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Freeland warns Canadians to beware of Russian disinformation

Canada's Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland speaks during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 6, 2017.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who is being targeted by allegations in pro-Moscow websites that her maternal Ukrainian grandfather was a Nazi collaborator, warned Monday that Canada should expect to be the focus of Russian disinformation campaigns similar to what is happening in Europe and the United States.

Russia has shown its displeasure at Ms. Freeland's promotion to Foreign Affairs Minister by maintaining a travel ban against her as well as critical articles in state-owned media.

Recently a number of stories have appeared in pro-Putin regime websites, calling Ms. Freeland "Canada's fiercely anti-Russian Foreign Affairs Minister" and alleging her grandfather, Michael Chomiak, was a Nazi propagandist in Poland.

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Read more: Chrystia Freeland's Kremlin ban is a badge of honour

Related: Russian 'dezinformatsiya' throws U.S. politics into chaos

"I don't think it's a secret. 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," Ms. Freeland told reporters when asked about the articles. "I think that Canadians and indeed other western countries should be prepared for similar efforts to be directed at them."

Ms. Freeland is a strong advocate of Ukrainian independence and a tough critic of Russia's annexation of Crimea. A former financial journalist who worked in Moscow, she was blacklisted in 2014 along with 12 other Canadians for advocating western sanctions against Russia.

Without commenting on the allegations against Ms. Freeland's grandfather, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told reporters Canadian politicians need to be alert to Russian disinformation tactics, including efforts to hack into computer systems as the Russians did with the Democratic Party.

"The situation is obviously one where we need to be alert. And that is why the Prime Minister has, among other things, encouraged a complete re-examination of our cyber security systems," Mr. Goodale said. "And that is why we're offering the services of the [Communications] Security Establishment to provide advice to political parties about whether or not they are as secure as they need to be."

A spokesman for the Russian embassy in Ottawa, Kirill Kalinin, said the Putin government did not have anything to do with the stories about Ms. Freeland's grandfather. However, he noted she did not respond directly to the allegations during the news conference to announce the extension of Canada's military training mission to Ukraine.

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"The question was asked but the answer about her grandfather never followed. She avoided giving a direct answer as to what her grandfather was doing in Cracow during WWII," Mr. Kalinin said in an e-mail.

"While we cannot deny or confirm particular news stories, it's our principled position that Nazism and Nazi collaborators, their hateful ideology, that took tens of millions lives, must be unanimously condemned."

An official in Ms. Freeland's office denied that the minister's grandfather was a Nazi collaborator. Ms. Freeland has written that her maternal grandparents fled Ukraine in 1939, describing them as "political exiles with a responsibility to keep alive the idea of an independent Ukraine." Mr. Chomiak worked as a journalist in Poland and eventually immigrated to Canada after the Second World War.

The allegations made against Ms. Freeland's grandfather were published in Russian Insider, Consortiumnews.com and The New Cold War: Ukraine and Beyond, as well as by Moscow-based writer John Helmer. During the Nazi occupation, the publications say that Mr. Chomiak served as the editor of the Krakow-based newspaper Krakivski Visti, which was established by the German army and supervised by Nazi intelligence. The articles say Mr. Chomiak and his wife left Poland with the retreating German army in 1944 and surrendered to the Americans in Bavaria where they were placed in a U.S. military facility. The family departed for Canada in 1948.

"It is the continued Russian modus operandi that they have. Fake news, disinformation and targeting different individuals," said Paul Grod, president of the Canadian Ukrainian Congress. "It is just so outlandish when you hear some of these allegations – whether they are directed at minister Freeland or others."

Ukraine's ambassador to Canada, Andriy Shevchenko, said the Russians have become adept at fake news to smear people's reputations in his country and around the world.

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"This is another reason to take it seriously, we should realize that Russia is waging a war against the free world. It is not just about Ukraine," he said. "I am absolutely sure they will seek new targets in the free world so I would encourage our Canadian friends to be prepared for that, to stay strong and we will be happy to share our experience in how to deal with all these information wars."

Clinton Watts, a security consultant, former FBI agent and a fellow at the non-profit Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Reuters that most major Russian disinformation campaigns in the United States and Europe have started at Russian government-funded media outlets, such as RT television or Sputnik News, before being amplified on Twitter by other websites.

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About the Author
Ottawa Bureau Chief

Robert Fife is The Globe and Mail's Ottawa Bureau Chief and the host of CTV's "Question Period with The Globe and Mail's Robert Fife." He uncovered the Senate expense scandal, setting the course for an RCMP investigation, audits and reform of Senate expense rules. In 2012, he exposed the E. More

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