NaziGate: Trudeau and Freeland should face consequences

The reception of a Ukrainian Nazi in Parliament has laid threadbare the moral bankruptcy of our leaders and their foreign policy

Judi Rever / September 29, 2023

Canada’s most powerful politicians—Justin Trudeau and Chrystia Freeland—should face serious consequences for their enthusiastic applause of a Ukrainian war vet who fought against the Russians in the Second World War. The prime minister is well educated and should have realized the dire implications of his actions; our deputy minister, who studied Ukrainian and Russian history, has no justifiable excuse for what she did.

Canada’s Parliament can get pretty noisy but on Friday, September 22, there was not a stir in the House when Speaker Anthony Rota introduced his guest, Yaroslav Hunka, as a “veteran from the Second World War who fought [for] Ukrainian independence against the Russians.” Rota took a parenthetical breath before adding that Hunka “continues to support the troops today, even at his age of 98.” At that moment, members of Parliament rose to their feet and applauded the Ukrainian war vet, who sat soberly in the gallery in his brown suit. The acclamation lasted for 20 seconds. “He’s a Ukrainian hero, a Canadian hero and we thank him for all his service,” Rota went on to say, at which point an enraptured Parliament gave Hunka another lengthy standing ovation.

Prime Minister Trudeau, standing next to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who had been invited by Canada to address the nation, rose to his feet and clapped. Zelensky joined in and appeared to salute Hunka in a gesture of admiration.

In the row behind Trudeau and Zelensky stood Freeland in her royal blue blazer, elbows high, bringing her hands together in a forceful jubilance. Freeland, who is of Ukrainian descent, appeared proud to honour a man who had fought against the Russians in the Second World War. In the late 1980s, before the fall of communism, Freeland studied Russian history and literature at Harvard University and was on an exchange in Kyiv when she became involved in the Ukrainian independence movement, helping to organize marches and educate journalists on life in the Soviet Union. Her pro-democracy work drew the ire of the Soviet press and the KGB, which viewed the young woman as a troublesome agitator yet admitted in a secret intelligence report that she was a “remarkable individual… and inventive in achieving her goals.” Freeland, who speaks Russian and Ukrainian, went on to pursue a Master’s degree in Slavonic studies at the University of Oxford and eventually became a Rhodes Scholar.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, she went to Moscow to practice journalism, eventually becoming bureau chief of the prestigious newspaper, the Financial Times.

It therefore defies belief that a woman as intelligent as Freeland, whose ancestry and experience are contiguous with Eastern Europe, could publicly cheer for a Ukrainian soldier who fought against Russians in the Second World War. Freeland knows full well that soldiers from the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) collaborated with the Third Reich and took an active part in the Holocaust in Ukraine and Poland. She would also know that the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), a paramilitary group, carried out massacres of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia, and hunted down and killed several thousand Jews during that period. More than any other Canadian politician today, Freeland knows this history. Canadians should ask what was going through her mind as she bestowed praise on a man who fought the Russians during that pivotal time, a man we now know was part of the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS whose troops were involved in the mass murder of Jews, Poles and Ukrainians in the 1940s.

Justin Trudeau, while not a student of Ukrainian or Russian history, should have known better. He grew up as the privileged son of a former prime minister. He studied at Collège Brébeuf in Montréal, arguably the best private secondary school in the province, and holds degrees from McGill University and the University of British Columbia. It is unbelievable that our prime minister would not be aware that the Soviets helped Western allies defeat Hitler in World War II, and by extension believe that a Ukrainian who fought against the Soviets during that time could be a hero. I attended a poorly-funded public high school southeast of Montréal and learned in grade 10 history class that the Soviets were on our side in the fight against evil during the Second World War. How is it possible that Canada’s educated leader, say nothing about our members of Parliament, could have participated in such a hurtful, embarrassing fiasco? In the immediate aftermath of the scandal, Trudeau sought and found a scapegoat in Rota—the Parliamentary speaker who invited Hunka into the legislature and has since resigned. Trudeau took no time whatsoever to politically pivot, warning that Russia could use this debacle in its propaganda war.

What Trudeau and Freeland should have done instead is explain why they acted so disgracefully, and apologize for their own behaviour. But I imagine they cannot politically afford to do so and, in any case, their judgement is impaired. This poses a danger for Canada. The eagerness of our prime minister and deputy minister to embrace an anti-Russian war veteran at all costs reveals the degree of their militancy. It speaks to their reckless steering of Canadian foreign policy at this critical juncture in history.

Putting aside the fact that Freeland’s Ukrainian grandfather was the editor of a Nazi newspaper in Poland that vilified Jews in the 1940s (though she is not responsible for her grandfather’s actions), Freeland is the chief architect, alongside Trudeau, of Canada’s disastrous policy toward the war in Ukraine. There has been no attempt by Canada, or the United States for that matter, to negotiate an end to the bloodshed. Canada has rejected diplomacy and instead approved more than $1.8 billion in military assistance, while the US has directed more than $75 billion in military, humanitarian and financial support. As the war erodes economies in Europe and North America, the only strategy we see from Western democracies is one that fuels the misery and violence.

There is also a lack of rigorous debate among political elites and mainstream journalists about the context of, and lead-up to this war. There is no doubt that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a violation of international law and merits consequences. Yet why is it so difficult to scrutinize the perils of NATO expansionism or the US role in protests that led to the ouster of Ukraine’s president in 2014, or state-led violence against ethnic Russians in Ukraine’s Donbas region? Canadians cannot even question without being branded propagandists why our military helped train neo-Nazi members of the Azov Battalion, who have been quietly assimilated into the Ukrainian army. Canada now pursues an extremist, dangerous position on Ukraine and Russia that is ahistorical.

If the war rages on, the world faces the frightening spectre of a nuclear confrontation unless warring parties and their allies pursue a negotiated peace settlement. Trudeau and Freeland are unwilling to opt for diplomacy and instead have soiled Canada’s reputation on the international stage. It is unlikely that leaders suffering from responsibility deficit disorder would honourably face the consequences of their actions. To make matters worse, the Liberals have tried to erase the recognition of this Nazi from the Parliamentary record, as though it never happened. Conservatives stopped the motion saying “deleting the text of the Speaker’s words from Hansard would have only one purpose: to try and forget what happened, to wash the record clean.”

Canadians should not forget the lack of integrity of our elected officials that led to a Nazi being given a resounding tribute in Ottawa. We should not decontextualize this shameful event and fool ourselves into believing this was an unfortunate gaffe committed by one person. History matters. Trudeau and Freeland know it. Canadians can shape a safer, more progressive future for our country by voting them out of office.

Judi Rever is a journalist from Montréal and is the author of In Praise of Blood: The Crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front.