Home Page News Opinion Foreign Policy Politics Policy Legislation Lobbying Hill Life & People Hill Climbers Heard On The Hill Calendar Archives Classifieds
Hill Times Events Hill Times Books Hill Times Careers The Wire Report The Lobby Monitor Parliament Now
Subscribe Free Trial Reuse & Permissions Advertising
Log In

War is hell and Freeland has nothing to be ashamed of

By Paul Wells      

The point of such black eras in history is to survive them and avoid repeating them. Chrystia Freeland is in the business of helping societies—ours, Ukraine’s, the world’s—stay on the side of sanity. It makes her a target.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, left, pictured Jan. 10 at Rideau Hall at the cabinet shuffle, with Labour Minister Patty Hadju, Status of Women Minister Maryam Monsef, Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould, and Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
Share a story
The story link will be added automatically.

In 1992, I studied for a school year in Paris. My roommate was French. One night, over cheap port from the local grocery, we got to talking about World War II. “Everyone’s grandparents fought in the Resistance,” my roommate said. He paused for a beat. “The Resistance wasn’t that big.”

He was paraphrasing J.B.S. Haldane, who said, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” War, my roommate was implying, is so horrible that just about nobody dares look it in the face.

This is obvious to most Europeans and hard for most Canadians to understand. Their war happened at home; ours happened an ocean away. A consistent thread in Canadian veterans’ accounts of their return home was the widespread lack of interest in hearing what the soldiers had seen and done. A rough consensus among Canadians who’d stayed home during the war was that no good could come from knowing.

The news this week is that Chrystia Freeland’s maternal grandfather worked on a Nazi-operated newspaper in Krakow during the war. Canada’s foreign minister would prefer not to say so. When first asked about it at a news conference on Monday, she bobbed and weaved. It’s “public knowledge that there have been efforts, as U.S. intelligence forces have said, by Russia to destabilize the U.S. political system,” Freeland said. “I think that Canadians, and indeed other western countries, should be prepared for similar efforts to be directed at us.”

Freeland’s answer was true, as far as it went. Canadians should indeed be prepared for Russia to lead efforts to destabilize Canada’s political leadership. It makes sense that Freeland would be a target. She’s already banned from travelling to Russia, as part of the tit-for-tat game of escalating sanctions the Russians played with the West in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea, in Ukraine. Freeland is obviously the leading voice in the government for rebutting Russia’s actions there.

And indeed, tales of Freeland’s grandfather Michael Chomiak have been circulating on pro-Putin social media accounts and websites since January.

The tales also appear to be founded in demonstrable fact. The truth of Chomiak’s stint at a Nazi-controlled newspaper in occupied Krakow has been known to Freeland for more than 20 years. Her uncle, historian John-Paul Himka, wrote about Chomiak in a 1996 journal article. Freeland helped edit the article.

There’s no evidence Chomiak wrote any of the anti-Jewish diatribes that flowed like sewage through the pages of the newspaper, Krakivski Visti. His state of mind at the time cannot be known to us. After the war he told his family he had worked with the anti-Nazi resistance, helping its members get false papers. Perhaps it’s true. Perhaps it’s one of the stories people tell themselves later, as they try to live with the things they did to stay alive in hell.

What we know is that if Chomiak was still alive at the end of the war, it’s because he took pains to stay on the right side of the murderers who had occupied Ukraine and Poland for the war’s duration. Everyone did. Everyone had to. You might be a resister for three hours a day after collaborating the other 21. Those who didn’t manage to escape to the West, as Chomiak and his family did, stayed behind and spent generations staying on the right side of the new occupiers, the Stalinist murderers who took over from the Nazis.

Today in central Europe there are political parties that believe they can draw clean moral distinctions through the countless layers of betrayal and accommodation that characterized those terrible lost decades. One of them is in power now in Poland. That country’s current government seeks to blame and penalize people today for their behaviour under Communism. It’s a terrible waste of effort because no coherent allotment of blame and absolution is possible. That’s what totalitarianism does to a society. As Winston Smith learns by the end of 1984, “Under the spreading chestnut tree / I sold you and you sold me.”

The point of such black eras in history is to survive them and avoid repeating them. Chrystia Freeland is in the business of helping societies—ours, Ukraine’s, the world’s—stay on the side of sanity. It makes her a target. The fact that her family existed in the damned 20th century gives her opponents ammunition. None of this takes away the legitimacy of her important work.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer for The Toronto Star. This column was released on March 10. 

The Hill Times

More in News

GTA Grit MPs Holland, Vaughan considering run for Ontario Liberal leadership

Businesswoman and former federal cabinet minister Belinda Stronach denies she is considering a run for the Ontario Liberal Party leadership.

Tories snatch Liberal seat in Quebec byelection

News|By Beatrice Paez
Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives brought an end to the Liberals’ short-lived hold on one corner of Quebec, handily winning the riding of Choutimi-Le Fjord in a closely watched race that pitted a well-known candidate with a…

War of words with Trump is gold for Trudeau today, but could make or break him in long-run: MPs and pollsters

News|By Abbas Rana
Voters will become 'a little bit more choosy' about how they support the federal Liberals if the Canada-U.S. trade spat begins to hit their pocketbooks, says Independent Senator Paul Massicotte.

Ethics czar clears Morneau in conflict-of-interest probe

News|By Beatrice Paez
Mr. Dion upheld the finance minister’s position, which argued that, because the bill is of general application, 'any interest that could be gained would be excluded from the definition of private interest.'

Feds to back five Senate changes to cannabis bill, plus 22 of their own

After six months of study, the Senate had passed 46 amendments to Bill C-45, including 29 written by the government.

Blaming ethnic, religious ‘divisive forces,’ and family reasons, former Tory MP Shory quits Conservative nomination contest in Calgary Skyview

News|By Abbas Rana
If Independent MP Darshan Kang were not allowed to return to the Liberal caucus, former Trudeau adviser Jessie Chahal would likely seek the Liberal nomination in Calgary Skyview.

Inside West Block, the House Chamber’s home for the next decade

The West Block building is now set to be in full use as the House of Commons’ interim home in January 2019.

Trudeau owes surge in approval to Trump bump, poll suggests

News|By Beatrice Paez
Canadians in Quebec and the Atlantic region, where support for supply management is the highest, were among the prime minister's enthusiastic supporters in his tussle with the U.S. president, according to a poll

Centre Block closure, renos delayed until after summer

Senators were told this morning that the Upper Chamber’s interim home at the Government Conference Centre won't be ready in time for the fall sitting this September.