Kitchener Waterloo Record | 01Nov2008 | Record News Service

Process fails us all in Oberlander case

For the past 13 years the Canadian government has tirelessly worked to expel Helmet Oberlander from this country because of his service with a Nazi killing unit in the Second World War. And for the past 13 years, his investigation and trial, the revocation of his citizenship, as well as his seemingly endless appeals to stay put, have sharpened a wedge that has painfully divided the public in Waterloo Region and across the nation.

But today, well over a decade after the campaign to deport him began and a full 65 years after the atrocities that Canada is trying to address, the supporters and opponents of this retired Waterloo developer, those who want him left alone and those who cry for his expulsion, can agree on this much.

The process has not worked.

It has taken a ridiculous and unacceptable amount of time. People have been born, educated, worked, retired, become grandparents and died since Oberlander was conscripted to be an interpreter for the German commando unit that invaded and committed unspeakable crimes in his native Ukraine. More than half a century has passed since he came to Canada. The concerted resources of the state have laboured to oust him since 1995. And yet, in the case of Helmet Oberlander there is still no end in sight.

It is, arguably, the worst of all worlds for everyone involved. Justice has solidified into a Sisyphean rock that is endlessly rolled up the hill -- only to always tumble down again.

This week, a Federal Court judge upheld a decision by federal cabinet to strip the 84-year-old Oberlander of his Canadian citizenship for the second time. And as he did the first time, Oberlander will appeal to a higher court. Last time he won and had his citizenship restored. This time, even if he loses, he can launch an appeal on another procedural matter. And even if, sometime in some distant year, Oberlander has exhausted all appeals and is actually ordered out, there seems to be no guarantee that Germany, or any other country, will actually accept him.

To many fair-minded observers, this seems bizarre. One of the most contentious aspects of the entire case was the ruling in 2000 by Justice Andrew MacKay that Oberlander had lied to enter Canada in the 1950s, even though there was no primary evidence in the form of documentation or direct witnesses to prove this was so. Yet this cornerstone of the government's case, this judicial finding that was so damaging to Oberlander and so vital to the goal of removing him, could not be appealed.

Amazingly, however, ever since then, Oberlander has been able to launch appeal after appeal of procedural matters that are arguably far less important than the original ruling.

There is no statute of limitations when it comes to war crimes, though as we state this we note that Justice MacKay declared there was no evidence Oberlander personally participated in any crimes against humanity.

Ideally, the quest to bring to justice those responsible for the extermination of millions of innocent civilians in Europe during the Second World War should never end when there is hope it might succeed. The sad fact is, however, that the Canadian government let too many years pass before it tried to bring to justice people who had come to this country and were considered complicit in war crimes from the first half of the last century. Having tried and failed to convict one man, Imre Finta, of war crimes, the government changed tactics and adopted the policy of denaturalization and deportation which it has used against Oberlander.

We are living with the unsatisfying results of the policy the government cobbled together. We have to do better in future.

[W.Z. We fully agree! The denaturalization and deportation policy initiated in January 1995 by the Allan Rock of the Liberal government to replace criminal prosecution was ill-conceived and should never have been allowed to happen. It remains a permanent blot on our judiciary and legal system, which can only be removed by an apology and full monetary compensation of its victims.]
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