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Rota debacle renews calls to examine history, including war crime records

Last Updated Sep 27, 2023 at 3:43 pm MDT

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marc Miller leave a meeting during the Liberal Cabinet retreat in Charlottetown, Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

OTTAWA — Canada could revisit calls to declassify documents about the presence of Nazi war criminals in the country, Immigration Minister Marc Miller said Wednesday, as the fallout continued over Parliament’s recognition last week of a man who fought for the Nazis.

“Canada has a really dark history with Nazis in Canada,” Miller said, heading into the weekly Liberal caucus meeting.

“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.”

Many Jewish organizations in Canada say doing that requires a public airing of information, and that means all the records Canada has about the presence of war criminals must be opened up.

“I think part of the problem here is that the records are closed,” said B’nai Brith senior lawyer David Matas in an interview. 

“You can’t remember the past unless you know the past, and you can’t know the past unless you get the records.”

B’nai Brith Canada and the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center both reiterated their long-standing calls this week for the government to make public all records about the admittance of former Nazi soldiers. 

That includes the entirety of a 1986 report from a public commission on war criminals, which is often referred to as the Deschênes Commission for the judge who led it. 

The report has never been fully released, including an appendix with the names of 240 alleged Nazi war criminals who might be living in Canada that the report recommended Canada investigate.

“It’s now time for Ottawa to not only release the unredacted files related to the Deschênes Commission, but to also address the stark reality that there are still former Nazis with blood on their hands living in Canada,” said Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center President Michael Levitt.

Matas noted that in June, a House of Commons committee studying Canada’s access-to-information system recommended all historical documents be released in full after 25 years. 

He said implementing that recommendation would fulfil the desire to see Canada’s war criminal records.

Currently, records can be released 20 years after someone’s death. But Matas said that rule doesn’t apply in this case, because information about people who died can’t be accessed unless their names are available.

He said it’s not that every person named in the records is guilty, but that a justice system relies on openness, and you can’t have justice without transparency, whether you’re guilty or innocent.

There is also little to no information publicly available about what follow-up was done to investigate alleged war criminals named in the Deschênes report, or bring any of them to justice.

All of this comes after what some have called the most embarrassing international debacle in Canadian history.

On Friday, during an official visit by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the House of Commons Speaker pointed to a guest in the gallery he identified as a war hero.

Parliamentarians and dignitaries who were present gave two standing ovations to a 98-year-old Ukrainian Canadian war veteran without knowing or understanding that the unit he fought with was formed by Nazi Germany to fight against the Soviet Union.

Speaker Anthony Rota, who said he did not know about Yaroslav Hunka’s background, apologized for making an egregious mistake inviting him to Parliament. He announced Tuesday that he would resign from the role.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued an apology on behalf of Canada and all parliamentarians for the debacle.

University of Alberta professor John-Paul Himka pointed out that nobody seemed to immediately understand how Hunka’s military history implied he would have fought with the Germans.

That’s because of a great lack of understanding of history, even among elected MPs, he said. 

“I mean, this man was introduced as somebody who fought the Russians during World War II. Who was fighting the Russians during World War II? It was the Germans,” he said.

Matas concurred.

“I mean if Rota didn’t know about this whole issue and he was the Speaker of the House of Commons, you can imagine how widespread the ignorance is,” he said. 

Still, said Matas, the uproar has rejuvenated the discussion about exposing that history, including all the records.

“This is on the radar, now, I think,” he said. “They’re paying attention to it.”

Miller said he has read the Deschênes report twice since this all happened, and encouraged all Canadians to do so. 

He also said he knows there are many people demanding the release of the records, and it is something the government “could possibly examine again.” 

But he said because he doesn’t know exactly what is contained in the documents, he doesn’t yet want to say if he backs their full release.

“But again, in a country like Canada that has not only a difficult history with Nazis in Canada, but also one of the most important diaspora of Jewish people, including some of the largest proportions of Holocaust survivors, impunity is absolutely not an option,” he said.

Mental Health Minister Ya’ara Saks, whose York Centre riding in Toronto has about one-fifth of its population identifying as Jewish, said Canada should look at what it can do to help provide answers and closure to Jewish Canadians. 

She said opening the records is something to be looked at.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 27, 2023.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press