The coded telegram was dispatched by Britain’s Commonwealth Relations Office to Canada and six other Commonwealth governments on July 13, 1948, just three years after the Second World War had ended. It dealt with a delicate subject: the British government had decided to quietly suspend further prosecutions in the United Kingdom of suspected Nazi war criminals—and Westminster wanted the Commonwealth allies to adopt the same policy. When that declassified document was made public last week in Hull, Que., by a federal commission of inquiry into war criminals in Canada, it provided one of the most significant reasons why the trail of suspected Nazis living in Canada was allowed to grow cold in the postwar years.
The telegram, declared Irwin Cotier, a Montreal lawyer representing the Canadian Jewish Congress, was a “scandalous indictment of the public policy prevailing at the time in the United Kingdom.”
Indeed, the telegram-tabled by Yves Fortier, a lawyer for the commission headed by Justice Jules Deschênes, former chief justice of the Quebec Superior Court—raised some of the same issues that the commission has faced since it was set up last February to determine how many suspected war criminals may be living in Canada. The British telegram said that it was more important in the war’s aftermath to improve relations with Germany in order to counter the Soviet Union than to pursue war criminals. The “punishment of war criminals,” the British telegram noted, “is more a matter of discouraging future generations than of meting out retribution to every guilty individual.”
The Commonwealth Relations Office issued a second document a month later. It noted that Commonwealth governments, including Canada, “have replied agreeing, or at any rate not disagreeing, with our proposals.” The documents explained in part the incomplete Canadian records kept on suspected war criminals
after 1947, when Canada turned over responsibility for prosecutions to Britain. According to testimony given last week by Robert Hayward, chief of the access section of Public Archives Canada, the public archives’ records show that Ottawa in 1947 handed over to the British government a list of 154 people suspected of having committed war crimes against Canadians. But distribution of that list and several other lists of suspected war criminals was so strictly controlled that it was apparently not provided to the immigration department, which could have used it to screen suspected Nazis from the flood of Europeans settling in Canada after the war.
The information emerged as Deschênes considered whether or not to travel to the Soviet Union and Poland in search of evidence about war criminals in Canada. Spokesmen for the Winnipeg-based UkrainianCanadian Committee, representing about 500,000 Canadians of Ukrainian descent, told an Ottawa news conference that Communist bloc officials would attempt to fabricate evidence implicating Eastern European immigrants in war crimes in order to damage the credibility of anti-Soviet dissidents in Canada. But lawyers representing Canada’s Jewish community argued before the commission that it should do everything in its power to identify war criminals still alive in Canada, including taking testimony in the Soviet Union.
So far, the commission has sifted through allegations that as many as 660 war criminals may be living in Canada. Deschênes, who has until Dec. 31 to recommend ways of dealing with suspected war criminals, was expected to decide this week whether or not he will travel to the Communist bloc as well as to the United States, Britain and the Netherlands to hear evidence of “serious allegations” against eight Canadian citizens who are prime suspects.
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