A former federal justice minister says the “failure of indifference and inaction” over Canada’s history with Nazis in the country likely contributed to Parliament’s unknowing recognition of a Nazi veteran in the House of Commons last week, and that he wants to see nearly 40-year-old documents on suspected war criminals living in Canada unsealed.
The push to release the documents comes amid ongoing fallout after Parliament’s recognition of 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka, a Ukrainian veteran who fought for a Nazi unit during the Second World War.
Hunka was invited to the House of Commons by House Speaker Anthony Rota — who has since resigned over the scandal — during Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelenskyy’s visit to Ottawa.
The incident caused outrage and embarrassment, both domestically and internationally, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has since apologized on behalf of all Parliamentarians.
It has also renewed calls to unseal portions of the report from the Deschênes Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals, a 1985 probe into more than 800 cases of people accused of committing war crimes and suspected of having escaped to Canada following the Second World War. Much of the inquiry’s findings and final report remain redacted.
Irwin Cotler — a former federal justice minister who also served as chief counsel to the Canadian Jewish Congress during the Deschênes Commission — told CTV’s Question Period host Vassy Kapelos in an interview airing Sunday that he has long been calling for more of the inquiry’s report to be unsealed.
“As it has always been said, sunlight is the best disinfectant, and we need to be fully transparent, so that we can bring about the necessary understanding of what, in fact, took place,” Cotler said.
“And so that we can secure the necessary justice that has been lacking, and that we can also correct the historical record, and that we can go forward in terms of pursuing justice, and not having situations like what occurred in the Canadian Parliament, where we inadvertently end up indulging the falsity of history,” he added.
The commission found that hundreds of the Waffen-SS Galicia Division were living in Canada by the mid-1980s, according to The Canadian Press, but Justice Jules Deschênes said that membership in the division did not itself constitute a war crime.
Cotler said the government could unseal the records without necessarily compromising confidentiality in some cases.
“I myself appeared before the commission; I acted as counsel before that commission,” he said. “There is evidence that needs to be made public.”
“We need to know the whole truth, and as I said, sunlight is the best disinfectant, and the best guarantor of justice for all,” he also said.
Cotler also said both Parliament’s recognition of Hunka and the reticence to unseal the Deschênes Commission records speaks to Canada’s history of “ongoing failure to bring Nazi war criminals to justice.”
He said “everyone was disturbed” by Parliament recognizing Hunka, but “the larger question, which was initially ignored, was about how he got into Canada to begin with, and how there was no accountability once he was in Canada.”
“This was a failure here of indifference and inaction by successive Canadian governments, the result being that we became a sanctuary for Nazi war criminals, and no accountability would then ensue,” he said.
He is now calling on Canada to “take the lead” and establish an independent international tribunal to investigate Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
GOVERNMENT WON’T COMMIT TO UNSEALING RECORDS
The federal government, meanwhile, has not committed to unsealing the Deschênes Commission records.
Government Whip Steve MacKinnon told Kapelos, also in an interview airing Sunday, that the incident in the House of Commons last week has given all Canadians, including the government, the opportunity to “reflect on these issues and continue to fight anti-Semitism.”
But when pressed on whether that could lead to more of the inquiry report being made public, MacKinnon wouldn’t say.
MacKinnon also would not commit to making changes to the vetting process for guests to Parliament, or to implementing a formal mechanism to ensure a similar incident isn’t repeated.
But MacKinnon did say the next House speaker — set to be elected Tuesday — will likely “be examining those very things.”
“I have no doubt that increased rigor, more rigor than has been applied to this particular situation, will be applied in the future,” he said. “And that is probably doubly true for when we receive world leaders and have speeches inside the House of Commons.”
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Marc Miller said on his way into a Liberal caucus meeting earlier this week that declassifying some of the records is something “we could possibly examine again,” but that “not being privy to what is in those documents,” he can’t say either way whether he supports the idea.
With files from CTVNews.ca’s Senior Digital Parliamentary Reporter Rachel Aiello and CTV’s Question Period Senior Producer Stephanie Ha