Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland’s electoral base is in Canada’s Ukrainian diaspora community, which has rebranded Nazi collaborators as nationalist war heroe
On Jan. 26, 2022, in the midst of Russia’s preparations to invade Ukraine, Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland issued a statement outlining why Canada—home to the largest Ukrainian diaspora outside Russia—would support Ukraine unconditionally, outlining a Manichean view of a “struggle between democracy and authoritarianism.” “Canadians—our own parents and grandparents—fought and died,” she continued, “to establish a rules-based international order during and after the Second World War.”
Freeland’s Ukrainian grandfather on her mother’s side, Michael Chomiak, did nothing of the sort. During the War, he edited Krakivski Visti, a Nazi propaganda rag in occupied Krakow that was printed on a press confiscated from a Jewish newspaper. Freeland, of course, is not her grandfather, nor is she responsible for his actions. But she is responsible for bringing him up at every opportunity to portray him as a liberal democrat who profoundly influenced her politics.
“My maternal grandparents fled western Ukraine after Hitler and Stalin signed their non-aggression pact in 1939. They never dared to go back, but they stayed in close touch with their brothers and sisters and their families, who remained behind,” she wrote in a 2015 essay for the Brookings Institution titled “My Ukraine.” “For the rest of my grandparents’ lives, they saw themselves as political exiles with a responsibility to keep alive the idea of an independent Ukraine, which had last existed, briefly, during and after the chaos of the 1917 Russian Revolution. That dream persisted into the next generation, and in some cases the generation after that.”
A Toronto Star puff piece from 2015 described Freeland’s grandfather as a “lawyer and journalist” who fled western Ukraine after the Soviets invaded, while conveniently ignoring the nature of his journalism. “All my grandparents loved Canada but my Ukrainian grandfather was the most passionate,” Freeland said. In 2016, she used the occasion of Black Ribbon Day, which perpetuates a false equivalence between Nazism and communism, to tweet a loving tribute to her maternal grandparents. “They were forever grateful to Canada for giving them refuge and they worked hard to bring freedom and democracy to Ukraine,” Freeland tweeted.
The deputy prime minister and finance minister’s revisionist family history is part of a broader project of myth-making in parts of the Ukrainian diaspora, in which certain anti-Soviet Nazi collaborators are often rebranded as nationalist war heroes. In Edmonton, where Freeland was raised, there are two monuments commemorating Ukrainian Nazi collaborators. A bust of Roman Shukhevych, who massacred thousands of Jews and Poles, has stood outside the Ukrainian Youth Unity Complex since the 1970s, in addition to a monument to the 14th Waffen SS Division—which was celebrated in the pages of Krakivski Visti—at a local cemetery.
Many Ukrainian diaspora community leaders in Canada maintain that these Ukrainians were in fact anti-Nazi, in addition to being vehemently anti-communist, and that claims to the contrary are Russian propaganda. When reports of Michael Chomiak’s wartime activities first began to circulate in the Russian and Polish press in 2017, Freeland, who was then minister of foreign affairs, claimed the story was a piece of Russian disinformation designed to undermine Canadian democracy.
“American officials have publicly said, and even Angela Merkel has publicly said, that there were efforts on the Russian side to destabilize Western democracies, and I think it shouldn’t come as a surprise if these same efforts were used against Canada,” Freeland told reporters who inquired about her grandfather. The opposition Conservative foreign affairs critic of the day, Peter Kent, accused the Russian government of “trying to smear a minister with historical detail that has probably been misrepresented.” The Canadian government retaliated the following year by expelling four Russian diplomats, which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said was a result of their “sharing scurrilous stories” about Freeland.
Although the story about Chomiak’s past was amplified in pro-Russian media, it didn’t start there, and Freeland knew it. In 1996, Freeland’s uncle and Chomiak’s son-in-law, University of Alberta Holocaust historian John-Paul Himka, wrote a paper in the Journal of Ukrainian Studies on Krakivski Visti in the context of Ukrainian-Jewish relations. In the first footnote of the piece, Himka thanks none other than Chrystia Freeland—who prior to her political career worked as a journalist at the Globe and Mail, the Financial Times, and Reuters—for her editorial assistance. Asked about her role in editing her uncle’s paper, Freeland’s office finally acknowledged—without elaboration, or any explanation of her previous obfuscation—“her uncle’s efforts to study and publish on this difficult chapter in her late grandfather’s past.”
Krakivski Visti was created in 1940 for Ukrainian nationalists who had fled Lviv, the capital of Ukrainian Galicia, after the Soviets invaded the year before and settled in Krakow, Himka explains. He notes that the paper did include valuable articles on Ukrainian history and culture that are worth reading for those interested in those subjects. It also published antisemitic propaganda in line with Nazi war aims.
Out of disdain for the Soviets, many Ukrainian nationalists regarded the Nazis as temporary allies of convenience for their broader aim of securing national independence from Moscow. At the time, Ukrainians were stateless, with modern-day Ukraine divided between the Soviet Union, Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. “They were very interested in helping the Germans with those issues they had a common interest in and one of those was removing the Jews from the territory,” Himka explained to the Progress Report. “A very important group of Ukrainian nationalists wanted a Ukraine for Ukrainians, so they wanted to remove, one way or another, all nationalist minorities.”
While most nationalist papers in Nazi-occupied Europe were run directly by the Germans, Chomiak’s paper was not, suggesting a degree of trust and collegiality between the paper’s editorial staff and Nazi authorities. Indeed, Ukrainian Canadian researcher Alex Boykowich unearthed a photo from the province of Alberta archives of Chomiak at a social gathering with Emil Gassner, who was in charge of the Nazis’ press department and answered directly to Joseph Goebbels, in addition to other documents revealing the extent of Chomiak’s collaboration.
As Himka notes, Gassner directly instructed the paper’s editors to print a series of antisemitic articles in the spring of 1943, just as the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was underway, which the Krakivski Visti’s editorial staff surmised as an opportunity to demonstrate their fealty to the Germans. Headlines from that time include “At the Sources of the Universal Conspiracy,” “A Nation of Desperados,” “The Jews Are Depraving Europe,” and “How They Helped the Bolsheviks.” One article said the Jews “always take the side of our enemies.”
Freeland could have simply and honestly acknowledged this disturbing aspect of her grandfather’s legacy and moved on—plenty of contemporary German officials with troubled family histories are perfectly capable of doing so—but instead she has used it as an opportunity to sow fear and mistrust about foreign threats to Canadian democracy.
Freeland, who speaks Ukrainian and Russian fluently, has close ties to Canada’s Ukrainian community, which is influential in electoral districts in Toronto, Winnipeg, and Edmonton that swing between Liberal and Conservative representation. Paul Grod, the president of the Ukrainian World Congress, former president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC), and a close friend of Freeland’s, said her ties to the Ukrainian diaspora community extend to her relationship with Ukrainian parliamentarians of all stripes, including figures like the stridently nationalist Andriy Parubiy, the founder of the Ukraine Social National Party, or Svoboda, who eventually served as the more pragmatic chairman of the Ukrainian parliament from 2016-19.
“She’s been a superstar with every Ukrainian president and prime minister that she’s interacted with,” Grod told The Ukrainian Weekly. “She walks on water—that’s the way she’s perceived.” Freeland has “always been prepared to provide both unsolicited and solicited advice to me and the leadership of the Ukrainian Canadian and global Ukrainian communities,” added Grod.
As president of the UCC, Grod pushed for the Canadian government to recognize the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and its armed wing, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, as anti-Nazi resistance fighters, despite the fact that they fought alongside the Nazis, murdering thousands of Jews and Poles in the name of establishing an ethnically pure independent Ukraine. Recognizing them as resistance fighters would have provided surviving members with access to publicly funded veterans’ pension funds, but Grod’s push was unsuccessful.
At a 2016 keynote address to the UCC in Regina, Saskatchewan, Freeland ended her speech with a call-and-response chant that is popular at official Ukrainian community events—Slava Ukraini! Heroiam slava!—which translates to, “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” Readers might have become familiar with the first half of the chant in the last few months, ever since Ukraine started fighting for its national survival against the armies of Vladimir Putin. But people with deep ties to the diaspora community, like Freeland, understand that the full chant—including Heroiam slava!—began as the official slogan of the OUN in 1941.
On Feb. 17, 2022, Freeland defended the Liberal government’s decision to freeze the bank accounts of those who participated in and supported the so-called Freedom Convoy to Ottawa, a group of truckers and associated demonstrators ostensibly protesting vaccine mandates. Freeland said the government felt “great sorrow,” but that its debanking actions—part of a broader invocation of the never-before-used Emergencies Act—were necessary to “defend our democracy” and to “restore peace and order.” The Emergencies Act allowed the government to prohibit certain forms of protest and seize property related to it without a warrant or trial.
The act was revoked a week later, just days after receiving parliamentary approval. But it was hard not to notice Freeland’s enthusiasm for citing “disinformation” to justify the use of extraordinary state powers against domestic political opponents while simultaneously leveraging the specter of “disinformation” to whitewash her own family history—all in the name of democracy.
When Canada announced it was offering $7.8 million in military assistance to Ukraine on Feb. 14, alongside a $500 million loan, there were few safeguards to ensure it wouldn’t fall into the hands of the country’s Azov Battalion, whose founder, Andriy Biletsky, said in 2010 that Ukraine must “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade … against Semite-led Untermenschen [subhumans].” Reporting from the Ottawa Citizen revealed that Canadian military officials met with Azov leaders in June 2018, and rather than distance themselves from the unit, merely expressed concern that it could get leaked to the media. In response to questions from the Citizen, Canadian Forces spokesperson Lt.-Cmdr. Julie McDonald said it is Ukraine’s responsibility to vet its own forces for far-right extremism.
Azov, of course, is not representative of Ukraine, whose Jewish president won a landslide electoral victory in 2019. That same year, a coalition of far-right parties affiliated with Azov received just 2% of the vote, well below the threshold required to sit in parliament. But after the Russian invasion, Azov was incorporated as part of the Ukrainian National Guard to assist in fighting Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
War makes for some unsavory allies, and many would say that holding our noses while we partially rely on groups like Azov to provide some measure of resistance to Russian aggression is the least bad option available to a pro-Ukraine, anti-Russia policy. But in a country like Canada, where the historical suppression of Nazi collaborationism has not only been tolerated but insisted upon at the highest levels of office, voters have every right to wonder about the person who many believe will be our next prime minister.