Why a photo of Freeland holding a black-and-red scarf sparked a firestorm online

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was photographed holding a scarf bearing the colors associated with the right-wing Ukrainian paramilitary group from World War Two last weekend.

Both his office and the Ukrainian Canadian Congress pointed to questions and criticism he received about it online related to a Russia-backed pattern of disinformation targeting members of the Ukrainian community.

The Twitter account for Freeland shared a photo of the federal finance minister at a Ukraine solidarity march in Toronto on Sunday holding a black-and-red scarf with the Ukrainian phrase “Slava Ukraine,” which translates to “Glory to Ukraine,” written in Cyrillic.

Toronto Mayor John Tory was in the group and his account also shared photos of the time, including one showing the other side of the scarf, which has the phrase “Heroyam Slava,” or “Glory to the heroes.” Neither Tory nor Freeland touched the scarf in the photo.

Both accounts deleted the photos the next day. Freeland later issued an identical tweet about his attendance at the march organized to show solidarity with Ukraine after Russia launched a multi-pronged attack on the sovereign nation. It displays a photo without a scarf.

Ivan Katchanovski, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa, said that the red-and-black flag, along with the slogan “Glory to Ukraine, glory to the heroes”, was adopted by the Ukrainian Rebel Army (UPA) during its congress in Nazi-occupied Poland in April 1941. The UPA is the armed wing of the Ukrainian Nationalist Organization (OUN), an ultranationalist, antisemitic and fascist organization.

Adrienne Vaupshas, ​​Freeland’s press secretary, said in a written statement Wednesday that there were thousands of people at the event in Toronto, that many were trying to get photos or give Liberal cabinet ministerial tokens, like ribbons, and that she was trying to be friendly with everyone. person.

He added that someone “pushed a scarf (which reads “Slava Ukraine”) in front of several politicians,” including Freeland. Vaupshas described it as “Ukraine’s slogan in today’s war against Russia,” and that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have used the phrase as well.

The original tweet, and its subsequent deletion, garnered much backlash, which escalated after conservative online news site True North Center wrote about it on Monday. The article noted that Trudeau had invoked “Nazi symbolism” at recent protests in Ottawa after a swastika flag was seen among the crowd.

“Can you see the hypocrisy and double standards now?” Canadian People’s Party leader Maxime Bernier tweeted the following day, adding that he did not believe Freeland was a “real Nazi.”

“A classic blemish of KGB disinformation accusing Ukraine and Ukraine-Canada of right-wing extremists or fascists or Nazis,” Vaupshas wrote at the start of his statement sent Wednesday.

The KGB, which existed from 1954 to 1991, was the security service in the Soviet Union.

“A photo was taken, tweeted and then replaced when it became clear some accounts were distorting the intent of the rally and the photo,” he added.

“We condemn all right-wing and extremist views and organizations, be it in Russia, Ukraine or Canada. The deputy prime minister has no ties to any right-wing organisation,” he added.

Vaupshas did not comment when asked about what was written on the other side of the shawl the minister was holding.

A statement from the Tory office said the mayor attended the rally to show his and Toronto’s support for Ukraine and its people. “We are not aware of this particular scarf or its meaning. The mayor is always focused on bringing our city together during difficult times and has absolutely no desire to do anything that divides our population as we work to support the Ukrainian community.”

Conservative lawmaker James Bezan, who was also at the rally and seen in the photo holding up a sign someone had given him that said “pray for Ukraine and stop the war,” said Thursday he had no idea what happened to the scarf at the time. . But he also suggested the attention the original photo garnered was feeding into Russia’s disinformation efforts.

“I just don’t think at this point … people are thinking about how all of this happened with Putin’s disinformation campaign,” he said.

According to Katchanovski, contemporary Ukrainian ultranationalist groups, such as the Right Sector, have adopted the red-and-black flag along with the words “Glory to Ukraine” before and during the pro-western Euromaidan protests that led to the sacking of Ukraine’s former president. Viktor Yanukovych from power in 2014. He said its subsequent widespread use had led some to believe it was a traditional Ukrainian greeting.

There are also efforts in modern Ukraine “to recast the OUN and UPA as popular national liberation movements, which fought against Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and to present the leaders of the OUN and UPA as national heroes,” Katchanovski said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin argued that Ukraine committed genocide against ethnic Russians and that the country needed to be “de-nazified” as a justification for its invasion.

“The glorification of these organizations has been the subject of growing criticism by historians both in the West and in Ukraine,” says historian John-Paul Himka, a professor emeritus at the University of Alberta and uncle of Freeland.

“Putin has exploited the heroism of these nationalists in his propaganda. With his invasion, he only brightened their image.”

Katchanovski said scientific studies and archival documents show the OUN collaborated with Nazi Germany at the beginning, and at the end, of the Second World War. The Bandera faction of the OUN, which controls the UPA, led the Polish ethnic cleansing campaign in Volhynia in 1943. (Polish Parliament voted in 2016 to recognize the massacre as genocide.)

“Many leaders and members of the OUN and UPA, who headed or served in the police and local administrations during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, assisted Nazi Germany to carry out the massacres and Nazi genocide against Jews, Roma, Ukrainians, Byelorussians and Russians,” Katchanovski said.

But Katchanovski said neither the OUN nor the UPA were Nazis, who killed millions of Ukrainians.

He also said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish and descended from Holocaust survivors, and his government “are not Nazis or neo-Nazis, and there is no genocide in Ukraine.”

Marvin Rotrand, national director of the Human Rights League at B’nai British Canada, condemned the use of the black-and-red flag seen at pro-Ukrainian events.

“The black-and-red UPA flag is consistently recognized as a fascist emblem and a symbol of hatred throughout the international community,” he said.

After The Canadian Press contacted Freeland’s office for comment, the Canadian Congress of Ukraine sent a statement from its president, Alexandra Chyczij, reacting to allegations on social media that Freeland was showing support for extremists with a scarf.

“The Canadian Congress of Ukraine unequivocally and emphatically rejects these baseless accusations and attacks against Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland. Ms Freeland clearly does not support right-wing extremist organizations,” he wrote.

“Ms. Freeland has been a victim of Russian disinformation before and this is a typical Russian smear to discredit Ukraine and Ukraine-Canada.”

Freeland, a Toronto lawmaker of Ukrainian descent, was banned by Russia in 2014 after Putin retaliated against sanctions imposed on his country over its annexation of Crimea.

His grandfather, as described in an article written by Himka that the Globe and Mail reported in 2017, was the editor of the Nazi propaganda newspaper, Krakow News, in occupied Poland during the Second World War. The Globe reported Freeland had edited the article.

When news of his grandfather’s role was first reported that year, including by pro-Putin websites, Freeland initially linked it to Russia’s disinformation campaign.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on March 3, 2022


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