As the federal government grapples with the political fallout over giving former SS soldier Yaroslav Hunka a standing ovation in the House of Commons during Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy’s visit, many Canadians are questioning how former Nazis have managed to enter into Canada over the years.
Although Canada had specific rules in the wake of World War II prohibiting entry to those believed to have fought for Nazi Germany, historical records indicate that things became more complicated when it came to members of the foreign divisions of the Schutzstaffel, or SS.
The Galicia Division, officially designated as the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS in Ukraine (and later called the First Ukrainian Division), was among the Waffen-SS’s several foreign units in Europe formed by Adolf Hitler as he waged World War II and orchestrated the Holocaust. Other countries with their own units included Belgium, Croatia, and Romania.
The Nazi regime scoured occupied countries for volunteers to fill the ranks of its elite paramilitary force, separate from the regular German army.
The Galicia Division was formed in 1943 when Nazi occupiers of Ukraine called for a unit of Ukrainians who met SS leader Heinrich Himmler’s ethnic standard of being “Aryan-like” to strengthen their invasion of the Soviet Union.
At the time, the Ukrainians were already resisting the Soviets and many had direct experience with the Holodomor – a famine orchestrated by communist Russia that led to the death of nearly four million Ukrainians due to starvation.
After World War II, the entirety of the Waffen-SS was declared a criminal organization at the Nuremberg Trials but no such declaration was made specifically about the Galician Division but accusations of involvement in atrocities continue to linger.
By that time, Canada already had a substantial community of Ukrainian immigrants and many former Galician Division veterans sought out the country.
Canada had a policy of outright refusal for any applicants believed to have ties to the German Wehrmacht or the SS but this was not the case with the Galician Division.
A 1986 federal public inquiry into war criminals residing in Canada shows that members of the Galicia Division received an exemption in 1950 from the Cabinet. The inquiry also came to the conclusion that the war crime charges leveled against the Galicia Division were unsubstantiated.
“When they were taken prisoners of war by our troops in Italy it was recognized by the allied commander that there were special circumstances in connection with that division because they were not treated entirely as other prisoners of war were,” former minister of immigration Walter Harris told the House of Commons on June 15, 1950.
“We have investigated not individuals but the group as a whole, and we are quite prepared to accept them provided they come within the ordinary rules with respect to immigrants; that is, they might be agricultural workers, settlers, and the like.”
It would eventually be revealed that the Canadian government admitted nearly 2,000 former Galicia Division members in 1950 – many of whom were aided by Royal Canadian Air Force member Flight Lt. Bohdan Panchuk and the Ukrainian Canadian Servicemen’s Association.
The Canadian Jewish Congress vehemently opposed this move. It argued that these individuals should not be allowed into Canada, citing their wartime associations with Nazi organizations. However, a successful campaign by Panchuk to portray the former SS members as freedom fighters resisting Soviet occupation was enough to convince federal authorities.
Additionally, famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal raised the alarm about the presence of Galicia Division veterans in Canada and even provided the Canadian government with a list of 217 names of suspected members of the unit believed to be in Canada.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) investigated the claims and found that around 11 suspected Galicia Division members had quietly passed away in Canada.
Controversy around the unit persists to this day, as several Canadian cities are home to statues and memorials honoring the Galician Division and certain individual SS members.