An elderly Waterloo man, who allegedly participated in Nazi death squads during the Second World War, has lost a two-decade-long legal battle to keep his Canadian citizenship and avoid deportation.
In a decision released Wednesday, the Federal Court of Appeal dismissed Helmut Oberlander’s latest bid to appeal a Federal Court ruling last year that found Ottawa had acted reasonably in stripping him of his citizenship.
In his latest appeal, Oberlander, who is in his mid-90s, argued that Justice Michael Phelan was biased because the judge had previously, in 2008, made a finding in his case that he contributed to war crimes or crimes against humanity.
“The mere fact a judge was involved in an earlier decision and made findings adverse to a party does not, in and of itself, give rise to a reasonable apprehension of bias,” wrote Justice Richard Boivin in a unanimous decision on behalf of colleagues Donald Rennie and Yves De Montigny in closing the file.
“To proceed from the assumption that a prior adverse finding of the fact was made … constitutes a foundation for bias would have serious implications for the administration of justice.”
The Ukraine-born Oberlander has steadfastly maintained he was just 17 when he was forced to join the Nazi death squad Einsatzkommando 10a, known as Ek 10a.
The squad was responsible for killing close to 100,000 people, mostly Jewish.
The court decision was welcomed by Canada’s Jewish community and the Liberal government.
“This closes the book on Nazi enablers in this country,” said Bernie Farber, former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress and a human rights advocate. “He participated and enabled the work of the most notorious Nazi killing unit. It took so long for justice to be carried out. He never had a right to be in this country.”
Added Mathieu Genest, spokesperson for Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen: “This decision further supports our mandate to deny safe haven in Canada to war criminals and persons believed to have committed or been complicit in war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide. It is important that applicants be truthful and transparent when applying for Canadian Citizenship.”
Oberlander and his wife came to Canada in 1954, and he became a citizen six years later. He did not disclose his wartime experience on his citizenship application.
The legal case against Oberlander began in 1995. In 2001, he was stripped of his citizenship by the federal cabinet, after a court found he had lied about his service as an interpreter with the Nazi death squad — a decision that was later overturned in 2004 and sent back to the cabinet for reconsideration.
In 2007, Oberlander was stripped of his citizenship again and faced another deportation hearing. In 2009, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that the federal cabinet must again revisit the decision to strip Oberlander of his citizenship and consider whether he was forced to join the Nazis under duress.
Then in December 2012, Ottawa filed another order-in-council to revoke his citizenship. The move was challenged by Oberlander in Federal Court, which was dismissed in 2015. In June 2017, the government revoked the retired land developer’s citizenship for the fourth time, and another legal challenge ensued. In November, the court ruled in favour of the government and Oberlander once again took the case to the appeal court.
“I’m both relieved and troubled that it took so long. It sent out the wrong message that if you committed this kind of crime, you still got to stay in Canada for decades if you know how to play the system,” said Farber.
“Age should not be an excuse in matters of enabling the Nazi war machine. Let us remember these people as they were at the time, young, committed bullies of a brutal murderous regime. Many people were murdered simply because they were Jewish. They never had opportunity to see life. This crime cannot be forgiven.”
In a previous interview, Oberlander’s family told the Star the man has never been charged with any war crime by Ottawa and was not a Nazi.
“He wants to see justice done and wants his good name restored. This is very important to him,” his daughter Irene Rooney said in a statement in 2015. “He believes the government is engaging in a ‘malicious prosecution.’”
Oberlander’s lawyer Ronald Poulton said the family is disappointed by the latest court decision and is considering an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. He has 60 days to file an appeal and could face deportation to Germany.
With files from Debra Black and The Canadian Press
Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung