After Parliament Hill Nazi Debacle, Media Must Must Hold Nazis To Account, Not Just Condemn

October 4, 2023

It was the standing ovation heard around the world.

Following the events on Parliament Hill on Friday, September 22, when Yaroslav Hunka, a 98-year-old Ukrainian-Canadian man who fought for the First Ukrainian Division, a Nazi unit, in World War Two, was honoured during a visit to Ottawa by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, condemnations have been swift.

After initially appearing to hesitate, Speaker of the House Anthony Rota resigned, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made an apology and politicians across party lines expressed their disgust at Hunka’s appearance and undue honour. Before long, the news garnered international attention, with the incident covered by BBC News, Al Jazeera, The Washington Post, among many other news outlets worldwide.

Other than the Polish government musing that it may pursue Hunka’s extradition for potential war crimes during World War Two, and the words of condemnation and calls for apologies, there have so far been few calls for more concrete action in light of last week’s events.

But beyond short-term apologies, there remain two key areas raised by the incident where the Canadian news media has yet to meaningfully focus, thought it ought to do so.

Firstly, the news media must forcefully call upon relevant federal authorities to launch an investigation into Hunka himself, namely his activities as part of the First Ukrainian Division (also known as the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS) during World War Two, and whether he may be guilty of any war crimes.

That possibility is far from remote: members of the First Ukrainian Division notably committed mass murder against Jews, Poles, and even their fellow Ukrainian citizens. According to expert estimates, roughly two thousand war criminals from the Nazi regime settled in Canada after World War Two, and many avoided prosecution as a result of a conscious decision by then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, because he felt that prosecuting war criminals could exacerbate “relationships between Jews and Eastern European ethnic communities,” according to late historian Irving Abella.

This chilling forgiveness of Nazi war crimes knew no borders. South of the border, thousands of Nazi scientists avoided prosecution when they were recruited by the United States at the end of World War Two to join NASA in what became known as Operation Paperclip.

Regardless of the passage of nearly 80 years since the end of the Holocaust, crimes against humanity committed in the 1940s are abhorrent now as they were when they were perpetrated, and Yaroslav Hunka should be investigated for his activities during the war.

Secondly, the Hunka affair has drawn some attention to the fact that in a number of places across North America, including at least two locations in Canada, there remain monuments to Nazi-affiliated Ukrainian divisions.

One monument, a bust of Roman Shukhevych, a director of multiple military units affiliated with the Nazi regime and whose involvement in war crimes has been called “unequivocal” by the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre, remains in Edmonton at the Ukrainian Youth Unity Complex, where it was installed in 1973.

Despite the pedestal that Shukhevych is held atop today in Ukraine, where he is hailed as a hero, he was a war criminal whose bust should not be displayed in Canada.

Further east, inside the St. Volodymyr Ukrainian Cemetery, located in the leafy Toronto suburb of Oakville, stands a cenotaph honouring those who served in the First Ukrainian Division. And while there has been some media coverage in recent days, both on the memorials, as well as the need to hold war criminals accountable, that attention must continue.

In 2020, the cemetery in Oakville was the subject of some local attention when it was vandalized. Following that incident, the monument was defended by some, including the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, which labeled the attempt to educate Canadians on the role of Ukrainian Nazi units during World War Two as a pro-Russian propaganda attempt.

Although the memorial received condemnation from local politicians at all three levels, the cenotaph nevertheless remains standing three years later.

On the heels of the disgraceful standing ovation offered to Yaroslav Hunka on Parliament Hill, the Canadian news media has a duty and a responsibility to do more than offer condemnations of Nazism and the blunder which led to Hunka’s presence in Ottawa. The news media in Canada must continue to call on governmental authorities to properly investigate Hunka, to ensure that if he is guilty of war crimes, that he is brought to justice, and to call on relevant authorities to do their utmost to remove the appalling memorials to Nazi war criminals in Edmonton and Oakville.

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