On Jan. 26, 2022, in the midst of Russia’s preparations to invade Ukraine, Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland issued a statement outlining why Canada—home to the largest Ukrainian diaspora outside Russia—would support Ukraine unconditionally, outlining a Manichean view of a “struggle between democracy and authoritarianism.” “Canadians—our own parents and grandparents—fought and died,” she continued, “to establish a rules-based international order during and after the Second World War.”
Freeland’s Ukrainian grandfather on her mother’s side, Michael Chomiak, did nothing of the sort. During the War, he edited Krakivski Visti, a Nazi propaganda rag in occupied Krakow that was printed on a press confiscated from a Jewish newspaper. Freeland, of course, is not her grandfather, nor is she responsible for his actions. But she is responsible for bringing him up at every opportunity to portray him as a liberal democrat who profoundly influenced her politics.
“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,” she wrote in a 2015 essay for the Brookings Institution titled “My Ukraine.” “For the rest of my grandparents’ lives, they saw themselves as political exiles with a responsibility to keep alive the idea of an independent Ukraine, which had last existed, briefly, during and after the chaos of the 1917 Russian Revolution. That dream persisted into the next generation, and in some cases the generation after that.”
A Toronto Star puff piece from 2015 described Freeland’s grandfather as a “lawyer and journalist” who fled western Ukraine after the Soviets invaded, while conveniently ignoring the nature of his journalism. “All my grandparents loved Canada but my Ukrainian grandfather was the most passionate,” Freeland said. In 2016, she used the occasion of Black Ribbon Day, which perpetuates a false equivalence between Nazism and communism, to tweet a loving tribute to her maternal grandparents. “They were forever grateful to Canada for giving them refuge and they worked hard to bring freedom and democracy to Ukraine,” Freeland tweeted.
The deputy prime minister and finance minister’s revisionist family history is part of a broader project of myth-making in parts of the Ukrainian diaspora, in which certain anti-Soviet Nazi collaborators are often rebranded as nationalist war heroes. In Edmonton, where Freeland was raised, there are two monuments commemorating Ukrainian Nazi collaborators. A bust of Roman Shukhevych, who massacred thousands of Jews and Poles, has stood outside the Ukrainian Youth Unity Complex since the 1970s, in addition to a monument to the 14th Waffen SS Division—which was celebrated in the pages of Krakivski Visti—at a local cemetery.
Many Ukrainian diaspora community leaders in Canada maintain that these Ukrainians were in fact anti-Nazi, in addition to being vehemently anti-communist, and that claims to the contrary are Russian propaganda. When reports of Michael Chomiak’s wartime activities first began to circulate in the Russian and Polish press in 2017, Freeland, who was then minister of foreign affairs, claimed the story was a piece of Russian disinformation designed to undermine Canadian democracy.
“American officials have publicly said, and even Angela Merkel has publicly said, that there were efforts on the Russian side to destabilize Western democracies, and I think it shouldn’t come as a surprise if these same efforts were used against Canada,” Freeland told reporters who inquired about her grandfather. The opposition Conservative foreign affairs critic of the day, Peter Kent, accused the Russian government of “trying to smear a minister with historical detail that has probably been misrepresented.” The Canadian government retaliated the following year by expelling four Russian diplomats, which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said was a result of their “sharing scurrilous stories” about Freeland.
Although the story about Chomiak’s past was amplified in pro-Russian media, it didn’t start there, and Freeland knew it. In 1996, Freeland’s uncle and Chomiak’s son-in-law, University of Alberta Holocaust historian John-Paul Himka, wrote a paper in the Journal of Ukrainian Studies on Krakivski Visti in the context of Ukrainian-Jewish relations. In the first footnote of the piece, Himka thanks none other than Chrystia Freeland—who prior to her political career worked as a journalist at the Globe and Mail, the Financial Times, and Reuters—for her editorial assistance. Asked about her role in editing her uncle’s paper, Freeland’s office finally acknowledged—without elaboration, or any explanation of her previous obfuscation—“her uncle’s efforts to study and publish on this difficult chapter in her late grandfather’s past.”
Krakivski Visti was created in 1940 for Ukrainian nationalists who had fled Lviv, the capital of Ukrainian Galicia, after the Soviets invaded the year before and settled in Krakow, Himka explains. He notes that the paper did include valuable articles on Ukrainian history and culture that are worth reading for those interested in those subjects. It also published antisemitic propaganda in line with Nazi war aims.
Out of disdain for the Soviets, many Ukrainian nationalists regarded the Nazis as temporary allies of convenience for their broader aim of securing national independence from Moscow. 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 to the Progress Report. “A very important group of Ukrainian nationalists wanted a Ukraine for Ukrainians, so they wanted to remove, one way or another, all nationalist minorities.”
While most nationalist papers in Nazi-occupied Europe were run directly by the Germans, Chomiak’s paper was not, suggesting a degree of trust and collegiality between the paper’s editorial staff and Nazi authorities. Indeed, Ukrainian Canadian researcher Alex Boykowich unearthed a photo from the province of Alberta archives of Chomiak at a social gathering with Emil Gassner, who was in charge of the Nazis’ press department and answered directly to Joseph Goebbels, in addition to other documents revealing the extent of Chomiak’s collaboration.
As Himka notes, Gassner directly instructed the paper’s editors to print a series of antisemitic articles in the spring of 1943, just as the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was underway, which the Krakivski Visti’s editorial staff surmised as an opportunity to demonstrate their fealty to the Germans. Headlines from that time include “At the Sources of the Universal Conspiracy,” “A Nation of Desperados,” “The Jews Are Depraving Europe,” and “How They Helped the Bolsheviks.” One article said the Jews “always take the side of our enemies.”
Freeland could have simply and honestly acknowledged this disturbing aspect of her grandfather’s legacy and moved on—plenty of contemporary German officials with troubled family histories are perfectly capable of doing so—but instead she has used it as an opportunity to sow fear and mistrust about foreign threats to Canadian democracy.