The Coincidences Behind Canada’s Nazi-Honoring Debacle Are Deeply Unsettling

The grandfather of Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s deputy prime minister, worked for a Nazi newspaper that recruited for the Galicia Division of the Waffen-SS — the same division as Yaroslav Hunka, the Nazi who was recently honored by Canada’s Parliament.

Chrystia Freeland, Canada's deputy prime minister and finance minister, speaking during a news conference in Ottawa, Ontario, on February 17, 2023. (David Kawai / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Now that Canadian parliament has ignited an international conversation about the dark side of Ukrainian nationalism by giving a standing ovation to Waffen-SS veteran Yaroslav Hunka, it might be worth revisiting the role Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland’s grandfather played in recruiting young men like Hunka to the Nazi cause.

During Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s September 22 House of Commons visit, Freeland was one of hundreds of parliamentarians who stood to applaud after now-former speaker of the house Anthony Rota announced the presence of a “Ninety-eight-year-old Ukrainian Canadian who fought for Ukrainian independence against the Russians during the Second World War.”

The ensuing controversy must have created a sense of déjà vu for Freeland, who is long overdue for setting the record straight about the nationalist hagiography she’s constructed around her Ukrainian nationalist forebear — if only the media would ask her about it.

Michael Chomiak, Freeland’s maternal grandfather whom she’s repeatedly cited as a political inspiration, edited a Nazi newspaper for Ukrainian exiles in occupied Krakow called Krakivski Visti, which was printed on a press seized from a Jewish owner.

A 1941 issue of Krakivski Visti. (Internet Archive)

Despite the equivocations of Liberal partisans, these facts aren’t in dispute. Freeland, in fact, helped edit a 1996 academic paper on the depiction of Jews in Krakivski Visti, written by her uncle, University of Alberta scholar John-Paul Himka.

At some point, Freeland decided it was politically useful to present the elder Chomiak as an avowed liberal democrat and the “most passionate” of Canadian patriots. When Chomiak’s history resurfaced in 2017, no doubt with some help from Russian authorities, Freeland claimed it was all a bunch of Russian propaganda.

The reason I bring this family history up is to highlight the newspaper’s relationship with the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, or Galicia Division, in which Hunka served alongside perpetrators of the 1941 Lviv Pogrom and under the command of a coterie of diehard Nazis.

Millions of Ukrainians fought valiantly against the Nazis during World War II with the Red Army, including Zelensky’s grandparents. But Chomiak, like Hunka, wasn’t one of them.

When the Galicia Division was founded in 1943, it received a boost from the Nazi-aligned Ukrainian press, including Krakivski Visti, which ran articles encouraging young Ukrainian men to join the Waffen-SS to fight Communism.

How the Waffen-SS was portrayed in media like Chomiak’s Krakivski Visti helped shape how Ukrainian nationalists like Hunka perceived the Third Reich, which they — at best naively — believed would help fulfill their nationalist ambitions.

From the LA Holocaust Museum’s description of its collection of Ukrainian collaborationist newspapers, which includes Krakivski Visti and its Lviv counterpart, Lvivski Visti:

Everyday attention was given to economic and cultural life, and especially to the support of the German war effort. In 1943 and 1944, both Lvivski Visti and Krakivski Visti hailed the German-approved formation of the 14th Waffen SS Division Halychyna, composed of Ukrainian volunteers. Ukrainians prefered [sic] to see this formation, especially at the end of the war, as a nucleus for a future Ukrainian Army, calling it the First Ukrainian Rifle Division.

Hunka hailed from Berezhany, which is located much closer to Lviv than Krakow, so he would have, if anything, been a Lvivski Visti reader.

The articles in its collection are, of course, in Ukrainian, which I cannot read. But, according to the LA Holocaust Museum, there is an appeal to join the Galicia Division in a May 1943 issue of Lvivski Visti.

A University of Alberta history PhD dissertation from Ernest Gyidel specifically about Krakivski Visti notes parenthetically that the newspaper included “official announcements and newspaper articles” from the Galicia Division.

Gyidel describes how the role the paper’s coverage of a June 1941 prison massacre committed by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, in Western Ukraine played in getting young people to volunteer for the Nazis:

The 1941 tragedy hit them and the rest of the Western Ukrainian population hard: they have lost either relatives or people whom they knew in the massacre. Two years later, when the UCC [Ukrainian Central Committee] campaigned for the Waffen-SS Division Galizien, which was reflected in Krakivski Visti, many young Galician Ukrainian men enlisted because images of the prison murders from summer 1941 — which was their first exposure to the Soviet mass brutality — became entrenched in their minds.

Although there’s no reason to believe they ever met, there’s a clear convergence between the wartime activities of Chomiak and Hunka.

In this regard, it’s difficult to regard Freeland’s revisionist family history as an isolated incident.

Rather, as I’ve argued since I began writing on this topic a few years ago, it’s part of a broader trend in the Ukrainian diasporic establishment of rehabilitating the image of Nazi sympathizers as anti-Communist freedom fighters, which is why monuments to the 14th Waffen exist in Oakville, Ontario, and Edmonton, Alberta, as well as in Detroit and Philadelphia.

It’s also why, in 2019, a $30,097 endowment fund for the University of Alberta’s Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies (CIUS) was established in Hunka’s name without controversy until now.

“He didn’t appear out of nowhere. Plenty in Canada must’ve known,” Twitter/X account @maoteddymao noted aptly.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the CIUS would accept an endowment in the name of an SS fighter. CIUS cofounder Peter Savaryn who served as the University of Alberta’s chancellor from 1982 to 1986, was himself a 14th Waffen veteran.

In 2011, according to a Journal of Slavic Military Studies article by Lund University academic Per Anders Rudling, the CIUS established endowments in honor of three Waffen-SS veterans: Roman Kolisnyk, Levko Babij, and Edward Brodacky,

On September 27, in response to requests for comment from numerous media outlets, University of Alberta interim provost and vice president (academic) Verna Yiu said the university is closing down the Hunka endowment, returning its funds to the original donor and undergoing a review of the school’s naming policy “to ensure alignment with our values.”

Perhaps the Hunka affair will serve as a catalyst for a long-overdue reckoning with how Canadian officials, in the name of anti-Communism, turned a blind eye to Nazi sympathies among eastern European nationalist émigrés, including our Ukrainian allies.

Freeland could show incredible courage and moral fortitude by leading this discussion, but doing so would require acknowledging that an important piece of her personal mythology is a lie.