The fallout continued over Parliament’s recognition last week of a man who fought for the Nazis — a move some have called the most embarrassing international debacle in Canadian history — and now there calls to remove two monuments in Edmonton with ties to the regime.
“We believe that both monuments in question are monuments to people who are complicit in the genocide of six million Jews and millions of other victims of the Nazi regime and their collaborators,” said Dan Panneton, director of allyship and community engagement with the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies (FSWC).
The Jewish human rights organization based in Toronto has been advocating for the removal of the monuments for decades and after what happened in Ottawa in last week, FSWC is renewing its calls.
On Friday, during an official visit by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota pointed to a guest in the gallery he identified as a war hero.
Parliamentarians and dignitaries who were present gave two standing ovations to a 98-year-old Ukrainian Canadian war veteran Yaroslav Hunka — without knowing or understanding that the unit he fought with was formed by Nazi Germany to fight against the Soviet Union.
University of Alberta professor John-Paul Himka pointed out that nobody seemed to immediately understand how Hunka’s military history implied he would have fought with the Germans.
That’s because of a great lack of understanding of history, even among elected MPs, he said.
“I mean, this man was introduced as somebody who fought the Russians during World War II. Who was fighting the Russians during World War II? It was the Germans,” he said.
One of the monuments in Edmonton pays tribute to the unit Hunka fought in. It’s in St. Michael’s Cemetery in north Edmonton, just off 137 Avenue and 82 Street.
It partly honours the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, which was a Second World War Nazi German military formation made up predominantly of volunteers with a Ukrainian ethnic background.
“It’s unacceptable to have monuments dedicated to a unit affiliated with the SS because they were complicit in the Holocaust,” Panneton said.
The fact the Waffen SS unit was made up of mainly Ukrainians is a moot point, he said.
“The Nazi war machine was not interested in Ukrainian independence. So when they were fighting under the auspices of the SS, they were fighting to forward German war aims,” Panneton said.
“They were not fighting for Ukraine.”
But it’s not a black-and-white issue, University of Alberta Russian and Eastern European history professor David Marples said, noting Ukraine — and indeed, much of Europe — has a complicated political history.
“The 1930s was a very radical period when far-right groups were very popular in most countries of Europe, including even some in Britain, which was course on the other side in the war. And Ukraine was no exception,” Marples said.
Also, at the time leading up the the Second World War, Ukraine wasn’t an independent state and the war presented a prime opportunity to seize back land surrounding nations had taken for their own.
“That is the heroic period of time, for sure, when they were fighting against overwhelming forces, against the return of Soviet rule.
“But the war period is a less savoury time when some really dark things happened.”
Marples noted Ukrainians had endured brutality at the hands of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1930s and as the Second World War dragged on and it became clear the east was a bigger threat than the west.
“Many of them were in the wrong time at the wrong place,” Marples said of those who fought under the Nazi formation.
“There wasn’t much choice for them, because the Red Army was advancing from the east and within a matter of a year or so was going to be in their land and they wanted to fight to stop the Red Army coming back because they remembered the Soviet rule in 1939-41.
By 1943, the Germans were retreating from the Soviet Union. If aligning themselves with the Nazis held back a bigger threat, Marples said that is what some Ukrainians were willing to do to gain independence.
“For them, even at that stage of the war, the Red Army was a bigger danger than the Nazis were,” Marples said.
“Therefore, in the long term, (Nazis) were not going to be the main enemy anymore, it was going to be the Red Army.”
The other Edmonton monument is a bust of a controversial Ukrainian nationalist Roman Shukhevych, on display at the Ukrainian Youth Unity Complex near 153 Avenue and 97 Street.
Shukhevych fought for Ukrainian independence, but also collaborated with the Nazis and is accused of ethnic cleansing of Polish people and Jews.
“The presence of monuments towards individuals and groups who killed Jews, Poles, other groups is in many ways a reminder that the memory of the Holocaust isn’t quite resolved,” Panneton said.
In a statement to Global News, the Ukrainian Youth Unity Council said Shukhevych is a leader and hero of the Ukrainian nation’s resistance.
It notes the statue is on private property — something Panneton acknowledged.
“We think that they should be removed. They are a blight on the Canadian landscape,” he said. “Their removal is contingent upon the owners of those monuments and memorials.”
Marples sees both sides of it.
“It seems to me it would be reasonable to suggest that the Ukrainians should take down that bust because it offends so many people. On the other hand, you have to acknowledge that for some Ukrainians, he is a genuine hero figure,” the professor said.
Marples likens the issue to recent calls to take down memorials to those who aided in Canada’s colonization.
“It’s not a big deal to change monuments or to remove monuments.
“You know, monuments reflect a certain time period.”
Speaker Rota, who said he did not know about Hunka’s background, apologized for making an egregious mistake inviting him to Parliament. He announced Tuesday that he would resign from the role.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued an apology on behalf of Canada and all parliamentarians for the debacle.
“I think a lot of Canadians this week are learning about these monuments for the first time, and are frankly shocked about what they’re learning,” Panneton said, noting in the post-war era, Canada accepted about 2,000 people who used to be in the unit.
“Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the commemoration and celebration of Waffen SS members here in Canada.”
— With files from Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press
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