settling in Canada in 1954, according to an obituary for his wife, Margaret, who died in 2018.

The Galician Division is known to have committed a number of atrocities but destroyed all of its records around the end of the war, according to John-Paul Himka, a professor emeritus at the University of Alberta who specializes in Ukrainian nationalism and the Holocaust. “So we don’t have a clear idea of what it did,” he explained.

Doris Bergen, a Holocaust historian at the University of Toronto, said the voluntary unit in which Hunka served “was definitely involved in mass killing of Jews,” even if “individual members are not automatically considered war criminals in Canada.” 

Still, she posited that such thinking is “a bit beside the point” in the aftermath of last month’s incident in Parliament, betraying a sort of historical amnesia among Canadian officials on basic facts about the war. “No one had to vet Hunka to know that if he ‘fought the Russians’ in the 1940s, he was fighting on the side of Nazi Germany,” she told JI. 

Efraim Zuroff, the chief Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center who lives in Jerusalem, said he was not surprised by the recent episode involving Hunka. “It’s not shocking at all to me, to be perfectly honest,” he said in an interview with JI. “If there’s any place that something like this could happen, it’s certainly in Canada. They have a shameful record about every single issue when it comes to the Holocaust.” 

Zuroff estimated that dozens of Nazis are now living in Canada under their own names, though there are currently no active court cases. 

Until a couple of years ago, Canadian prosecutors had for decades been unsuccessfully seeking to deport Helmut Oberlander, a Nazi who served in a killing squad of the infamous Einsatzgruppen before settling in Canada. He died in 2021 at his home in Waterloo, Ontario, marking the conclusion of the last existing case involving a Nazi war criminal in the Western Hemisphere, according to Zuroff.

Last Tuesday, a Polish government minister indicated that he had “taken steps” toward the possible extradition of Hunka, describing him in a social media post as “a member of the criminal Nazi SS Galician formation.”

Meanwhile, Richard Marceau, the vice president of external affairs and general counsel at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, an advocacy arm of the Jewish Federations of Canada, said he is now lobbying for the Canadian government to adopt what he described as a more urgent approach to investigating Nazi war criminals in Canada who have potentially eluded scrutiny.

“We don’t have a lot of time,” Marceau told JI in a recent interview, alluding to the actuarial probability that Nazi perpetrators won’t be alive for much longer. “A mandate should be given to the war crimes unit to look into this in an expeditious manner.”

A spokesperson for Canada’s Department of Justice said in a statement to JI last Thursday that the Canadian government has “taken action in 27 World War II-related Nazi war crimes cases” since the 1980s, when its war crimes program was first developed, including “criminal prosecutions, extraditions, citizenship revocation actions” and “deportation proceedings.”

By contrast, the U.S. Justice Department unit tasked with investigating Nazi war criminals has won at least 109 of 133 cases over more than four decades.

The spokesperson for the Canadian Justice Department said it “cannot comment on the existence of war crimes files relating to a specific individual unless made public by the court,” adding that the war crimes program “is exploring avenues for modernization with a view to improving Canada’s ability to combat impunity for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.”

“Every allegation concerning the presence of war criminals in Canada is examined,” the spokesperson vowed.

Marceau, however, suggested that the department had more work to do after years of alleged government neglect. “The fact that there are still Nazis who are living in our neighborhoods comfortably,” he said, “is unacceptable.”

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