The deputy prime minister was photographed with a scarf associated with the Ukrainian far-right at a demonstration in Toronto
A since deleted photo posted to Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland’s Twitter account showing her posing with a red-and-black scarf featuring the words Slava Ukraini (Glory to Ukraine). The scarf’s colours are also found on the flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), a fascist paramilitary organization accused of committing atrocities against Jews and Poles during the Second World War.
Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke at a rally against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 27, in which she was photographed holding up a scarf associated with a Ukrainian paramilitary organization that massacred thousands of Jews and Poles during the Second World War.
Freeland, who has made her Ukrainian heritage a major focus of her political brand, tweeted out the photo of her holding up a black and red scarf that had “Slava Ukraini,” or “Glory to Ukraine” written on it, with the relatively innocuous caption, “We stand united. We stand with Ukraine.”
The scarf’s colour scheme, as well as the slogan on it, were adopted by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), an offshoot of the more radical wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists led by Stepan Bandera.
The UPA collaborated with the Nazis to ethnically cleanse Volhynia and Eastern Galicia of Poles and Jews in an attempt to establish an ethnically-pure Ukrainian state, which culminated in the murder of 100,000 Poles by 1943, according to historian Terry Martin.
“Red and black are the colours of the Bandera Wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. The flag symbolizes blood and soil, and was adopted by that organization in 1941, along with an explicitly totalitarian program. The black-and-red banner is a symbol intimately connected with the most radical Ukrainian right-wing tradition,” Per Anders Rudling, a historian of nationalism, explained to the Toronto Star.
Natalia Khanenko-Friesen, director of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, confirmed to the National Post that the colours represent blood and soil, but reassures the reader that it’s not the fascist kind. “Blood as life, as blossom, and not as blood lost in battles,” she declared. Freeland deleted the tweet and then posted an image of her at the rally without the scarf. But as many pointed out, the replacement photo still has a UPA flag in the distant background—a testament to the prominence of UPA symbology at the rally.
At Passage, Davide Mastracci notes UPA flags were also seen at Ukraine solidarity rallies in Montreal, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Prince George, BC, Edmonton and London, Ontario.
While Toronto Mayor John Tory rushed to condemn the use of swastikas by fringe cranks at a pro-Palestine rally in Toronto last year, he stood right behind Freeland while she held up the UPA scarf at the pro-Ukraine protest.
Claims of Russian disinformation
Asked by media outlets why Freeland deleted the tweet without explanation, her office used a familiar refrain: this is all Russian propaganda aimed to distract from Russian aggression.
Freeland spokesperson Adrienne Vaupshas told the Star the photo was deleted and replaced “when it was clear some accounts were distorting the intent of the rally and photo,” alleging criticism was part of “a classic KGB disinformation smear … accusing Ukrainians and Ukrainian-Canadians of being far right extremists or fascists or Nazis.”
At the same time, Vauphas insinuated Freeland unknowingly took a photo with the UPA scarf, as many people at the rally went up to her asking for a picture, despite the fact that Freeland was holding the scarf.
The line that this was an old school Soviet-style smear campaign against Ukrainian patriots is the same line the organizations within the Ukrainian-Canadian community—particularly the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and its former president Paul Grod, with whom Freeland has worked closely—have used to defend monuments to Nazi collaborators in Edmonton.
When a tribute to the 14th Waffen SS Division at a cemetery in northeast Edmonton was spray-painted with the words ‘Nazi monument,’ Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Edmonton told the CBC the “vandalism is part of the decades-long Russian disinformation campaign against Ukraine and Ukrainians to create a false Nazi image of Ukrainian freedom fighters.”
The Ukrainian Youth Unity Council, which has a bust of Nazi collaborator Roman Shukhevych outside its building that was also defaced the year prior, said the notion that the UPA collaborated with Nazis was “riddled with disinformation.”
“As for those who presume a right to dictate to us about whom we should honour, we invite them to reflect upon whom they are serving when publishing divisive ‘fake news,’” they told the CBC.
The accusation of Russian disinformation was also used when it was revealed in 2017 that Freeland’s grandfather, Michael Chomiak, whom she has repeatedly cited as an inspiration, was the editor of Krakivs’ki visti, a Nazi newspaper in Krakow.
“American officials have publicly said, and even [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel has publicly said, that there were efforts on the Russian side to destabilize Western democracies, and I think it shouldn’t come as a surprise if these same efforts were used against Canada,” she told reporters who inquired about Chomiak’s history, despite having helped edit a paper her uncle, University of Alberta historian John-Paul Himka, wrote on the topic in 1996.
The Russian state has justified its invasion of Ukraine on the grounds of “de-Nazifying” a country that has both a Jewish president who won in a landslide and a neo-Nazi battalion in its military that has boasted of receiving NATO training. There’s no doubt the Kremlin is attempting to amplify the extent of Nazism in Ukraine for its war aims.
The problem is that Freeland, and elements of the organized Ukrainian diaspora community she comes from, give the Russians so much material to work with.
As I have documented elsewhere, the sins of Freeland’s grandfather aren’t the issue here, but a web of associations that informs her refusal to acknowledge the dark side of Chomiak’s and the Ukrainian nationalist movement’s history.
A study in contrasts
Contrast Freeland’s embrace of Ukrainian far-right elements, and the relatively muted response to it, with the treatment NDP leader Jagmeet Singh received for his Sikh heritage and alleged nationalism after he assumed the role of party leader.
On October 2, 2017—the day after he was elected NDP leader—Singh appeared on the CBC’s Power and Politics. Host Terry Milewski demanded Singh disavow the valourization of Talwinder Parmar, who was accused of killing 329 people in the Air India bombing of 1985, by some in the Sikh community who seek an independent homeland.
Singh responded by calling the bombing a “heinous massacre,” with repeated interruptions from Milewski who demanded he specifically denounce the veneration of Parmar, who was killed by Indian police in 1992 and was never definitively proven to be the bomber, although an official inquiry from the Canadian government said he was.
The media onslaught continued, with the National Post speaking to Bal Gupta, the widower of an Air India victim, who explicitly accused Singh of dual loyalty: “You have to ask him whether he is representing all the Canadians or just one particular interest.”
Six months later, after video footage was unearthed of Singh speaking to a Khalistani separatist rally in California, the editor of CBC’s ill-fated Opinion section Robyn Urback wrote a piece headlined, “Jagmeet Singh keeps getting asked about Sikh extremism because he won’t give an answer,” while serial plagiarist Margaret Wente wrote in the Globe and Mail that Singh is “up to his neck in the ethno-nationalist politics of another country and another time and place.”
The next day, the NDP leader caved and said Parmar committed the bombing and shouldn’t be honoured.
Freeland, who had the Ukrainian Canadian Congress respond to a request for comment from her office on the scarf incident, has never faced this aggressive line of questioning from media outlets interrogating her ties to hardline Ukrainian nationalists.