The ongoing political controversy that saw a Ukrainian-Canadian veteran who fought in a Nazi unit being honoured in the House of Commons has revived the call for the unredacted reports from a federal commission on war criminals that was held nearly 40 years ago.
In 1985, then Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney asked Justice Jules Deschênes to investigate the story that Joseph Mengele, the high-ranking Nazi known for his sadistic experiments in Auschwitz, had entered Canada.
The commission found that Mengele wasn’t in Canada. But Deschênes chaired an inquiry to reveal how many war criminals were residing in Canada, to determine how they had entered and what legal avenues were available to prosecute them.
The findings of the Deschênes Commission have never been made fully public, and questions about Canada’s screening of suspected war criminals and the government’s inability to prosecute or deport them have persisted.
Those questions intensified two weeks ago, when Yaroslav Hunka, a 98-year-old veteran who had fought with the Waffen SS (Galicia) was given a standing ovation in the House of Commons during an address by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The Waffen SS swore allegiance to Hitler, and fought alongside Nazi troops. Members of Parliament have said they were unaware of Hunka’s background when he was honoured in the House.
The ramifications of that incident continue both internationally and in Canada. House Speaker Anthony Rota, who had invited Hunka and introduced him as a Canadian and Ukrainian hero, has resigned his position. After days of political attacks, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized on behalf of Parliament. And the University of Alberta returned a $30,000 endowment that had been established by the Hunka family in the field of Ukrainian studies.
The incident has also prompted Poland’s education minister to investigate whether Hunka can be extradited. Russia, which has sought to portray its ongoing invasion of Ukraine as an attempt to “denazify” the country has seized on the opportunity with a Kremlin spokesman telling reporters, “such sloppiness of memory is outrageous.”
All of this could have been avoided, if the reports produced by the Deschênes Commission on war criminals in Canada had been made fully public, says lawyer David Matas who represented B’nai Brith Canada at the 1986 inquiry.
“This whole business with the Galician Division, obviously, people just aren’t tuned into it. If Rota knew, this wouldn’t have happened. If the University of Alberta knew, they wouldn’t take it (the endowment funds) and then revoke it. Either they would accept it knowingly or refuse it,” Matas said in an interview with The CJN.
“The history lives with us, whether we get the records or not. We shouldn’t be making mistakes because of hidden records.”
The inquiry published three volumes in 1987. The first volume is available but redacted. The second, which identifies war criminals and other details, still remains classified. A third volume, by academic Alti Rodal about the immigration policies of the Canadian government at the time, is available but redacted.
Jewish advocacy groups have been asking the federal government for years to make the reports public. B’nai Brith has filed several Access to Information requests and presented its case most recently at a Commons committee hearing in February.
At this stage, it might need legislation to have the full reports released, Matas said. “If the government gave it parliamentary time, then it could happen overnight. It just depends on how important they think it is.”
The reports illustrate how Canada’s immigration policies failed on many fronts before and after the war, Matas said. In the postwar years, it was easier for Nazi war criminals to enter Canada than for Jewish refugees, historian Irving Abella has said.
“The whole thing is one tragedy after another. Of course, the Holocaust was the ultimate tragedy, but then to let in Nazi war criminals, not to let in Jewish refugees,” Matas said. “Not to prosecute them (war criminals) and then when to prosecute them to do it such a bungled, delayed fashion.”
“What’s happened recently highlights the problem, but so far, it hasn’t solved the problem, it just casts a spotlight on it.”
The commission investigated 883 cases. From that list, 341 were found to have never lived in Canada, while another 86 had died. In some cases, evidence could not be found or was located in Eastern European nations. In the end, the commission determined there was evidence of war crimes in just 20 cases.
Rodal was a professor of Jewish history who gave the commission an in-depth look at the policies that allowed war criminals to enter Canada. Her paper has only been released in a redacted version, although she says that at the time Justice Deschênes recommended that the entire work be made public.
Although the report has not been made fully public, the gist of her findings has been circulated, she said.
Rodal had access to confidential cabinet memos and reports from intelligence agencies. She found there was a difference between the government’s policies and its practices.
“On paper, restrictions were stringent and it was difficult if the rules and regulations were followed on who could come to Canada,” Rodal said in an interview with The CJN. “Practices were different.”
Canadian immigration officers in Europe were overwhelmed by the large numbers of people applying and records were hard to access behind the Iron Curtain, so few immigrants were properly screened, Rodal said. The finding that immigrants were not properly vetted was part of her report to the commission, she said.
“There was after 1950, a progressive relaxation of the rules, so all who came afterwards came legally into this country, and that includes the Waffen SS in 1951 and it includes the SS in 1955.”
The restrictions were relaxed in part, because Communism was now seen as the greatest threat to the West. These men, particularly those from Ukraine and the Baltic states who had fought against Russia, were guaranteed to be staunch anti-Communists.
The history of the Waffen SS Galicia, the unit Hunka volunteered to serve with, is a complicated one, Rodal said. By the end of the war, it was composed of soldiers and police officers who had joined for diverse reasons and who had come from a number of units with a varied track record.
The entire SS organization was declared a criminal organization at the International Military Trials in Nuremberg after the war.
The Deschênes Commission, however, stated that membership in the Waffen SS did not constitute a war crime, although Jewish groups at the time disputed the decision. Several thousand members of the Waffen SS were admitted to Canada, she said.
“What was available in 1986, did not provide any evidence that the division as a unit committed crimes. There were some doubtful issues, yes, but there wasn’t real evidence,” Rodal said.
In the intervening years, there has been more research, especially in Poland, she said.
“There’s been research they had razed a village to the ground… There are also stories of suppression of partisan groups in which there were Jews who were not even fighters but were hiding with the partisans, but were singled out to be shot.”
Now that so much time has passed, nearly all the members of the Waffen SS are dead. The few who are still alive are like Hunka, well into their 90s.
“There’s no room for striving for justice in that sense, but the story should be told, that is the most we can do now. And it should be told truthfully, and thoroughly,” Rodal said.
“And for Canada, the story of its own disgraceful aspects of how it dealt with the exclusion of Jews during the war, and antisemitic policies that were part of the postwar period as well… Decades have passed and it’s time to be truthful about Canada’s past as well.”
David Matas agrees that there are still lessons today for Canada in the Deschênes inquiry.
“Canada should not be a haven for mass murderers, war criminals, criminals against humanity, genocidal killers. Genocide was not just a Holocaust problem, it continues to this day and people from all over the world are trying to get into Canada,” he said.
“The system that exists now is obviously better than it existed before the commission of inquiry on war criminals got going, but I wouldn’t say every problem has been solved from the experience of the Jewish people. There’s still problems, we still need to see this history, to see what went wrong and what can be done right.”