Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland isn’t answerable for the actions of her grandfather during the Second World War. But Canadians cannot simply deny historical realities, or minimize them as the ambiguity of morality.
The controversy over Chrystia Freeland’s family background can be confounding.
No, our foreign minister isn’t answerable for her Ukrainian-born grandfather, who edited a propaganda outlet for the Nazis in occupied Krakow.
Yes, the Russians are playing a dirty game of demonization by spreading incriminating stories about her distant family background. Guilt by association plays well in Russia’s online world.
Closer to home the smear tactic hasn’t gained traction. Canadian commentators have stated the obvious — that whatever the supposed sins of the grandfather, they shall not be visited upon our foreign minister, whose integrity is beyond reproach.
But before we dismiss it all as disinformation, we need to deconstruct it — not to determine Freeland’s fitness to serve in cabinet. No, the point is to avoid the fatal error of historical complacency, which remains a quintessentially Canadian character flaw.
Domestic reaction has ranged from the now reflexive cry of “fake news” to various columns decrying anyone who dares judge her grandfather’s wartime choices so many decades ago. But the insistence that Canadians are in no position to judge Michael Chomiak’s wartime decisions from a distance is indefensible.
Not to judge is itself a judgment.
That the latest accusations emanate from Russia’s propaganda machinery doesn’t disqualify them — even if the timing is entirely tactical. In truth, the original source of information is Freeland’s family research.
In the 1990s her uncle, University of Alberta historian John-Paul Himka, wrote about Chomiak’s role as chief editor of Krakivski Visti. His scholarly article, “Krakivski Visti and the Jews, 1943,” described the newspaper’s pro-Hitler, anti-Jewish content.
Chomiak had been a young journalist in Lviv (then in Poland, now part of Ukraine). When the Soviets and Nazis partitioned Poland in 1939, he opted to go west to Krakow, under German rule, where he took up the task of promoting Ukrainian identity while disseminating anti-Semitic propaganda — using printing presses confiscated from a newspaper whose Jewish owner perished in a death camp.
As a Ukrainian nationalist, Chomiak chose the Nazis over the Soviets as the lesser of two evils.
But Canada too made a choice, allying itself with the Soviets against the Nazis.
The Edmonton Journal’s Paula Simons has noted that Chomiak never signed or wrote any articles. He merely oversaw and enabled the propaganda organ.
A recurring theme among Canadian commentators is that we dare not judge Chomiak, who was perhaps naive, or merely the victim of circumstance. And yet we know the vital role of propaganda as a prerequisite to genocide, whether in Nazi-era Europe or contemporary Rwanda.
That doesn’t mean Freeland’s grandfather had blood on his hands. He wasn’t a guard in a death camp. He may not have known what he was getting into — or how to get out of it.
And yet one columnist belittled the idea of trying to distinguish between Ukrainian patriots and Nazi collaborators as “boring ephemera.” Another cautioned, “it’s easy to condemn Chomiak’s choices. In a war zone, squeezed between Hitler and Stalin, things weren’t so simple.”
The fog of war is always with us. But that does not allow us take the path of least resistance forever.
We are right to be wary of Russian disinformation tactics, but wrong to assume the information is inevitably erroneous. Russia’s carefully timed leaks of all those Clinton campaign emails during the U.S. presidential election did great damage, but the correspondence itself was authentic.
A free society should not fall for such smear tactics. We should call it out — but without closing our eyes to the context, or the contents. For an open society cannot deny historical realities, nor minimize them as the ambiguity of morality.
As a former journalist, Freeland understands that distinction. That’s why she “supported her uncle’s efforts to study and publish on this difficult chapter in her late grandfather’s past,” as her office so aptly put it to the Globe and Mail.
Some have reproached Freeland for seeming evasive when answering reporters’ questions this month. But why judge her harshly for reacting defensively when confronted with family questions?
That she didn’t deliver crisp press lines about her own lineage seems only human. For her it’s not just historical or political; it’s personal.
All Canadians can agree Freeland has nothing to apologize for. But that doesn’t require us to make excuses for her grandfather.
It is one thing to reserve judgment until the facts are in. But endless indecision masks indifference, be it in Krakow or Crimea.
We must all be mindful of history, not minimize it. That is precisely what empowers Freeland as a strong and clear Canadian voice confronting Russian abuses in Crimea and all of Ukraine.
Martin Regg Cohn’s political column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. firstname.lastname@example.org , Twitter: @reggcohn