Hel­mut Ober­lan­der and jus­tice

The Hamilton Spectator - - OPINION - John Roe

Cana­di­ans are un­der­stand­ably di­vided over the case of Hel­mut Ober­lan­der and whether he should be de­ported at age 93 for what he did in the Sec­ond World War.

For the fourth time, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has stripped the Water­loo man of his Cana­dian cit­i­zen­ship for serv­ing in a Nazi death squad in the war and be­cause a court ruled he lied about it to en­ter Canada. And for the fourth time, Ober­lan­der is go­ing to court to over­turn the gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion, some­thing he achieved on each of the three pre­vi­ous oc­ca­sions. This is an ex­tra­or­di­nary, costly and seem­ingly in­ter­minable le­gal bat­tle. It has been waged since Jean Chré­tien’s gov­ern­ment an­nounced in 1995 its in­tent to pros­e­cute Ober­lan­der. And be­cause it has lasted a gen­er­a­tion, some will in frus­tra­tion ques­tion why Ot­tawa doesn’t give up its pur­suit of Ober­lan­der and let him re­main in Canada.

But rather than be­ing signs of fail­ure in our le­gal sys­tem, the time, re­sources and care de­voted to this case by both sides show why Cana­di­ans need and are served well by the rule of law. Through the fog of time, through the swirl of com­pet­ing nar­ra­tives and un­cer­tain facts, the light shone by our courts, which have ruled both against and for Ober­lan­der, re­mains our best guide. While many peo­ple see Ober­lan­der as a pow­er­less teenager who was forced to join a Nazi killing unit, oth­ers are adamant he en­abled some of his­tory’s worst mur­der­ers.

An eth­nic Ger­man born and raised in Ukraine un­der harsh, Soviet rule, Ober­lan­der be­came an in­ter­preter in a mo­bile Nazi death squad that mur­dered at least 23,000 civil­ians, most of them Jews, between 1941 and 1943. Ober­lan­der says he was con­scripted and had no choice but to serve in the Ger­man forces that in­vaded his Ukrainian com­mu­nity. He de­nies par­tic­i­pat­ing in war crimes, and no ev­i­dence has been pro­duced in court that he per­son­ally took part in the atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted by those around him. Ober­lan­der also de­nies ly­ing about his war record when he im­mi­grated to Canada in 1954.

Yet for many peo­ple, the fact Ober­lan­der served with that Nazi death squad means he was a cog that helped the evil ma­chine do its de­spi­ca­ble job. That in it­self pro­vides a moral ar­gu­ment for want­ing him de­ported, they say.

Cana­di­ans may never agree on what jus­tice means in Ober­lan­der’s case. They can, how­ever, agree both sides have been able to fight freely and vig­or­ously in court for their ver­sion of jus­tice to pre­vail. That is no small mat­ter.

De­fend­ing the rule of law is one of the rea­sons 1.1 mil­lion Cana­di­ans fought — and 44,000 died — in that long-ago war. And it is one of the rea­sons Canada is bet­ter in every way than the despotic regimes that ran roughshod over the world seven decades ago.

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