Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland warned of Russian meddling in Canadian politics on Monday, as information coming from within the Russian embassy targets her family history.
The minister made the comments in Ottawa, at a press conference announcing an extension of a Canadian training mission in Ukraine that is meant to help Kyiv combat Russian-backed militias.
“I think that it is also public knowledge that there have been efforts, as U.S. intelligence forces have said, by Russia to destabilize the U.S. political system,” she said.
“I think that Canadians, and indeed other western countries, should be prepared for similar efforts to be directed at us. I am confident in our country’s democracy, and I am confident that we can stand up to and see through those efforts.”
Freeland, who has held her post for the past two months, is of Ukrainian heritage and is persona non grata in Russia, listed on a travel ban because of her outspoken support for the NATO-allied government of Ukraine. The Russian embassy has made no secret that they opposed her appointment. It appears that their animosity may be taking shape in an effort to discredit the minister.
On Monday, the Globe and Mail asked Freeland about articles, posted to two different online sites, alleging that her maternal grandfather had been editor-in-chief of a collaborationist newspaper that worked directly with the Nazis.
The same allegations were sent to VICE News by someone in the Russian embassy in January, the day after Freeland was sworn in as minister of foreign affairs. The Russian source suggested that Freeland should be questioned on her grandfather’s work during the war.
The Russian embassy declined to speak on the record for this story.
Michael Chomiak, Freeland’s maternal grandfather, indeed fled Ukraine during the war and wound up editor-in-chief of Krakivski Visti, a Ukrainian nationalist newspaper published in Krakow and Vienna, sanctioned by the Nazi-run government.
“Kremlin propaganda directly targets specific journalists, politicians and individuals in the EU.”
But John-Paul Himka, a professor emeritus at the University of Alberta who has written extensively about Krakivski Visti, told VICE News the truth is more complicated.
“It was a newspaper that had to collaborate with the Germans and had certain areas of ideological kinship,” said Himka, who is related by marriage to both Freeland (his niece) and Chomiak (his father-in-law.)
The paper did publish anti-semitic material, often accusing the Russian Bolsheviks — who carried out mass killings of Ukrainians at the time — of being predominately Jewish, a common and incorrect trope of the time. Other articles, always written under pseudonyms (although the authors have since been identified) sought to dehumanize the Jewish population through conspiracy and innuendo. Some of those articles were required by the Germans, according to records of correspondence from the paper’s editors.
Ultimately, he said, it is also difficult to pin any of this onto Freeland’s grandfather.
“He wrote nothing for the paper. He was largely a figurehead, a liaison with the German censors and a guy to call on the carpet when a whipping boy was needed,” Himka said over email.
Freeland has had a career, and a life, of her own. Her family migrated to Canada after the war, where Chomiak died in 2004. She’s been a Member of Parliament since 2013.
Still, two writers — one based in Crimea, the other in Moscow, both who write with a pro-Russian slant — published stories on her grandfather’s supposed ties with the Nazis, little more than a week after the story was first taken to VICE News.
Freeland hasn’t been the only politician to draw the attention of Russia.
Media outlets run by the Kremlin, such as Sputnik News and RT, have long spun yarns about Western politicians, tearing down those who support sanctions against Moscow and boosting those who seek closer ties with President Vladimir Putin.
A report from the European Parliament concluded late last year that “Kremlin propaganda directly targets specific journalists, politicians and individuals in the EU.”