Jared McBride is an assistant professor in history at the University of California, Los Angeles. Per Rudling is an associate professor in history at Lund University in Sweden.
The Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals, headed by Justice Jules Deschênes, completed an important report into its investigation on Holocaust war criminals living in Canada in 1986. It was accompanied by an assessment by scholar Alti Rodal, a document that Justice Deschênes said deserved “wide distribution.”
But it’s been 38 years, and we’re still waiting to read Ms. Rodal’s report as well as the full version of the Deschênes report itself. To this day, many Canadian Holocaust-related records and investigations are inaccessible.
This past April, David Matas, senior counsel to Jewish human-rights organization B’nai Brith Canada, spoke at a Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics hearing about access to Holocaust-era related records. In dialogue with Mr. Matas, MP Lisa Hepfner said, “I think I understood – and correct me if I’m wrong – that the U.S. has a more open system,” and then asked what the U.S. does “differently.”
To call the American system “more open” or “different” is a charitable way to describe the two governments’ approaches, precisely because they are not comparable. The U.S. government provides researchers and the public various avenues of access to Holocaust records through its National Archives and the robust Freedom of Information Act, where scholars and others are empowered to access sensitive documents about Nazi war criminals who took refuge in the U.S. No such system exists in Canada, neither through Library and Archives Canada nor via the federal Access to Information Act.
Mr. Matas explained in the hearing, and later in B’nai Brith’s detailed supplement brief, an important fact: The U.S. Congress passed the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act in 1998. This sweeping bill involved seven agencies in the release of eight million pages of material over an eight-year period, including from intelligence agencies such as the CIA. Researchers are still scratching the surface of these records, and publications presenting their findings appear regularly. The release of these records has helped scholars answer questions concerning governmental complicity in bringing Nazi war criminals to the U.S., as well as early apathetic efforts to find and prosecute them. U.S. transparency on this controversial topic is admirable.
Yet broadly, this courage has been in short supply, as very few governments have followed suit. Most governments became aware of the hundreds, if not thousands, of potential war criminals living in their societies in the late 1970s and 80s, and Canada was no different. In response, Canada decided to conduct the Deschênes Commission, an internal two-year investigation tasked with finding out if and how Nazis found refuge in Canada. The final report, which was released publicly with extensive deletions, marked the premature end of investigations into hundreds of war criminals and called for the federal Justice and Immigration departments to take the lead on future prosecution.
The post-Deschênes era has been a failure. The commission asked for 218 individuals to be investigated, and specifically targeted 20 “really bad guys,” as Ms. Rodal recently remarked. The 218 other cases were bad, too – they included gas chamber operators, policemen who shot thousands of Jews and murderers of Jewish children. The Canadian government has charged just four alleged Holocaust perpetrators over four decades, all of whom were acquitted. It’s an embarrassing number, dwarfed by the U.S.’s track record, which includes the stripping of citizenship from more than 100 individuals and the removal of more than 60 people from the country.
“The story should be told,” said Ms. Rodal. “That is the most urgent thing now. The story should be told truthfully, and there is a lot to be learned from this experience.”
Researchers interested in accessing records of potential war criminals who entered Canada are typically met with non-responses, confusion and misdirection from Library and Archives Canada, the RCMP and the Department of Justice. It does not matter if you are seeking immigration records or later investigation-related materials – Canadian agencies hide behind privacy and national security concerns. The privacy concern is disingenuous given that many, if not all, of these individuals are deceased, while national security arguments are hard to countenance given that the events date back eight decades. Either way, we must ask whether these concerns outweigh the public’s need to know.
In contrast, researchers interested in U.S. cases can check Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act records at the National Archives. If that fails, they can file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for immigration files, as well as for intelligence records from various agencies, and receive documents in several months. We dare anyone to show similar results with the Canadian system.
The fact that a soldier of the Third Reich was welcomed into the Canadian Parliament, and that there was such shock as to how this could happen, demonstrates how Canada has yet to confront its past relationship with Nazi war criminals in earnest. And perhaps the blanket denial of access to the nation’s own government records and investigations is an underlying cause. In response to the Yaroslav Hunka affair, the federal government has flirted with new disclosures. In October, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau remarked, “There are top public servants looking very carefully into the issue, including digging into the archives. We’re going to make recommendations.” Months have passed – we are still waiting.
This moment does not call for more evaluations or recommendations – it requires widespread disclosure and declassification on par with the United States. Researchers should have access to relevant immigration records and government materials related to the Holocaust and its perpetrators, including from Library and Archives Canada, the RCMP, the Departments of Justice and Immigration and the War Crimes Program. While there has been a fixation on the Deschênes report and the 238-name list, no one should settle for this list alone.
In the opening of the 2007 U.S. disclosure report on Nazi war crimes to Congress, the War Crimes Records Group’s acting chair Steven Garfinkel wrote that now, “historians will reinterpret and revise our previously accepted narratives.” Canada should now allow scholars to address two questions – how compromised individuals entered Canada, and why the Canadian government failed to hold the majority to account. That cannot be done until the archives are opened.
Canada’s record on dealing with Holocaust perpetrators is abysmal, but now it has one last chance to get something right: open the archives.