Blank spot: Why Chrystia Freeland’s refusal to acknowledge her grandfather’s Nazi collaborator past matters

Recent discourse around monuments venerating Ukrainian Nazi collaborators, such as the monuments in Edmonton and in Oakville, Ontario, is bringing new attention to Canada’s messy entanglement with a burgeoning Ukrainian nationalist movement that historians warn is whitewashing the crimes of Nazi collaborators. 

Canada’s newly-minted Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, who is widely rumoured to be the successor to an increasingly scandal-plagued Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has a familial connection. Her Ukrainian grandfather Michael Chomiak edited a pro-Nazi Ukrainian paper called  Krakivski Visti in Krakow and then Vienna. 

In a 2015 essay for the Brookings Institute entitled “My Ukraine,” Freeland writes, “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.” But this is a highly oversimplified, airbrushed presentation of her grandparents’ history, one which she has repeatedly offered

Chrystia Freeland is not responsible for the actions of her grandfather, but her continual praise of Chomiak is a microcosm of a broader whitewashing of the history of the movement to establish a sovereign Ukrainian state that often downplays Nazi collaboration.

This story isn’t so much about Freeland, or even Ukraine, but a larger tendency towards historical revisionism in the leadership of many eastern European diaspora communities, whose leadership refuse to accept responsibility for their national heroes’ dark pasts. 

On August 26, 2016, in honour of Black Ribbon Day, which perpetuates a moral equivalence between communism and Nazism, Freeland tweeted out a loving tribute to her maternal grandparents, Mykhailo (Michael) and Aleksandra Chomiak.

Black Ribbon Day was established by Markus Hess, who, according to the Canadian Press, believed the Soviet Union was engaged in a “slow and insidious” takeover of the world. Hess was financed by the right-wing National Citizens Coalition. He was also photographed in Munich with Slava Statsko, a prominent member of the far-right Banderist movement,  in front of a bust of Roman Shukhevych, who was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews, similar to the one that stands outside the Edmonton’s Ukrainian Youth Unity Complex. 

It’s no coincidence that Freeland used this particular day to depict her grandparents as unmitigated promoters of liberal values. 

“They were forever grateful to Canada for giving them refuge and they worked hard to bring freedom and democracy to Ukraine,” Freeland wrote. “I am proud to honour their memory today #BlackRibbonDay.” 

Her grandfather definitely wasn’t a victim of Nazism. One could infer from this tweet that her grandfather was a victim of totalitarianism, rather than a Nazi collaborator. By serving the Nazis, was he really bringing freedom and democracy to Ukraine? Ukrainian Jews might disagree. 

Matters of common interest

Freeland knew otherwise. In 1996, she assisted her uncle, University of Alberta scholar John-Paul Himka, with research for a paper in the Journal of Ukrainian Studies on Krakivski Visti in the context of Ukrainian-Jewish relations

In the paper, Himka, who is Chomiak’s son-in-law and Freeland’s uncle,  shows that the Krakivski Visti was established in Nazi-occupied Krakow in 1940, where many Ukrainian nationalists fled the previous year when the Soviet army invaded Lviv, the capital of Ukrainian Galicia. Many of these migrants feared the communists more than the fascists and, as a result, collaborated with Nazi-dominated institutions in Poland and Austria, including the media.

Although Krakivski Visti did publish “many excellent articles on Ukrainian history and culture that are worth reading 50 years later,” it also published a series of anti-Semitic articles, particularly at the time of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which manufactured consent for Nazi war aims, Himka’s paper notes.

The newspaper also glorified the 14th Waffen SS Division, a Nazi battalion composed of Ukrainian volunteers that is honoured at the aforementioned monuments in Oakville and Edmonton. 

Many members of the Ukrainian intelligentsia regarded collaboration with the Nazis as beneficial to their nationalist cause, Himka explained when interviewed by the Progress Report. 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. “A very important group of Ukrainian nationalists wanted a Ukraine for Ukrainians, so they wanted to remove, one way or another, all nationalist minorities.” 

This was by no means unique to Ukrainians. Croatians, as one example of many, also turned towards the Nazis out of a desire to create an ethnically-pure Croatian state that would be free from Serb dominance in Yugoslavia.

Although most nationalist papers in Nazi-occupied Europe were run directly by the Germans, Krakivski Visti was Ukrainian-run, which Himka describes as an anomaly. As managing editor, Chomiak had a working relationship with his German associates, sharing an antipathy towards Bolsheviks and Jews. 

And the newspaper was printed on a press confiscated from a Jewish newspaper, which was provided by Emil Gassner, the man in charge of the Nazi’s press department who worked directly under Joseph Goebbels.

Chomiak was photographed at a social gathering with Gassner and other Nazi officials, which Ukrainian-Canadian researcher Alex Boykowich unearthed in the Province of Alberta archives, alongside other documents revealing the extent of Chomiak's collaboration.

Chrystia Freeland's grandfather Michael Chomiak at a party - he is to the right of the smoking man. In the right lower corner of the photo in uniform is Emil Gassner, the Nazi administrator in charge of the press for the region. Photo from the Provincial Archives of Alberta.  

“He wasn’t a huge anti-Semite but he was an anti-Semite,” Himka acknowledges, adding that this wasn’t extraordinary at that time and place, but part of a larger narrative.  

Immigration to Canada

Prior to the First World War, Ukrainian immigrants, who were mostly illiterate peasants coming from the Hapsburg Empire in search of land, settled in the Prairies. The second wave in the interwar years were politically very leftist and many of the new immigrants joined the Canadian Communist Party. After the Second World War, the Canadian Ukrainian community lobbied the government to bring in Ukrainian refugees and migrants. Many of the new migrants had right-wing nationalist sympathies and between 1,200 to 2,000 of them were former members of the 14th Waffen SS Division according to Anders Per Rudling, a professor of eastern European history at the University of Lund in Sweden who has published several papers on the Ukrainian nationalist movement. 

This was was the Waffen SS Division that Chomiak’s paper had glorified. Those soldiers swore an oath to Hitler, were addressed personally by Heinrich Himmler and many of of those soldiers took part in the Huta Pieniacka Massacre, an atrocity recognized recognized by both the Polish Institute of National Remembrance and the Institute of History at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences.

“In Canada, the question they"--they being Canadian immigration officials deciding whether or not to admit emigres--"asked was, ‘Are these people Communists?’ and a very good answer to that was ‘No,’” Rudling explains. “They were as anti-Communist as it gets.” 

Himka says since the third wave was part of the European intelligentsia, they took on a significant leadership role in the Ukrainian-Canadian community in Canada in the 1960s and ‘70s, as the descendants of the previous waves began moving to cities and becoming professionals, finding a “common language” with the more recent immigrants. 

“But they didn’t know much about Ukrainian history, so they just, more or less, absorbed what the post-World War Two immigrants were telling them,” he said. 

Chomiak was part of this wave, coming to Canada in 1948. 

“[Chomiak] kept a low profile,” says Rudling,who did his PhD at the University of Alberta. “All these people who came to Canada denied, of course, any collaboration with Nazis. They whitewashed their own past. He presented himself, as did Chrystia Freeland, as a victim of the Nazis.” 

In the years prior to his death in 1984, Chomiak edited a conservative Catholic paper in Edmonton, which Rudling emphasized wasn’t anti-Semitic, but “presented a very sanitized view of Ukrainian history.”

He says the way the nationalist right, particularly supporters of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), gradually came to dominate Ukrainian-Canadian institutions, namely the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, is emblematic of the way other diaspora communities relate to the politics in their country of origin. 

“There’s a paradox there,” says Rudling. “The liberal democratic impulse translates into multiculturalism, which translates into something akin to multinationalism, which emphasizes the worst aspects of European civilization.” 

Mainstream conspiracy theories 

When Chomiak’s history came to mainstream attention in 2017 through stories in the Russian and Polish press, Freeland, and many in the mainstream press, dismissed this fact as an exercise in Russian disinformation intended to destabilize Canadian democracy, and four Russian diplomats who promoted the story were expelled from Canada. 

In other words, the story became the story, and then it was quickly forgotten.

Freeland, whose office didn’t respond to request for comment, did issue a statement in the wake of the controversy reiterating her support for Himka’s research "on this difficult chapter in her late grandfather's past," which makes her position on the matter all the more ambiguous. 

But this was after her office denied Chomiak was a collaborator at all.

"People should be questioning where this information comes from, and the motivations behind it," a Freeland spokesperson said.

At Vice, Justin Ling said he was offered the story by Russian embassy contacts, but turned it down because he didn’t see the newsworthiness of Canada’s then-foreign minister knowingly whitewashing her grandfather’s history of Nazi collaboration. Instead, he wrote a generic story about Russian disinformation that repeated Freeland’s talking points. 

An op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen written by political geographer Lubomyr Luciuk headlined “Freeland has nothing to be ashamed of about her grandfather’s ‘Nazi’ ties” uses a 1987 commission report that concluded the numbers of Nazi war criminals in Canada are “grossly exaggerated” to make the logical leap that there’s no evidence of Chomiak’s collaboration with the Nazis.  

“Years ago, another journalist told me the paper’s editors had no affinity for Nazi aims but used their positions to sustain the Ukrainian resistance,” Luciuk claims. 

Terry Glavin at Macleans took a different track, suggesting that Freeland clearly knew her grandfather was a Nazi collaborator, having edited one of Himka’s papers on the subject, but that it’s no big deal and to discuss it is to do Moscow’s bidding. 

“It was a hoax, perpetrated on the Canadian public, in service of Vladimir Putin’s gangland regime in Moscow,” Glavin wrote in characteristically pompous prose. 

In her previous career as a columnist at the Edmonton Journal, Trudeau-appointed Senator Paula Simons wrote a piece questioning the extent of Chomiak’s Nazi collaboration.

“Chomiak may have been naive. Or a coward. Or an amoral pragmatist, more interested in protecting himself and his family than in heroism,” she wrote. “Just labelling him a collaborator oversimplifies a horrifically complicated time. But it certainly suits Vladimir Putin and his allies now to insinuate that Freeland’s credibility is tainted by her grandfather’s past.”

To Simons’ credit, she does say Freeland “might have been clearer about his complicated legacy — if only to deny the Russians the ammunition of such Kompromat."

And most recently, a 2019 CBC News television report on political disinformation earned managing editor of news coverage Greg Reaume a reprimand from the CBC’s ombudsperson for calling Chomiak’s extensively documented history of Nazi collaboration “fake news.” 

Honourable exceptions are David Pugliese at the Ottawa Citizen, Canadaland's Jesse Brown, Robert Fife at the Globe and Mail and Colby Cosh at the National Post, who reported that Freeland knew about Chomiak’s history without equivocating that it was some sort of Russian conspiracy. 

Pugliese told CBC’s the Current, in a segment that mostly focused on the Russian angle, that the way Freeland’s office handled the story was cause for concern. 

"If they had just said, yeah, he was a Nazi collaborator, Miss Freeland has nothing to do with that, it probably would have ended right then and there," he said. 

While it may be true that the Russian government is digging up dirt on Freeland’s  family history to demonize an outspoken critic of theirs, the history is undeniable—Chomiak was a prominent propagandist for the Nazis.

Freeland could unequivocally acknowledge the dark side of her grandfather’s legacy, but it would be a major political risk that could halt her rapid ascent within the Canadian government, given the importance of the Ukrainian vote in certain ridings outside Winnipeg and Toronto that swing between the Liberals and Conservatives, says Rudling. 

Beyond electoral considerations, Freeland has a very close and supportive relationship with Canada’s organized Ukrainian community, which has supported her throughout her political career, as well as the Ukrainian government. 

“She’s been a superstar with every Ukrainian president and prime minister that she’s interacted with,” according to past Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) president Paul Grod, who is reportedly close friends with Freeland. “She walks on water – that’s the way she’s perceived.”

Paul Grod, the former president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and the current president of the Ukrainian World Congress, is pictured in the centre in the blue suit between Justin Trudeau and Chrystia Freeland in the picture on the left. He is pictured behind and to the left of Justin Trudeau in the picture on the right. 

As president of the UCC, Grod requested the Canadian government officially recognize members of the OUN and soldiers in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (the military wing of the OUN that Roman Shukhevych commanded) as anti-Nazi resistance fighters. This request was made despite the fact that independent scholarship shows that these military units collaborated with the Nazis and were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews and tens of thousands of Poles in multiple atrocities. Recognizing them as resistance fighters would have provided surviving members with access to publicly-funded veterans’ pension funds. The request was not granted. 

The call and response slogan Slava Ukraini! Heroiam slava! Or “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” was originally created by fascists and became the official slogan of the OUN in 1941. Here Freeland leads a room of peoples in this slogan from a 2016 speech given to the Ukrainian Canadian Congress in Regina.

“I will never answer [that slogan]. I’ve seen so many terrible things signed with that but I study the Holocaust,” says Himka. According to Himka the phrase also became repopularized during the Euromaidan protests. 

The sins of Freeland’s grandfather aren’t the issue here, but a web of associations that informs her refusal to acknowledge the dark side of Chomiak’s and the Ukrainian nationalist movement’s history. She has the agency to use her position of leadership and respect to shine a light on how war criminality is a huge collective blind spot in the memory of the Ukrainian diaspora, as her uncle has written. But she won’t. 

The excuse Freeland’s spokesperson used to dismiss the facts about her grandfather mirror those used by the Ukrainian Youth Unity Complex in Edmonton when asked about the statue of the Nazi collaborator war criminal they have outside of their building: it’s all a Russian plot, according to both of them. 

This historical revisionism also has geopolitical consequences with the resurgence of the European far right and re-emergence of Cold War tensions. In her previous role as foreign affairs minister, Freeland pursued a very hawkish position on Russia in response to its conflict with Ukraine, ratcheting up the sanctions her Conservative predecessors imposed, which have done nothing to change the situation on the ground in Crimea. Her hardline position on Russia is virtually identical to that of former Conservative foreign affairs minister John Baird.

This ideological anti-Russia stance informs Freeland’s refusal to acknowledge that her grandfather was a Nazi propaganidst, but more importantly in the grand scheme of things, it greatly increases the risks of a major global military confrontation in the present.