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Pierre Trudeau opposed stripping accused Nazi war criminal of citizenship, government document says

As justice minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau argued against revoking the citizenship of a Canadian citizen the Soviet Union had convicted of heading a firing squad responsible for the deaths of 5,128 Jews during the Second World War, says a newly unredacted historical report.

The newly released document was unredacted at Jewish advocacy group's request

Man with yellow flower on lapel at podium

As justice minister in 1967, former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau argued against revoking the citizenship of a Canadian citizen the Soviet Union had convicted of heading a firing squad responsible for the deaths of 5,128 Jews during the Second World War, says a 617-page report prepared for the Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals decades ago.

The document, now largely unredacted, was released by Library and Archives on Thursday. It was originally prepared for the Deschênes Commission, which in the mid-1980s investigated Nazi immigration into Canada.

The document says a Soviet court tried the Canadian in question, identified only as Subject F, in absentia in Riga, Latvia in 1965 and found him guilty.

It was written by historian Alti Rodal. A heavily redacted version under Canada's Access to Information Act was initially released to the public in 1987. Jewish human rights organization B'nai Brith obtained a less censored copy in June 2023 but Trudeau's position on the case was blacked out in that version.

WATCH | Declassifying documents on war criminals would require 'careful' process, minister says:

Declassifying documents on war criminals would require 'careful' process, minister says

4 months ago

Duration 1:40

Immigration Minister Marc Miller says officials are looking into declassifying parts of the Deschênes Commission report, a 1980s inquiry into whether Canada had become a haven for war criminals. Any declassification, he says, would have to be done through a 'careful' process.

In 1967, when Trudeau was justice minister in the government of Prime Minister Lester Pearson, the Department of External Affairs sought his legal opinion on whether there was a solid case for deporting Subject F, based on the USSR's request.

In July of that year, Trudeau wrote to the department that, "it could not be established that Subject F knowingly concealed material circumstances relating to his good character even if it be assumed that he was, in fact, guilty of the crimes for which he was convicted in absentia."

In November 1967, Trudeau expanded on his thoughts in a letter to Paul Martin Sr., who was then secretary of state for External Affairs. In it, Trudeau said he was worried about setting a precedent that would see others stripped of their citizenship.

"There is nothing in the Act to indicate that an application for Canadian citizenship is in the nature of a confessional requiring the applicant to disclose all prior conduct, whether public or private," he wrote.

"I might add that while I appreciate your concern for the repercussions and anxiety which you mention [of the Jewish community and others concerned with inaction with regard to war criminals settled in Canada], it appears to me, on the other hand, that it would be most ill-advised for the government to undertake this venture which would involve publicly accusing a Canadian citizen of having committed crimes in Latvia in respect of which he was convicted, in absentia, in Russia."

"If we did so, I think we would be forced to concede that similar steps might be taken against any person who had obtained a certificate of citizenship if it were found that he had not disclosed occurrences in his past which we, the government now decide to be of sufficient gravity as to constitute concealment of circumstances material to his grant of citizenship.

"I cannot therefore, on the basis of my present appreciation of this case, recommend or concur in a course of action designed to strip subject F of his Canadian citizenship."

Rodal's report noted the Canadian Jewish Congress continued to try to have Subject F deported, but was unsuccessful.

Push to unseal documents

"It's hardly surprising that, as the minister of justice, [Trudeau] wasn't just thinking legally, he was thinking politically," said David Matas, senior legal counsel for B'nai Brith, the Jewish advocacy group that filed the access to information request that led to the release of the unredacted report.

"The bringing of mass murderers to justice should not be sidetracked by political considerations," he added.

There has been a renewed push by Canadian Jewish organizations to unseal documents related to Nazis in Canada since the fall. That's when a high-profile visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to the House of Commons turned into an international scandal after MPs unwittingly stood to honour Yaroslav Hunka, a Ukrainian immigrant who fought in a Nazi unit during the Second World War.

Other newly unredacted parts of Rodal's report reveal that in 1954, the RCMP was aware that the United States was trying to resettle in Canada people who had aided it in the fight against communism.

Rodal wrote the U.S. told the RCMP that some of these individuals had "criminal records of which a number arose from cases involving moral turpitude" — a category she claimed included former Nazis.

The number of those who did manage to come through to Canada via this program remains redacted in this version of the report, along with other parts of 14 pages.

"What we want is a complete release of the records," Matas said.

His organization has also been asking for the government to publish the second part of the final Deschênes Commission report, which contains the names and details of individuals it had wanted follow-up investigations on.

"Once the survivors [of the Holocaust] have passed away, what we're left with in terms of Holocaust remembrance is the records. And so the records become of increasing importance as times go," said Matas.

Miller welcomes latest version of report

In a statement, Immigration Minister Marc Miller welcomed the release of the latest version of the Rodal Report, and noted some information still remains protected under the Information and Privacy Act.

"Those who suffered under Nazi Germany and their descendants want transparency when it comes to this shameful chapter in our history," Miller is quoted in the statement, adding it is why his department took the step of making the majority of the report publicly available. "More can and should be done to provide transparency."

The statement also noted the government is still engaged with community stakeholders on next steps forward.

"Libraries and Archives Canada is committed to preserving and making historical records available to the public to contribute to the advancement of Canada as a free and democratic society," Leslie Weir, Librarian and Archivist of Canada, said in the statement.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked Friday why it took the government so long to unseal the records and when it would release the rest of them.

"I think people understand that this is both an important part of the historical record, but also one that has implications around privacy, around community cohesion, around the kind of country we are," he said. "These decisions are ones that are taken responsibly and never lightly."

In response to questions from CBC News to Library and Archives Canada, IRCC spokesperson Aïssa Diop said in a statement that the latest release of the Rodal Report contains unredacted information previously held for a number of reasons under Canadian law.

These range from some information being obtained in confidence from a foreign government. Some of it had also been deemed injurious to international affairs, injurious to the enforcement of any law in Canada, or under Solicitor-Client privilege.

A Canadian Press story from 1987 said Trudeau was confronted with the allegation that he privately opposed the prosecution of Nazi criminals, and he deflected the charge, stating then-Liberal MP Robert Kaplan, solicitor general in the early 1980s, was in a better position to explain government policy.

The article also cited Rodal saying her research showed Trudeau's private veto, and that he had political reasons for not pursuing prosecutions.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Raffy Boudjikanian

Senior reporter

Raffy Boudjikanian is a senior reporter with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He has also worked in Edmonton, Calgary and Montreal for the public broadcaster.

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