Over the last two weeks, we have seen a lot of news coverage about the scandal in the House of Commons. The Speaker of the House, Anthony Rota, invited 98-year-old Ukrainian-Canadian, Yaroslav Hunka, to sit as a guest in the parliamentary gallery. Rota stated that Hunka was “a Ukrainian hero, a Canadian hero. And we thank him for all of his service,” which prompted a standing ovation.
In the hours and days following this speech, it was revealed that Hunka’s military service was as a member of the Waffen-SS Galicia Division, also known as the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, or the Galicia Division. In the days following this revelation, various human rights and Jewish groups in Canada and abroad spoke out in condemnation against Hunka’s reception in Parliament, prompting Rota’s resignation as Speaker of the House and an apology from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Rota purportedly did not know about Hunka’s involvement with the Galicia Division when the invitation was granted.
There is a long history of Canada refusing to fully acknowledge the dark histories that are a part of its past, moments and decisions that both the state and many of its citizens would rather forget. One such dark moment was the arrival of Nazi war criminals in Canada in the post-Second World War era, and the failure, in subsequent decades, to fully address or make right this history.
In recent days we have seen statements of outrage and shock that Parliament honoured someone who voluntarily enlisted in a Nazi SS unit. And while this outrage is understandable and even laudable, it is also imperative that we understand the context in which alleged Nazi war criminals were able to gain access to Canada and why an event like this was able to occur.Since shortly after the end of hostilities of the Second World War, accusations were made that alleged that Nazi war criminals had received sanctuary from trial within the borders of Canada. These allegations ranged from estimates of a handful to several thousand Nazis living in Canada. A 1983 Globe and Mail article even published an estimate that “100 to over a thousand” alleged Nazi war criminals resided in Canada, and that they ranged in social status and occupation “from janitors to business executives, from Prairie residents to a Dachau camp guard turned Toronto real estate broker.”
The Galicia Division’s culpability in specific war crimes and atrocities in Ukraine and Poland has been and continues to be a topic of debate. In Canada specifically, debate surrounding the Galicia division has been present since the early 1950s when the Canadian government decided that Ukrainians in the UK should not be banned from applying for immigration based on the Division’s status as a branch of the German Army, and thus their identity as enemy combatants. They determined, like British officials, that members of the Division should be thought of as Displaced Persons. Prior to this decision, British authorities conducted screening of a cross-section of the over 8000 members and determined that there was no reason to treat them as enemy combatants. While the Division’s soldiers were considered war criminals by the Soviet Union (as Soviet citizens who had taken up arms against their own government), the British authorities did not agree with this classification and instead categorized soldiers of the Division as Displaced Persons that should be protected against repatriation. The ban against their migration was lifted and members could and did apply for immigration to Canada.
In a 2012 article, Olesya Khromeuchuk discusses this controversial legacy of the Division and shows that “the ‘Galicia’ was formed as a result of a complex combination of factors, rooted in the specificity of Ukrainian nationalism and the changing situation throughout Europe.” She cautions us, though, to be cognizant of the political framing of the Division’s history, and of how political motivations, such as anti-communism and nationalism, have shaped how it and the men who served in it are remembered. Its members have been accused of committing war crimes, including accusations of murder, kidnapping, assault, and theft, against Polish, Ukrainian, and Jewish civilians during the war years. The reality about the Division is complicated. Further research and access to archival documents in Canada and abroad that remain classified will provide further insight into the Division and help us to better understand it, perhaps answering some of the many questions surrounding it.
In the immediate post-war period, Canada prided itself on being a part of judicial bodies such as the United Nations War Crimes Commission and the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg (the Nuremberg trials). But, alongside these very public actions to punish leading Nazi officials, Canada also failed to prevent the entry of alleged Nazi war criminals into Canada, and in some cases even participated in clandestine programs to recruit them. One such program was Operation Matchbox, which sought out and recruited Nazi scientists and technicians for immigration to Canada, the UK, and Australia (in the United States this program was called Operation Paperclip, and it recruited over 1600 scientists, technicians, and engineers to the US).
Shifting immigration policy also opened the door, so to speak, for the entry of war criminals into Canada. Increasing numbers of immigrants were needed to reinvigorate the Canadian labour force in the post-war decades, and Europe’s Displaced Persons were ideal candidates. Amongst the over 150,000 Displaced Persons who were admitted to Canada between 1945 and 1951, some alleged Nazis were also able to hide their war records and avoid detection by immigration agents who had limited knowledge of war crimes and atrocities and were increasingly more concerned with the perceived threats of communism and communist sympathizers than with the Allied Powers’ recently defeated foe. The presence of war criminals in Canada exposes that at the core of immigration policy, there was a hierarchy of preference to select migrants based on race, class, and political orientation. Those individuals who embodied preferred characteristics of class and race were thought to be more easily assimilated into Canadian society, and provided a cover for alleged Nazi war criminals who were less likely to arouse suspicion as they embodied certain preferential ideals.
Continued pressure from lobby groups about the presence of Nazi war criminals in Canada eventually led to the creation of a federal Royal Commission in 1985. Under the leadership of Judge Jules Deschênes the Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals was asked to investigate three questions: if war criminals had migrated into the country; if they had, how many were still residents; and what legal options were available to respond to these individuals. In brief, the Commission found that some war criminals had migrated to Canada. Notable examples include Jacques de Bernonville and Helmut Rauca.
Jacques de Bernonville was a ranking member of the Vichy regime in France who entered Canada by concealing his true identity. He fled to Brazil in 1951 after his request to remain in Canada was denied and the French extradition warrant loomed above him. Helmut Rauca migrated to Canada in 1950 but was located in Canada in the 1980s after a German warrant requested his extradition to stand trial for war crimes. He relinquished his Canadian citizenship and was arraigned in Germany. He died while awaiting trial. Determining how many alleged Nazi war criminals resided in the country was a more difficult answer to ascertain. A list of 774 names was compiled by the Commission to investigate. Upon further investigation the list of names dwindled to 29 names where “the seriousness of the allegations and the availability of evidence warranted special attention.”
Without transparency about the Commission’s archives, including the release of an unredacted copy of Alti Rodal’s report for the Deschênes Commission (Rodal’s report contains a detailed account of how war criminals were able to enter the country and government responsibility in their entry, including a detailed account of policies and practices of government agencies and agents and specific cases of known Nazi war criminals within the country), the release of the confidential Part II of the Deschênes Commission report, and the release of the Department of Justice and RCMP files about Nazi war criminals, we may never have the full picture. In July 2023 David Matas, senior legal counsel for B’nai Brith Canada stated that Canadians deserved the right to access these records and all other Holocaust-related records.
For decades controversy has flourished around allegations that Nazi war criminals were permitted to migrate to and settled in Canada. Frankly, this is a stain in our history that needs to be adequately addressed. Perhaps the recent ‘embarrassment’ of Yaroslav Hunka’s war welcome in Parliament will prompt a more total examination of the Nazis who found their way to Canada in the 1940s and 1905s. The failure of the Canadian state to act decisively by concretely and quickly responding to allegations has further fueled the divisiveness surrounding the topic. Releasing the confidential records of the Deschênes Commission would provide a start for coming to terms with this dismal record.
Katelyn Arac is a postdoctoral researcher at Wilfrid Laurier University where she works on the history and legacy of PM Wilfrid Laurier on the Laurier Legacy project in the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Office. She completed her PhD at Queen’s University with a dissertation titled “War Criminals, Multiculturalism, and Post-war Liberalism in Canada.” This dissertation traced the history of Nazi war criminals in Canada through processes of immigration, the Deschênes Commission, and through judicial proceedings.
Canada. The Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals. Judge Jules Deschênes. Ottawa: Library of Parliament, Research Branch, 1986.
Abella, Irving and Harold Troper. None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1982.
Olesya Khromeychuk, “The Shaping of ‘Historical Truth’: Construction and Reconstruction of the Memory and Narrative of the Waffen SS ‘Galicia’ Division,” Canadian Slavonic Papers 54, no. 3 (September 2012) 443-467.
Lavertu, Yves. The Bernonville Affair: A French War Criminal in Québec After World War II. Montreal: Robert Davies Publishing, 1994.
Lancashire, David. “Canada Powerless? The Lax Hunt for War Criminals,” the Globe and Mail, July 21, 1983.
Margolian, Howard. Unauthorized Entry: The Truth About Nazi War Criminals in Canada, 1946-1956. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.
Troper, Harold and Morton Weinfeld. Old Wounds: Jews, Ukrainians and the Hunt for Nazi War Criminals in Canada. Markham, ON: Viking Penguin Group, 1988.