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Canada’s Nazi war criminal past can no longer be ignored

After WWII, thousands of war criminals were able to settle in Canada, where most lived openly without any fear of prosecution

Canadian PoliticsEurope

Volunteers of the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS are sworn in, 1943. As many as 2,000 members of the unit arrived in Canada in the 1950s. Photo courtesy the National Digital Archives of Poland/Wikimedia Commons.

Growing up, I always heard about the Nazi SS veteran who lived in our small town in rural Manitoba. His name was Herbie. He worked on farms in the area, and for a time at CN Rail, before passing away in peace and comfort in his 80s.

Herbie’s Nazi past was an open secret. Everybody in town knew he had fought for the Waffen-SS during the Second World War and hightailed it to Canada when the Allies triumphed. But nobody seemed to know how he had entered Canada so easily, or why the Canadian government didn’t do anything about this man whose Nazi past was known to everyone in the area.

Rumours circulated that Herbie was a war criminal. I remember hearing one story several times: while he was stationed at a concentration camp for Russian POWs on the Eastern Front, he shot and killed a prisoner simply because he wanted the man’s coat.

I was always confused why Herbie—an enemy combatant who had fought for what we supposedly recognize as one of the most vile and destructive regimes in history—was not arrested and extradited to Europe. Now I know why. It was a deliberate policy of Ottawa to welcome Nazi war veterans like Herbie into Canada after 1945.

The stereotype of Nazi-embracing Latin American dictatorships is a common one, but it distracts attention from the myriad ways in which the US and Canada welcomed thousands more Nazi veterans and allowed their ideology to fester, untouched, amongst many far-right diaspora groups.

In 1997, war crimes investigator and private detective Steven Rambam said, “Canada is where the Nazis are. Canada is the unknown haven for Nazis. Everybody knows about Argentina, but nobody knows about Canada.”

Whitewashing Nazi crimes

In Winnipeg, the largest city near my hometown, a man named Alexander Laak lived openly, unbothered by police. He was a Nazi lieutenant and the commander of the Jägala concentration camp in Estonia. Thousands of Jewish people were murdered at Jägala from 1942 to 1943, and Laak himself was reported to have kept female prisoners as sex slaves.

After the war, Laak lived comfortably in suburban Winnipeg. He was a member of a national diaspora group called the Estonian Central Council (ECC), and from 1955 onward, he worked for Canada’s Department of National Defence.

The Russian news agency TASS claimed that Laak had bought his house in Winnipeg with proceeds from valuables stolen from victims of mass executions in Estonia. The RCMP had apparently “talked to Laak and found nothing to incriminate him.” Nevertheless, Laak admitted that he “was in the Estonian army and fought against the Russians.”

In September 1960, Laak was found dead in his garage. The official cause of death was suicide by hanging, but there are theories that he was tracked down and killed by a so-called “Jewish Avenger” squad of Holocaust survivors.

Following Laak’s death, Canadian media reported that he had undergone and passed a police check before entering Canada. Another article in the Ottawa Citizen used scare quotes when reporting Laak’s crimes, aiming to discredit Soviet accusations that he had participated in the Holocaust.

One article reads: “A 53-year-old immigrant accused by Russia as a ‘Nazi war criminal’ sought by the Communists for ‘mass murders’ in Estonia committed suicide last night by hanging himself from a garage rafter.” The article also gave Laak the space to discredit his accusers: “Laak said he was the man the Russians were talking about but labelled the story ‘99 percent lies… It is only Communist propaganda.’”

Meanwhile, an earlier article headlined “Accused of Being Nazi: Family Tells of Struggle” did everything it could to clear Laak’s name, writing of the family’s “struggles in Canada to piece together war-disrupted lives.”

Dozens of other journalists penned articles claiming Laak was the target of “Red lies” and “Russian propaganda.” Following Laak’s death, the ECC said their organization had “come under a Soviet propaganda barrage.”

Efforts to complicate accusations against Laak were similar to how the media addresses (or fails to address) the crimes of Ukrainian Holocaust perpetrator Roman Shukhevych today. Whenever his name appears in the media—usually in connection to protests against the bronze bust of his likeness in Edmonton—it is often implied that the narrative around his crimes is “complex.”

The Roman Shukhevych statue at the Ukrainian Youth Unity Complex in Edmonton after it was vandalized with the words “ACTUAL NAZI” in August 2021. Photo courtesy the Progress Report.

Amidst a wave of protest against the Shukhevych statue last year, CTV News quoted the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy, the organization which erected the bust, as “dismiss[ing] accusations that Shukhevych collaborated with Nazi Germany and was involved in massacres of Jewish and Polish people as ‘Russian disinformation.’”

A CBC article claimed that Shukhevych has “fallen under increased scrutiny” in recent years. And a CTV article noted: “While Shukhevych is celebrated by some as a Ukrainian military leader, he is also criticized by others as being involved in massacres of Jewish and Polish people.”

Even amidst the ongoing outrage over Yaroslav Hunka’s visit to the House of Commons, the CBC ran an article in which they wrote of Shukhevych’s “alleged” war crimes and his hero status among many right-wing, ultranationalist Ukrainians:

Lionized by some in the Ukrainian Canadian community as a brilliant guerilla commander who led the largest insurgency in Europe against Stalin, Shukhevych is considered a war criminal by Jews and Poles for his alleged role in the Holocaust and an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Polish minority in Western Ukraine.

Canada: “Haven for Nazi criminals”

When meeting with historian Irving Abella, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was honest about the fact that Ottawa had no intention of prosecuting Nazi war criminals living in Canada. In their meeting, he told Abella that Canada was not seeking to prosecute Nazi veterans on its soil “because they were afraid of exacerbating relationships between Jews and Eastern European ethnic communities.”

In his research, Abella described the disturbing ways in which the Canadian government welcomed Nazis into the country after the war. In an interview with 60 Minutes, he told host Mike Wallace that one of the ways they could guarantee their entry into Canada “was by showing the SS tattoo… This proved you were an anti-Communist.” If true, this would explain how people like Herbie, Hunka, and Laak were able to enter Canada so easily after fighting for Hitler’s army.

The New York Times has described Canada as a “Haven for Nazi Criminals,” while the Jerusalem Post called Canada “a near-blissful refuge” for Nazis. B’nai Brith has accused Ottawa of “intentional harbouring of known Nazi war criminals.”

It is hard to disagree with any of these statements. For instance, when Jerusalem Post reporters hired Steven Rambam to search for Nazis, he tracked down around 150 suspected war criminals living openly in Canada. And this assignment didn’t test his investigative mettle; tracking them down was often as easy as looking up their names in the phone book.

In 2014, Rambam said, “It is to the Canadian government’s great and eternal shame that more was not done” to prosecute Nazi war criminals living here. Indeed, Canada openly spurned the petitions of national Jewish organizations which protested the government’s openness toward Nazi veterans:

In the late 1940s, the Canadian Jewish Congress actively petitioned Ottawa to keep a closer eye on refugee streams from Eastern Europe, as the CJC believed that many former Nazi collaborators were using them to enter the country under false pretenses. These warnings were almost completely ignored, and the Congress’ low-end estimate is that 2,000 war criminals were able to settle in Canada, where most lived openly without any fear of prosecution.

Indeed, it was a policy of the British after the Second World War to dump Ukrainian Nazi prisoners in Canada. A 1948 report from British official Beryl Hughes reads, “What little we know of [Ukrainian Nazis’] war record is bad… We’re still hoping to get rid of the less desirable Ukrainian POWs either to Germany or Canada.”

These Nazi veterans usually don’t hide their presence or their past actions. Often they are proud of them. For instance, Hunka writes of his time in Hitler’s army with pride and nostalgia. He posted photographs of himself in uniform on a blog for Ukrainian veterans of the SS Galicia Division and described the period under Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1943 as “the happiest years of my life.”

None of this stopped Parliament from applauding him, even though he was introduced as having fought “against the Russians” during World War II. And it didn’t stop the University of Alberta from distributing a $30,000 endowment fund in Hunka’s name over the past four years (which they finally closed yesterday amidst the uproar around the incident in the House of Commons).

Rehabilitating war criminals

After the war, the Canadian government welcomed between 1,200 and 2,000 members of the Ukrainian SS Galicia Division into Canada. Other Nazi veterans and collaborators came from Germany, the Baltics, and the Balkan states.

Over the past decade, the Canadian government has allocated millions of dollars to construct a Memorial to the Victims of Communism in Ottawa—despite a 2015 poll that found 77 percent of Canadians opposed the project. The monument was awarded funding under both the Harper and Trudeau governments, and received letters of support from Green Party leader Elizabeth May, former NDP leader Tom Mulcair, and former federal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler.

Funding for the monument has also come through a “buy-a-brick” campaign in which Canadians can donate money and dedicate a “virtual brick” to someone they consider a “victim of communism.”

After being announced in 2021, the “buy-a-brick” campaign was swamped with donations dedicated to Nazi war criminals and collaborators. The General Committee of United Croats of Canada dedicated a brick to Ante Pavelić, the leader of Croatia’s Nazi puppet regime and the country’s chief perpetrator of the Holocaust. Pavelić is responsible for the murders of approximately 32,000 Jews, 25,000 Roma, and 330,000 Serbs. Another brick was dedicated to Mile Budak, one of the most high-ranking figures in the fascist Ustaša. The bricks made no mention of these men’s actions, simply describing Pavelić as a “doctors of laws” and Budak as a “poet.” A third brick was purchased for Ivan Oršanić, another Ustaša member.

Meanwhile, the League of Ukrainian Canadians’ Edmonton Branch bought five bricks in honour of Roman Shukhevych, whose Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) massacred thousands of Poles and Jews.

Confronting the past, and present

It is clear that the presence of Nazi veterans is widespread in Canada. Even so, the federal government is still hiding information on war criminals living in this country.

The 1986 Deschênes Commission investigated the presence of Nazi war criminals in Canada. However, many of the commission’s findings remain classified, and Ottawa continues to ignore appeals to release additional information.

Forty years later, the government is still sitting on a long-classified report about Nazis who settled in Canada. According to Ottawa Citizen journalist David Pugliese:

[The government] has heavily censored another 1986 report examining how Nazis were able to get into Canada. More than 600 pages of that document, obtained by this newspaper and other organizations through the Access to Information law, have been censored.

David Matas, the honourary counsel for B’nai Brith, has attempted to gain access to these documents. His efforts have been fruitless. “We’ve run up against a brick wall,” he told Pugliese.

It is past time we confront this dark history. We deserve to know how and why these Nazis were allowed to live comfortably in Canada.

As Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center President Michael Levitt said, “It’s now time for Ottawa to not only release the unredacted files related to the Deschênes Commission, but to also address the stark reality that there are still former Nazis with blood on their hands living in Canada.”

Direct demands need to be made of Canadian officials to release all historical documents related to Nazi war criminals within our own borders.

We also need to ask why we are spending millions on a monument that may bear dedications to Nazi collaborators.

These questions must be dealt with. Failing to better understand our history will have troubling implications for Canada’s future.

Owen Schalk is a writer from rural Manitoba. He is the author of Canada in Afghanistan: A story of military, diplomatic, political and media failure, 2003-2023.


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