Chrystia Freeland

Who would ever have imagined major Canadian media companies would conclude collaborating with the Nazis when they were on a genocidal spree in your country was just another legitimate response to a difficult moral dilemma?

Certainly this view would have been treated with universal contempt and disgust when I began to work in Canadian media in the early 1970s.

Then, however, memories of the Second World War were fresh and often first hand in the minds of Canadians, including many journalists.

Yet this is exactly what several writers have been saying about the disturbing secrets of Nazi collaboration by the now-dead maternal grandfather of Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland.

The people expressing this view are not neo-fascist freaks and the “Old Stock Canadian” wing of the post-Harper Conservative Party, but writers of normally moderate views who are otherwise decent people. Such suggestions, for example, are contained in pieces by such usually thoughtful writers as Paula Simons of the Edmonton Journal, Colby Cosh of the National Post and Paul Wells of the Toronto Star.

This is truly disturbing, suggesting the rot from acting as a vector for more than 30 years of neoliberal propaganda has set so deeply into the Canadian mainstream media it can no longer locate its moral compass.

One difference between now and the post-war period in Canada, I think, is that as a nation that was then very conscious and proud of its historical British connections it was universally understood that Hitler had seriously plotted to invade the British Isles in the early years of World War Two.

We know now that in 1940 the Germans abandoned Operation Sea Lion as strategically impossible, but it forced British people — and to a degree their Canadian cousins — to contemplate and prepare for life under Nazi occupation. (Plans were afoot to move the Royal Family to Hatley Park, near Victoria, for example.)

Have no doubt, our British allies would have gassed the beaches when the Germans came ashore, the “laws of war” be damned, and British collaborators would have been handed the same rough justice Michael Chomiak feared in Ukraine.

That Chomiak’s collaboration was apparently journalistic and non-violent — inciting and excusing murder as chief editor of a pro-Nazi publication in occupied Poland, territory that was later part of Ukraine, rather than committing it — would have made no difference to Canadians or Britons in the same post-liberation circumstances.

We all knew this once. Apparently we have forgotten it now.

We also understood that in an apocalyptic moral struggle, as World War Two was, your allies may not turn out to be perfect people.

Even in the war years, there was deep ambivalence in the West about the Soviet system and its leader. But that did not stop us from co-operating with the Soviet Union’s titanic battle with the greater evil — which, if we are honest, we will acknowledge probably saved our bacon in the West.

It does not excuse the excesses of Stalin against his own people to say that his government’s conduct of the war with Germany was defensible and exactly what we would have done — indeed, pretty much what we were doing — in the same circumstances.

Similarly, while acknowledging the democratic shortcomings today of Russian President Vladimir Putin, to suggest he is a new Stalin or, worse, a new Hitler, is preposterous enough to suggest seriously clouded moral judgment at work.

To believe that we in the West would have behaved differently faced with a similar strategic challenge to that Russia confronted in Crimea in the spring of 2014 is also difficult to believe.

Imagine how our American neighbours would react if, say, they believed Russians were about to start using the Canadian naval base at Esquimalt and were installing strategic missiles on Vancouver Island! You can assume they would have taken action even though, unlike Crimea, there are no historic ties between Vancouver Island and the United States beyond being longtime neighbours, and Vancouver Islanders do not think of themselves as Americans.

Whether or not the U.S. Navy actually had plans to take over part of the shared Russian-Ukrainian base in Sevastopol is subject to claims and counterclaims, but the strategic implications for the Russians of even the possibility would have been unacceptable to any country. At the very least, we need to recognize that, like any country, Russia has a strategic interest in the state of affairs along its borders, and, like any country with the means, will act on it. That they managed to do so in Crimea with zero deaths related to their military activities is remarkable, and suggests their claims of overwhelming support by the local population are true.

But one of the techniques of the neoliberal era has been to transfer — apparently with some success — our atavistic understanding of World War Two to create false moral equivalencies between the leaders of countries that resist the neoliberal economic agenda, as Russia has under Mr. Putin, and the monsters that ran Nazi Germany.

Freeland — unlike her predecessor as foreign affairs minister, Stephane Dion — has frequently indulged in this kind of hostile rhetoric about Russia, which in turn responded to Western sanctions in March 2014 by banning her from its territory.

No one should be punished for the sins of their relatives, but this baggage made Freeland an odd choice by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this past January as foreign affairs minister of a country that shares a region, if not an actual border, with Russia. It certainly gave the impression at the time Trudeau wanted to send the Russians a none-too-subtle message.

However, it is the fact she and her staff tried to pass off her grandfather’s history, which we now know to be true, as Russian disinformation that should concern us all, regardless of our views about Russia’s policies in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine or Syria.

Thanks to the Globe and Mail, we know that Freeland knew about her grandfather’s collaborationist history for more than 20 years.

In other words, she was lying to us, at a minimum by omission and misdirection. Surely such activities are inappropriate the occupant of any cabinet post, let alone the sensitive and senior foreign affairs portfolio.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog,

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Image: David Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...