Newly released documents from the Deschênes Commission show Canada’s reluctance to prosecute Nazi war criminals

Screenshot from a 1987 news report by CTV News—based on the information that was public at the time.

The release of formerly classified documents from the 1986 Deschênes Commission—which investigated how Nazi war criminals entered Canada after the Second World War—reveals greater details about why the government was reluctant to prosecute them once they were in the country, says David Matas, the lawyer who represented B’nai Brith Canada at the inquiry.

Canada released the 618-page report written by historian Alti Rodal on Feb.1. While parts of the report still remain blacked out, it provides a broader picture of how Nazi war criminals entered Canada, and sheds light on then justice minister Pierre Trudeau’s rationale for not prosecuting them, Matas said in an interview with The CJN.

Marc Miller, minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, announced the release of the newest version of Rodal’s report. Portions of the report had been made public previously, but were heavily redacted.

“Those who suffered under Nazi Germany and their descendants want transparency when it comes to this shameful chapter in our history. This is what led to the creation of the Deschênes Commission almost 40 years ago, and why we took this step to make the vast majority of the Rodal Report publicly available. More can and should be done to provide transparency,” Miller said in a press release.

In 1985, after reports that Joseph Mengele, the high-ranking Nazi known for his sadistic experiments in Auschwitz, was in Canada the Conservative government asked Justice Jules Deschênes to investigate. The report about Mengele turned out to be false, but an inquiry was held to determine how many war criminals were in Canada, how they had entered the country, and what legal avenues existed to prosecute them.

Despite decades of requests from Jewish advocacy groups, the findings were never made fully public. The publications from the inquiry include a volume that names hundreds of suspected war criminals which has remained classified and a report by Rodal, that Deschênes said at the time should have been publicly released.

Between 1946 and 1967, 620,000 immigrants from European countries where “participation in war crimes was extensive” were admitted to Canada, Rodal wrote in her report.

“In view of the large numbers of people involved in the perpetration of war crimes who merged with the DP and general immigration stream; in view of the inadequacy of the screening performed by international agencies and Canadian  officials during the postwar years; and in view of the Canadian government’s policy of ethnic immigration and of concentration… on weeding out Communists, it would be rash to assume that significant numbers of war criminals and Nazi collaborators did not enter Canada,”  Rodal stated.

The call to release the unredacted Deschênes reports intensified in early October 2023, when 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka, a former member of the Waffen SS Galicia, was given a standing ovation in the House of Commons during a visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Members of the Waffen SS swore allegiance to Hitler and the unit fought alongside Nazi troops.  

Members of Parliament said that at the time they were unaware of Hunka’s history.

The most recently released version of Rodal’s report reveals Trudeau’s reluctance not to prosecute alleged war criminals, over the objections of other cabinet ministers at the time. Even when dealing with the case of a suspect named ‘F’, who had been sentenced in absentia in Russia for being the commander of firing squad that killed 5,218 Jews in Latvia, Trudeau argued that false disclosure about a Nazi past at the time of immigration was not grounds for deportation.

 The reasoning was later discredited in court, Matas said.

“This whole issue of non-disclosure became very important in light of the fact that you had these people with (Nazi) tattoos coming who were obvious candidates and were just pretending that they had nothing to do with the Nazi war criminal effort,” Matas said.

Trudeau “was worried that people might feel their citizenship was insecure because they came from a country where the politics were different than the politics of Canada. That turned out not to be a serious political issue, it was not as widespread as he feared,” Matas said.

B’nai Brith is asking for the release of an unredacted version of Rodal’s report, as well as the volume which identified suspected war criminals, and the over 1,000 RCMP files on the subject.

The government has said that more files could be released, possibly in May, which would coincide with Jewish Heritage Month, Matas said.

In the meantime, the findings of the Deschênes Commission are important for both Holocaust remembrance and to prevent contemporary war criminals from entering the country.

“We basically gave Nazi war criminals in Canada a free ride and then decades later left most of them unprosecuted. We see this being replicated. Not only are there mass atrocities around the world, but the perpetrators try to come to Canada, sometimes get to Canada, where they often don’t get prosecuted. Because we haven’t really learned the lessons of the past, we are making mistakes in the present,” Matas said.

Much of Holocaust research has focused on the innocent victims, but Holocaust education and remembrance needs to also examine war criminals.

“To really understand the dynamics of the Holocaust you’ve got to focus on the perpetrators – who they were, what they did, what motivated them,” Matas said.

Even though the report deals with events that occurred more than half a century ago, they still have resonance today, Matas said. After Hunka appeared in the House of Commons, the University of Alberta returned a scholarship that had been established by his family and questions were raised about other significant donations to the school from former Waffen SS members.

Statues erected in private cemeteries in memory of the Waffen SS have attracted neo-Nazis who gather there. B’nai Brith and other advocacy groups have called for the statues to be removed.

“We’ll continue to address those issues. It becomes another way in which we can deal with our history and remember our history and learn from our history,” Matas said.