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Uncovering Canada’s Secret Report on Nazi War Criminals: Pursuing Justice Decades Later

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Edited by: Fern Sidman

For 37 years, Canada has held a closely guarded secret, a classified report containing the names of 883 possible Nazi war criminals who found refuge in the country after World War II, as was reported on Monday by the New York Times.  This report holds the potential to shed light on what the Canadian government knew about their arrival, the extent of their investigations, and why the majority of them escaped prosecution, the NYT report said. Canada’s stringent privacy laws and government secrecy have kept this report confidential, but a recent political blunder may lead to its disclosure.

The catalyst for this potential revelation was the recent controversial honoring of Yaroslav Hunka, a Ukrainian Canadian man who had volunteered for the Nazi Waffen-SS, a combat group responsible for overseeing concentration camps during the Holocaust, according to the NYT report.  This incident occurred during a visit by President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. In the aftermath, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is now considering whether it’s time to unseal the long-hidden report, the NYT said.

The discussions regarding the report’s declassification had already begun before the episode with Mr. Hunka. As was noted in the NYT report, Anthony Housefather, a member of Trudeau’s Liberal Party caucus and a strong advocate for declassification, had initiated the deliberations. However, the controversial honor bestowed upon Mr. Hunka amplified the pressure on the government to take action.

Justin Trudeau apologized for Mr. Hunka’s introduction as a “hero,” acknowledging the gravity of the situation. The Speaker of the House of Commons, Anthony Rota, resigned amidst the public outrage. According to the NYT report, in response to these events, Trudeau stated that “top public servants are looking very carefully” into releasing the classified list, adding, “We’re going to make recommendations.”

The reasons behind the secrecy of the report, the second part of a 1986 inquiry into war criminals in Canada, have never been fully clarified. The NYT report also said that some Ukrainian Canadians, whose communities included individuals with ties to former Nazis, vehemently opposed the inquiry, considering it a witch hunt and a smear campaign.

In contrast to Canada, the United States has declassified millions of pages of documents related to Nazi war crimes and their perpetrators under a special 1998 disclosure law, according to the NYT report. In Canada, Jewish groups and scholars have been advocating for the release of this report for decades.

Canada’s track record of prosecuting or deporting Nazis who arrived in the country after World War II is dismal, with no convictions among the four former Nazis charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity since 1986, when these became crimes under Canadian law, as was indicated in the NYT report. These failed prosecutions and deportations were often due to problems with evidence.

David Matas, honorary counsel for B’nai Brith Canada, stressed that the honoring of Mr. Hunka further underscores the need for the report’s release. The NYT reported that Matas emphasized the importance of acknowledging the past to prevent its repetition, stating, “We can learn from the failures of the past to avoid repetition. But we cannot avoid repetition until we know the past – and we can’t know the past until we get the record.”

Anthony Housefather believes that Canada’s disclosure is long overdue and could be done without revealing the names on the list. The NYT report noted that he highlighted that it’s difficult to justify the continued classification of documents related to issues that are several decades old. “Civil servants and successive governments of both parties admitted Nazi war criminals but largely failed to prosecute them. And when we did try to prosecute them, we did a terrible job of it. That information has to be clear and it has to be open,” Housefather argued, according to the NYT report.

The controversial incident in Parliament involving Mr. Hunka occurred after President Zelensky, who is Jewish, addressed a joint session of Canada’s Parliament. This misstep prompted widespread calls for the Speaker’s resignation and drew criticism from President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has justified his invasion of Ukraine by claiming it’s an effort to “de-Nazify” the nation, the NYT reported. Trudeau’s apology reinforced the gravity of the incident and the urgency of addressing the past.

In the years following World War II, disturbing rumors circulated that Canada had become a sanctuary for former Nazis. In response to growing concerns, a groundbreaking report was commissioned to investigate the presence of Nazi war criminals in the country, the NYT report said. This report, produced by the Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals in Canada, marked the nation’s first official inquiry into the matter.

The commission’s work was conducted in strict secrecy, and it created three confidential lists of potential Nazi war criminals believed to be residing in Canada. The first list contained 774 names, and the inquiry, spanning several years, delved into each one. The NYT also reported that the publicly available portion of the report, published in 1986, revealed that among the individuals investigated, 448 had never entered Canada or had passed away before the report’s publication. For four individuals, the commission could not ascertain if they had entered the country, according to the NYT report.

Regarding another 154 individuals on the list, the inquiry found no direct evidence of their involvement in war crimes, as was reported in the NYT. For 131 individuals, while there might have been evidence in other countries, the inquiry found insufficient proof in Canada. The status of 17 individuals remained unclear in the public report.

During the course of its investigations, the commission discovered additional potential suspects, leading to the creation of a second list with 38 names and a third list featuring 71 German scientists and technicians who may have been complicit in war crimes, according to the NYT report. Regrettably, the commission was compelled to publish its findings before investigating individuals on these two lists.

Among the report’s more distressing revelations was the discovery of substantial evidence of war crimes involving 20 individuals. As was mentioned in the NYT report, detailed recommendations for their prosecution were made, and these, along with any actions taken by the government, remain concealed within the classified report.

From 1987 to 1992, the Canadian government initiated multiple charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity against four former Nazis, with none resulting in a conviction. The NYT report also said that one defendant was acquitted, charges were dropped in two cases due to evidence issues, and a fourth case was stayed due to the poor health of the aging defendant.

In an effort to address the presence of former Nazis, Canada also attempted to strip 22 individuals of their Canadian citizenship and deport them on grounds of immigration law violations for not disclosing their wartime activities, the NYT reported. However, according to a record compiled by David Matas of B’nai Brith, only one individual was successfully deported. Two others voluntarily left the country, and two were not present in Canada when deportation orders were issued, the NYT report added. The majority of these cases closed following the deaths of the former Nazis.

While the possibility of any surviving individuals named in the confidential report being held accountable is slim due to their advanced age, voices within the international community, such as Michael Levitt, the president and CEO of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, insist that justice should still be pursued, as was indicated in the NYT report. He questioned the fairness of pursuing these issues when the individuals are now in their late 90s. Nonetheless, Levitt believes that Holocaust survivors deserve accountability, and the pursuit of justice remains an obligation to honor the memory of those who suffered during the Holocaust, the report added.

The disclosure of this classified report, though long overdue, may offer a path to shed light on this dark chapter of history and potentially bring some closure to those who have waited for decades to see justice served.


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