An opportunity lost
Mykhailo Chomiak edited a Ukrainian-language Nazi newspaper in occupied Poland. It happens that Chomiak was the maternal grandfather of Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign minister.
This fact is a matter of historical record, but apparently Russian operatives were shopping the story around as if it were fresh – and as if they believe Canadians will hold Freeland, and perhaps by extension the Liberal government, responsible for Chomiak’s past.
A writer on the Canadian online media outlet rabble.ca went so far as to accuse Freeland of a cover-up, which is nonsense, since she was acknowledged for her help editing an article on the subject that was written 20 years ago by her uncle, John-Paul Himka, an historian.
Freeland called it “public knowledge that there have been efforts, as U.S. intelligence forces have said, by Russia to destabilize the U.S. political system.… I think that Canadians, and indeed other Western countries, should be prepared for similar efforts to be directed at us.” She is absolutely correct. Russia almost certainly was involved in the U.S. presidential election and may indeed be responsible for the fact that Donald Trump is now in the White House.
Nevertheless, it seemed like a missed opportunity for Freeland not to use the chance to acknowledge some of the complexities and complicities around her grandfather’s history.
Let’s step back for a moment and realize that Canadians are relatively fortunate that, whatever enormous sacrifices Canadian families made during the Second World War, the war itself never reached our shores. For families in Europe at the time, many of whose descendants are, through immigration, now Canadians, the war impacted every aspect of civilian life. Possibly millions of people are responsible for acts of heroism or betrayal that are lost to history. Had it not been for the writings of a member of her own family, Freeland’s grandfather’s story might have been another largely forgotten piece of that war’s far-encompassing awfulness.
Who can estimate how many Canadians have ancestors who engaged in complicity (or worse) with Hitler’s regime, or with Stalin’s, or with any number of less-renowned tyrants and bad ideologies worldwide? We do not rest from seeking redress for the worst crimes during history’s worst times, but behaviours that do not constitute war crimes have rarely received the full attention of the media and public that Chomiak’s case has garnered in the past days. And we certainly do not – and should not – place any blame at the feet of grandchildren for events that took place before they were born. Freeland has done absolutely nothing wrong.
Still … she could have done something better. She could have (and perhaps by the time you read this, she will have) turned this into a teaching moment for Canadians.
The parents or grandparents of some Canadians may have chosen to, or been forced to, engage in actions we see as abhorrent. We cannot change the past. But we can potentially make a better future by acknowledging it, openly identifying wrongs and committing ourselves to better actions than that exhibited by some of our forebears. As examples, present-day Canadians have begun a process of reconciliation around the genocide perpetrated against indigenous Canadians, and Canadian governments have apologized for actions against Japanese-Canadians and the passengers of the Komagata Maru and the SS St. Louis.
In Freeland’s case, she is right to warn Canadians that Russia is attempting to undermine the credibility of our country’s foreign minister. But she should go further and insist that no Canadian – whether the country’s top diplomat or a new Canadian who was sworn in as a citizen yesterday – is guilty of acts undertaken by their grandparents. A few words about the complexity of historical memory could also be helpful. And it would be valuable for the federal government to make a firm public declaration that blackmailing or smearing a Canadian based on the acts of an ancestor will fail in its mission.