Record (Kitchener-Waterloo) | Jun. 02, 2004 | Christian Aagaard

A ruling with justice at its heart

One nugget of information sparkles pretty clearly among all the heavy ore surrounding a legal ruling released Monday.

The Federal Court of Appeal says the federal government had better do a sharper job of backing up its reasons if it wants to boot Helmut Oberlander out of the country.

Details, details.

So, Oberlander, an 80-year-old Waterloo man with a murky war record, gets his citizenship back.

For now, anyway, and let's hope he gets to keep it.

Because one of the things this tortured case has done is shake faith in the principle that governments, when they weigh in with life-altering decisions against individuals, do so on the basis of solid information, not just a whim of what ought to be done.

Oberlander, we know from the decisions and court files that have accumulated over the last eight years, was 17 years old in the middle of Europe in 1941, a war boiling around him.

He spoke Russian and German. The Nazis, advancing east, sprung him from a holding camp in which he had been detained by the Russians.

Eventually, according to what came out in court a long time ago, he was forced to report to Nazi occupying forces and serve as an interpreter.

He ended up associated with an Einsatzkommando unit.

This was not some harmless bunch of Boy Scouts. The unit belonged to a killing machine that slaughtered more than two million people in eastern Europe.

Jews, Gypsies, men and women with handicaps, Communists -- a wide spectrum of people vanished as the Nazis scrubbed Europe of cultural influences they didn't think fit into their warped concept of world order.

Courts haven't disputed Oberlander's failure to disclose his war history when he applied to come to Canada in the mid-1950s. His lack of candour is one of the reasons compelling the government to yank his citizenship.

What seems to trouble the Federal Court of Appeal is that although the government has a large amount of latitude when it comes to turning citizens into stateless persons, it chose not to use it fairly in this case.

The government seemed to lock in on the issue of guilt by association, without clearly establishing -- there's that thing about details again -- that Oberlander's work as an interpreter made him complicit in the murderous activities of the Einsatzkommando unit.

Four years ago, in yet another courtroom, Justice Andrew MacKay found no evidence that Oberlander was a war criminal. He did rule, however, that Oberlander had failed to disclose his war past.

Two other missing elements trouble the appeals court.

Neither the government's move to pull Oberlander's citizenship nor the judicial review that later supported it appear to have fully examined the circumstances under which Oberlander joined the Nazis. He insists he was forced.

Nor was much weight given to Oberlander's post-war experience -- his life as a developer and community builder in Waterloo. That oversight, the appeals court ruled, made the citizenship decision "patently unreasonable.''

The government appears to have three choices. It can appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. It can write a new report and try to revoke Oberlander's citizenship once again on the basis of meatier content sought by the appeals judges.

Or it can drop the case. That won't soothe the demand for retribution on behalf of millions who died at the hands of a malevolent regime.

But at least it sustains the principle that justice is best served with a high degree of fairness.

Otherwise, we may find ourselves not that far removed from the grim shadow that fell across Europe more than 60 years ago.

Christian Aagaard can be reached at 894-2250, ext. 2660, or by e-mail at [email protected].