The controversy over Chrystia Freeland and the Ukrainian scarf, explained

On Sunday, thousands of people gathered in Toronto for a demonstration against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. High-profile politicians joined the rally, including Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Toronto Mayor John Tory and Conservative MP James Bezan.

Just before 5 pm, Freeland, who is Ukrainian-Canadian, tweeted a photo with the caption: “We stand united. We stand with Ukraine.”

In the photo, Freeland stands behind a red-and-black scarf featuring the words Slava Ukraini (Glory to Ukraine) written in Ukrainian. On Monday morning, the tweet had been deleted. A new tweet shared the same message with a similar photo from the rally, but this time without the red and black scarf.

The scarf’s colors are polarizing: while black-and-red banners have a storied place in Ukrainian culture, the colors were also found on the flag flown by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, or UPA — a paramilitary organization accused of committing atrocities against Jews and Polish civilians in the Second World War, and associated with the resurgent far right in Ukraine today.

By Tuesday evening, the photo had become the subject of social-media controversy and several right-wing news outlets in Canada and the United States published stories accusing Freeland of marching with a pro-Nazi banner.

In a statement provided to the Star, a spokesperson for Freeland called the controversy “a classic KGB disinformation smear … accusing Ukrainians and Ukrainian-Canadians of being far right extremists or fascists or Nazis.”

The statement said that at the Toronto rally, many people were jockeying for photos with Freeland. “A photo was taken, tweeted, and later replaced when it was clear some accounts were distorting the intent of the rally and photo.”

“We condemn all far-right and extremist views and organizations, whether they are in Russia, Ukraine, or Canada,” the statement added. “The deputy prime minister has no association with any far-right organizations.”

The Star spoke to several experts to understand the controversy.

What does the red and black scarf represent?

Experts say that the red-and-black scarf has the same color scheme as the flag of the UPA, a paramilitary wing of the far-right ultranationalist Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). Established in 1929, the OUN was explicitly xenophobic and antisemitic, according to Eduard Dolinskywho leads the Ukrainian Jewish Committee.

Although historians debate the UPA’s precise role in the Second World War — it fought at different times against the Soviets and the Germans — they have long accused the organization of collaborating with the Nazis during the Holocaust, and massacring tens of thousands of ethnic Poles.

However, the same colors have for centuries been linked to Ukrainian history and culture, explains Jars Balan, director of the Kule Ukrainian Canadian Studies Center at the University of Alberta. The UPA did fly a red and black flag, he said, but the same color scheme appears in literature and art from the 12th century on.

“Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko, the most important poet to rise from Ukraine in the 19th century, incorporated those colors in a number of his works. They are the colors that are used in the embroidery of the Poltava region of Ukraine, which is the wellspring … of the Ukrainian literary language,” he said. “The colors were adopted in 1941, and during the Second World War by the UPA, because they were drawing on this tradition and Ukraine’s struggle for independence.”

Per Anders Rudling, an associate professor in the history department at Lund University who specializes in nationalism, has a different interpretation,

“Red and black are the colors of the Bandera Wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. The flag symbolizes blood and soil, and was adopted by that organization in 1941, along with an explicitly totalitarian program. The black-and-red banner is a symbol intimately connected with the most radical Ukrainian right-wing tradition.”

A Russian disinformation campaign?

Some experts make the case that the controversy surrounding Freeland’s tweet plays into the hands of a Russian disinformation campaign that aims to discredit her.

Ahead of the invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Russia’s goal is the “demilitarization” and “de-nazification” of Ukraine. Writing in the publication “Jewish Currents,” David Klion argues that this justification is propaganda, pure and simple:

“Ukraine’s president since 2019, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish, as was its prime minister from 2016 to 2019, Volodymyr Groysman. Ukraine is home to well over 100,000 Jewsand while antisemitism is a live problem in Ukraine — as it is in Russia and many other countries — Ukrainian Jews are integrated into the body politic and do not welcome a Russian invasion of their country.”

Marcus Kolga, director of Disinfo Watch and a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, said that the controversy over Freeland’s tweet is a product of Russian propaganda and part of a pattern of disinformation.

“Chrystia Freeland and the Ukrainian community in Canada more broadly have been targeted by Russian government disinformation that has tried to marginalize them and accuse them writ large … And it’s not just the Ukrainian community, but all central eastern European communities in Canada have been accused of somehow being, you know, fascists or neo-Nazis,” he said.

Several experts told the Star that in this environment it would not be surprising to see Russia try to weaponize the tweet.

Freeland may be particularly vulnerable to such attacks, given the controversy over her grandfather’s role as an editor of a Nazi-controlled newspaper during the Second World War.

“In many speeches over the years, Freeland has celebrated her grandfather — who was an OUN propagandist editing a Nazi newspaper in Krakow — and framed him as a ‘freedom fighter,’” says Tyler Shipley, a professor of society, culture and commerce at Humber College in Toronto, who studies Canadian foreign policy.

Shipley says the minister herself should have seen the controversy coming. “Freeland knows exactly what that flag means.”

“There is a paradox here,” says Rudling. “Freeland is not far right herself,” but her actions and her tweets, he says, have allowed some to wonder whether she has sympathy for far-right groups.

But experts on all sides of the issue agree that, in the context of war, the controversy is a distraction.

Kolga urges Canadians to focus on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the potential loss of life and displacement of hundreds of thousands.

“Should she not have put her two fingers on that scarf?” Kolga said. “I guess so. But, you know, maybe she’ll issue a statement apologizing. And frankly, we have much more serious things to concern ourselves with.”

Rudling echoes this sentiment, and said that the Freeland controversy pales in comparison to what is unfolding in Europe.

“Myself, I am outraged by Putin’s crimes. I would imagine that for the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada it would be hitting even closer to home. A Canadian minister of finance who gets carried away and poses with far right symbols is an image problem, not least as RT (Russia’s state-controlled TV station) and the Kremlin’s propaganda apparatus will jump all over this, seeking to present Canada as a country full of fascists.”


Conversations are opinions of our readers and are subject to the Code of Conduct. The Star does not endorse these opinions.

Leave a Comment