Chrystia Freeland, the member of parliament for University—Rosedale and former minister of foreign affairs, is a political star. In the last year alone, she has been promoted to deputy prime minister, and in the wake of the WE Charity scandal, to finance minister. There’s no indication her ascent will stop any time soon. Few would be surprised to see her eventually become the leader of the federal Liberal Party.
With that in mind, it’s important that Freeland, like all other politicians, is held to account for her troubling decisions and views. Thus far, however, Freeland has managed to avoid any serious scrutiny for something that has been career altering for politicians in other countries. That, of course, is her response to the fact that her grandfather, Michael Chomiak (Mykhailo Khomiak), was a Nazi collaborator. Rather than owning up to and condemning his past, she concocted conspiracy theories that shifted attention elsewhere and smeared those that brought the issue to light.
Since the news broke on a national scale in March 2017 through a Globe and Mail article based on research from others, Freeland’s political sycophants and enemies alike have sought to excuse her handling of this fact by claiming: her grandfather wasn’t really a collaborator; the claims are Russian propaganda; she isn’t responsible for her grandfather’s actions.
Each of these three excuses is wrong. Moreover, rather than just being an indicator of moral failing, Freeland’s handling of the incident has troubling implications for Canadian policy at large. This matters to us all. Here’s how.
Freeland’s Grandfather Was A Nazi Collaborator
Some claim that Freeland’s grandfather wasn’t really a Nazi collaborator, or that he just did what any of us would do under those circumstances. This is insulting. Here are the facts.
In 1939, Chomiak, a Ukrainian nationalist, lived in Lviv, Poland (now Ukraine.) This city was in the area that the Soviet Union would end up occupying. Chomiak decided to leave and head to Krakow, where the Nazis were in control. Chomiak decided living under Nazi rule was preferable to Soviet occupation. This was a choice he made, not something he was forced to do.
In Krakow, Chomiak started working at Krakivs′ki visti, a Ukrainian-language newspaper launched in January 1940 shortly after Nazi occupation. He became editor-in-chief, a position he would remain in until 1945. Chomiak met and strategized with high-ranking Nazi officials to perform his duties, as the paper was an important part of the German propaganda machine.
As summarized by journalist Yasha Levine, Krakivs′ki visti “praised Hitler, ran giant ads for Ukrainian SS recruitment, spread antisemitic propaganda, pumped out vile garbage that helped justify the mass slaughter of Jews, Poles and Russians ….”
As for Freeland’s grandfather, Levine notes, “At one point towards the end of the war, Michael Chomiak published a pro-genocide special issue that was meant to remind Ukrainians about the Jewish threat, even if most Jews had already been genocided at that point. He did all this while using a printing press that had been seized from a Jewish newspaper and while living a short train ride away from Auschwitz and a half dozen other extermination slave camps — where Jews were being butchered night and day.”
According to researcher John-Paul Himka, “The antisemitic propaganda of the paper contributed to create an atmosphere conducive to the mass murder of the Jews that was already underway [in 1941].”
Chomiak’s choices were despicable. He wasn’t forced to work in a paper that was confiscated by the Nazis from its Jewish owner who would go on to be killed in a death camp — in fact, authorities had a difficult time finding someone willing to do his job.
He wasn’t forced to live in an apartment that was seized by the Nazis from a Jewish family that would later be killed in a death camp.
When the Soviets were advancing on Krakow, he wasn’t forced to flee with the Nazis to Vienna, where he continued working editing the paper.
Millions of Ukrainians bravely fought with the Soviet Union to defeat the Nazis. Chomiak chose to work with the Nazis instead.
The idea that Chomiak’s choices were somehow justified was refuted decades ago, just after the Second World War ended. The Nuremberg Trials established that “just taking orders” wasn’t a valid excuse for crimes.
Julius Streicher was the founder and publisher of Der Stürmer, an antisemitic newspaper part of the Nazi propaganda machine. Streicher and Chomiak’s papers were certainly not identical, nor were the two men, but they both published articles promoting genocide and encouraging people to join Nazi ranks.
Streicher was one of the men on trial at Nuremberg. He was found guilty of crimes against humanity for inciting the extermination of Jewish people, and was executed.
With all of this in mind, it’s clear that Chomiak was a Nazi collaborator who just managed to avoid any punishment.
The Story Isn’t Russian Propaganda
Probably the most common retort to this story at the time, when “Russiagate” was in full effect, was that it’s Russian propaganda. Freeland has been part of this effort to delegitimize the claims made against her grandfather. For example, when asked about her grandfather’s past in a press conference on Mar. 6, 2017, Freeland replied:
“Let me start … by saying that I don’t think that all Russians dislike me. I have many close and good Russian friends and I very much enjoyed living and working in Moscow as a foreign correspondent. I speak Russian and I’m a big admirer and a fan of the Russian language and culture. I think that it is also public knowledge that there have been efforts, as U.S. intelligence forces have said, by Russia to destabilize the U.S. political system. I think that Canadians, and indeed other Western countries, should be prepared for similar efforts to be directed at us. I am confident in our country’s democracy, and I am confident that we can stand up to and see through those efforts.”
The Globe’s article that came out the next day contained a quote from Freeland’s press secretary, stating, “People should be questioning where this information comes from, and the motivations behind it.”
Freeland and her office failed to dispute any of the facts about her grandfather, instead focusing their efforts on trying to discredit the information because it allegedly came from a Russian source.
Other politicians held this line as well. The Globe reported that Peter Kent, then- foreign affairs critic, “said it was obvious the Russians dug up details on Mr. Chomiak’s past to smear Ms. Freeland. ‘It is unacceptable. It seems they are trying smear a minister with historical detail that has probably been misrepresented.’” This allegation was even the reason Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave for expelling four Russian diplomats from Canada in 2018, who had shared stories about Freeland’s grandfather but didn’t research or create them.
Knowing the source of information can add context to a story, but it doesn’t change the facts. Joseph Stalin could return from the grave and spread the news that Freeland’s grandfather was a Nazi collaborator and it would still be true. The idea that the story originated as Russian propaganda, however, is blatantly false. In fact, the story came from the Ukrainian Canadian community of which Freeland says she’s a proud member.
To start, Chomiak kept a collection of personal records throughout his life, which were passed on to his wife, Aleksandra, after his death in 1984. In 1985, Aleksandra donated them to the Provincial Archives of Alberta, at which point they became publicly available.
Then, in 1996, Himka, who is Freeland’s uncle and Chomiak’s son-in-law, published an academic article mentioning Chomiak’s involvement in the newspaper. The article’s foreword also mentions Freeland’s efforts in helping throughout the editing process. This means that much of the information about Chomiak that subsequent stories were based on came from himself, and was disseminated by members of his family, including Freeland.
More recently, Alex Boykowich, a member of Canada’s Communist Party, came across Chomiak’s personal records while at the archives building looking for files from his party that had been donated. Boykowich — also Ukrainian — and his companions recognized Chomiak’s name, started searching through the files, and discovered what had been available for decades to those curious enough to look: Chomiak was a Nazi collaborator.
Boykowich said he started posting what he found on Facebook in December 2016. Then a colleague brought the information to Twitter, and eventually connected Boykowich with some journalists. The story took off from there. Levine has an extensive interview with Boykowich where he recounts this all.
In sum, no Russians were involved in exposing Chomiak’s past. It was primarily Ukrainians, and Freeland inferring they may be Russian pawns is a nasty throwback to the 20th century, when the government crushed the Ukrainian Canadian left and demolished their institutions, accusing them of being Soviet spies. The right-wing, government approved replacement organizations, such as the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, which still defends Ukrainian Nazi collaborators, are celebrated by Freeland today.
Freeland Has Never Renounced Her Grandfather’s Actions
You don’t choose the family you were born into. Everyone has a family member they cringe at being associated with. You certainly wouldn’t want to be judged because of said family member, whose actions and views in life you probably have no control over. That is ostensibly why many political allies and enemies alike have sought to give Freeland a pass for the fact that her grandfather was a Nazi collaborator. But they’re wrong to do so.
Being connected to someone who has committed repugnant acts or held awful views is one thing. Refusing to condemn or even acknowledge what they did, continuing to push a whitewashed version of their past, and admitting they’ve had a major influence on your political views and career is something completely different. That is exactly what Freeland has done.
As I noted in the previous section, Freeland’s only public response thus far to being asked about her grandfather’s history was to erroneously dismiss it as Russian propaganda. She hasn’t addressed the details of the claims directly. She hasn’t disputed any of the facts. She hasn’t discussed when she first learned about these facts, or if they’ve made her feel differently about her grandfather. She hasn’t ever condemned the choices he made.
Moreover, Freeland still pushes a whitewashed version of her grandparents’ history. For example, in a May 2015 Brookings essay, Freeland wrote that her grandparents “saw themselves as political exiles with a responsibility to keep alive the idea of an independent Ukraine.” She doesn’t dispute their characterization.
In a glowing 2015 Toronto Star profile, Freeland misrepresents her grandparents’ fate as one that was typical for Ukrainians, writing, “They knew the Soviets would invade western Ukraine (and) fled … and, like a lot of Ukrainians, ended up after the war in a displaced persons camp in Germany where my mother was born.” (This makes it sound like her grandparents may have been slave labourers taken by the Nazis. They weren’t.)
Most importantly, however, is that Freeland has admitted her grandparents’ experience and views have had a “very big effect” on her. She describes them as being “committed to the idea, like most in the (Ukrainian) diaspora, that Ukraine would one day be independent and that the community had a responsibility to the country they had been forced to flee … to keep that flame alive.”
In August 2016, she tweeted, “Thinking of my grandparents Mykhailo & Aleksandra Chomiak on Black Ribbon Day. They were forever grateful to Canada for giving them refuge and they worked hard to return freedom and democracy to Ukraine. I am proud to honour their memory today.”
And honour their memory she certainly has, using her government positions to help push or support policies that align with far-right Ukrainian nationalist ideology.
Freeland’s Ukrainian Nationalist Ideology
Freeland isn’t a Nazi, and has condemned Nazism in the past. However, she is a proud Ukrainian nationalist.
Freeland is an ardent supporter of Canada’s “National Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Communism and Nazism,” an idea that arose in nationalist circles domestically, and which explicitly equates the two ideologies, thereby minimizing the Holocaust. “Black Ribbon Day,” as it is often referred to, is also popular in the Ukrainian groups Freeland supports, who are ardent supporters of Nazi collaborators and were recently in the news defending statues of them.
Freeland has also used slogans popular with these groups. In an August 24 tweet celebrating Ukrainian independence day, Freeland included the phrase “Слава Україні!,” which translates to “Glory to Ukraine.” Some claim this is a harmless slogan, but, as journalist Andray Domise pointed out, it originated in the early 1920s from the League of Ukrainian Fascists. It then became popular among the OUN, which Passage writer Moss Robeson pointed out was a group that grew increasingly pro-Nazi during the 1930s, eventually becoming collaborators. The slogan continues to be used by these sort of figures in Ukraine today, as part of a post-Soviet fascist resurgence.
But it goes beyond slogans or phrases, and has seeped into Canada’s foreign policy.
The one time Freeland was publicly asked about her grandfather’s Nazi collaborator past was at the 2017 press conference where she announced that Canada would be extending its military mission in Ukraine — Operation UNIFIER, launched in 2015 — until 2019. The mission would involve at least 200 Canadian soldiers training Ukrainians to fight against Russians. It was extended again in 2019, to last at least until 2022.
In December 2017, Freeland announced that Ukraine would be added to a list of countries Canadian companies are permitted to sell firearms and weapons to, claiming, “Canada is steadfast in its support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, security, and prosperity.” In August 2018, Canada approved the sale of $1 million worth of sniper rifles to Ukraine.
These actions have come under scrutiny because, as Lital Khaikin wrote in Canadian Dimensions, “In June 2014 Ukraine had formally integrated extremist far-right militias including the Aidar, Dnipro, Donbass, and Azov battalions into the National Guard—which is itself under the command of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. With this integration, the distinction between the official military and its extremist, far-right volunteer factions has been blurred.”
Individuals from these groups have received training from Canadian soldiers, had meetings with Canadian officials and have been found to be in possession of Canadian weapons as well.
In sum, policies introduced or expanded by Freeland are effectively supporting far-right extremists to combat Russians, meaning she is honouring her grandfather’s legacy. None of this is to say these policies would only have been implemented under Freeland’s watch or that they all originated with her, but rather that it’s disingenuous to act like how she’s handled her grandfather’s past isn’t relevant to political decisions she’s made.
To review, these are the facts: Freeland’s grandfather was a Nazi collaborator for ideological reasons. She has never publicly condemned his views or actions, instead citing at least some of them as inspiration for her own career. She is now in a position of power, and has taken part in making decisions for Canada as a whole that are in line with that ideology. As such, it’s not only fair to criticize Freeland for how she has handled her grandfather’s past, but of the utmost necessity. This story should stick to Freeland and follow her wherever she goes.