OTTAWA – The day after Chrystia Freeland was appointed Canadian foreign affairs minister in January, the Russian Embassy in Ottawa contacted a member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery with information about her late Ukrainian maternal grandfather, Michael Chomiak.
Justin Ling, features editor of VICE News Canada, told The Ukrainian Weekly that one of his regular contacts at the Embassy, whom he chose not to identify, was “pushing the narrative” that Mr. Chomiak was not just the chief editor of the Krakow-based Ukrainian-language Krakivski Visti (Krakow News), he was also “working with the Nazis,” who controlled the newspaper.
Mr. Ling, who is also VICE’s parliamentary correspondent in Ottawa, chose not to take the bite. “The story was neither publicly relevant nor publicly important, and I chose not to publish it – and it was a story being shopped by the Russians,” he said in an interview.
However, stories about Mr. Chomiak’s alleged Nazi connections soon popped up on the Internet.
On his website, veteran Moscow journalist John Helmer wrote that records opened by the Polish government reveal that Mr. Chomiak was “a Nazi collaborator from the beginning to the end of the war.” Arina Tsukanova, a Crimea-based journalist, authored a story, headlined “A Nazi Skeleton in the Family Closet” for Consortiumnews.com, which bills itself as the first investigative news magazine on the Internet. In the story she claimed that Mr. Chomiak “faithfully served Nazi Germany right up to its surrender, and Chomiak’s family only moved to Canada after the Third Reich was defeated by the Soviet Union’s Red Army and its allies.”
The stories didn’t get a lot of attention in Canada until the Ottawa satirical magazine Frank recently published excerpts from them. Ms. Freeland was confronted with the accusations that her grandfather was a Nazi collaborator at a news conference earlier this month when she and Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan announced their government’s decision to extend Canada’s military mission to Ukraine for two more years.
Was this “a disinformation campaign by the Russians to try to smear you and discredit you, which they have a tendency to have done?” Minister Freeland was asked by Globe and Mail bureau chief Robert Fife.
“I don’t think it’s a secret,” she replied. “American officials have publicly said and even [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel has publicly said that there were efforts on the Russian side to destabilize democracies in the West, and I think it shouldn’t come as a surprise if these same efforts are used against Canada.”
That prompted Mr. Ling to publicly acknowledge in his own story about receiving “the same allegations” that appeared in Mr. Helmer’s and Ms. Tsukanova’s pieces. “The Russian source suggested that Freeland should be questioned on her grandfather’s work during the war,” Mr. Ling wrote on VICE News Canada’s website. “The Russian Embassy declined to speak on the record for this story.”
The Ukrainian Weekly contacted the Russian Embassy for comment on whether it had reached out to Canadian media regarding information about Ms. Freeland’s grandfather. In an e-mail, Kirill Kalinin, press secretary to the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Canada, wrote: “We do not comment on our private contacts with representatives of the media.”
He also sent an answer given to Washington Post reporter Alan Freeman, who wrote about the allegations regarding Mr. Chomiak, who died in 1984. “We cannot deny or confirm news stories,” Mr. Kalinin wrote. “Our principled position as a country that sacrificed so many lives to crush the Nazi war machine is well-known: Nazism and its hateful ideology, Nazi collaborators and followers should be unequivocally condemned. This is to be spoken out openly and unambiguously.”
Ms. Freeland was unavailable for an interview, and her press secretary, Alex Lawrence, declined to speak on the record. But he told The Globe’s Mr. Fife that, “people should be questioning where this information comes from, and the motivations behind it.”
Mr. Ling believes he has the answer.
“Canada appoints a foreign affairs minister who allies quite closely with the Ukrainian government and with soft Ukrainian nationalism that takes a dim view of Russian expansion in the Donbas and Crimea – so it’s no coincidence that all of a sudden these stories are cropping up about her,” he told The Ukrainian Weekly. “It’s clear what the motivators are about the story the Russians are putting out about her. They’re trying to discredit her and undercut her office.”
Journalist Terry Glavin made a similar assertion in a commentary that ran in the National Post and the Ottawa Citizen.
“The whole point” about stories on Ms. Freeland’s grandfather “was to make [her] look dirty, and it had to fall to Freeland, herself a former Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times, a Ukrainian-Canadian whose personal credibility was suddenly on the line, to try to warn us all that this is the sort of thing we should come to expect,” he wrote, citing the “Freeland knew her grandfather was editor of Nazi newspaper” headline from one of Mr. Fife’s recent Globe stories, which Mr. Glavin said, “inadvertently and unintentionally prove[s] Freeland’s point.”
Minister Freeland reviewed a scholarly article her uncle, John-Paul Himka, professor emeritus in the University of Alberta’s Department of History and Classics, wrote, titled “Krakivski Visti and the Jews, 1943: A Contribution to the History of Ukrainian-Jewish Relations during the Second World War,” which appeared in the Journal of Ukrainian Studies in 1996. In it, Prof. Himka details the anti-Semitic articles the newspaper’s editors were forced to publish under the Nazi occupation, but how they also “issued false papers for members of the underground.”
In an e-mail to the Globe, Mr. Lawrence told Mr. Fife that, “the Minister has supported her uncle’s efforts to study and publish on this difficult chapter in her late grandfather’s past.”
Mr. Ling doesn’t think Ms. Freeland, who was first elected to the Canadian House of Commons in 2013, should say anything on the issue.
“She’s not her grandfather,” he said. “We don’t have unfettered rights to troll through our politicians’ personal lives that have no bearing on their work. Therefore, I don’t think we get to give her the third degree for maybe not being totally forthcoming about a man who was dead before she entered politics.”