House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota apologized again Monday for last week inviting and paying tribute to a Ukrainian Second World War veteran who fought for Nazi Germany.
The tribute happened on Friday when Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s president who is also Jewish, was in Ottawa for his first official visit since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.
Rota, who said he regretted his decision and was “deeply sorry” for any hurt he caused, is facing calls from the NDP and the Bloc Québécois to resign as Speaker.
“My intention was to show that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is not a new one; that Ukrainians have unfortunately been subject to foreign aggression for far too long and that this must end,” he said.
During Zelenskyy’s visit to the House of Commons, he joined MPs and the Ukrainian delegation during two separate standing ovations for 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka.
Rota said he invited Hunka to the House of Commons, and that he was a constituent of his Ontario riding, Nipissing-Timiskaming. He described Hunka as a veteran who fought for “Ukrainian independence against the Russians.”
What seemed like a moment of gratitude turned sour on Sunday when reports emerged that Hunka fought for the Nazis during the Second World War.
The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies said in a statement that Hunka served in the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, also known as the First Ukrainian Division, and demanded an apology.
Rota issued a written apology on Sunday, and delivered another at the start of House of Commons proceedings Monday — but that was not enough for the NDP, which is demanding his resignation as Speaker.
“The Parliament entrusts the Speaker to guide this Parliament through challenging circumstances,” said New Westminster—Burnaby MP Peter Julian.
“Unfortunately, I believe a sacred trust has been broken. It’s for that reason, for the good of the institution of the House of Commons that I say sadly, I don’t believe you can continue in this role. Regrettably, I must respectfully ask that you step aside.”
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet also called for Rota’s resignation in a statement Monday.
“The Bloc Québécois can only note, on the one hand, the damage caused by the presidency’s error, and on the other hand, the loss of confidence of the House which it needs to exercise its function,” he said.
“Consequently, we invite the Speaker of the House to act responsibly and renounce his function.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa Monday the incident was “deeply embarrassing” to Parliament and all Canadians. He added it was really important that all of us push back against Russian propaganda, Russian disinformation, and continue our steadfast and unequivocal support for Ukraine.”
But questions quickly emerged about how Hunka’s past was not identified by the government and security officials during vetting of who should be in the chamber during Zelenskyy’s visit.
Conservative MP Andrew Scheer took aim at the Prime Minister’s Office during his remarks Monday.
“If someone of that background, which a straightforward Google search will show served in that particular division during World War Two, if that basic level of vetting was not done by the government, that raises serious concerns,” he said.
“There are still many questions that need to be answered as to how the Prime Minister’s Office so completely dropped the ball on this.”
Government House Leader Karina Gould said the government had “no knowledge” of Hunka.
- Ontario stay-at-home dad overwhelmed by ‘compassionate’ response to financial struggles
- Canadian pet rescues ‘begging for help’ amid high costs of care
- How to know if you have salmonella as death toll rises from cantaloupe outbreak
- Record gold prices could hit the value of your portfolio — and your jewelry box
What was the First Ukrainian Division?
The First Ukrainian Division, also known as the Waffen-SS Galicia, was a voluntary unit that was under the command of the Nazi SS.
The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies said the division “was responsible for the mass murder of innocent civilians with a level of brutality and malice that is unimaginable.”
B’nai Brith Canada said in a statement Sunday the division, which was formed in 1943, contained “Ukrainian ultra-nationalist ideologues” who “dreamed of an ethnically homogenous Ukrainian state and endorsed the idea of ethnic cleansing.”
“Members of this unit swore fealty to the Fuhrer and the perverted racial ideology of the Nazis,” B’nai Brith Canada said.
The division eventually surrendered to the British army in 1945.
The International Military Tribunal in Nuremburg declared the SS to be a criminal organization, including the Waffen-SS in that declaration. The SS was instrumental in the Holocaust, in which some six million Jews were systematically murdered during the Second World War.
Canadian monuments to honour the First Ukrainian Division have caused controversy in recent years.
In 2021, a statue of Ukrainian military leader Roman Shukhevych and a monument to the fighters of the division in Edmonton were vandalized by someone who spray painted them with the words “Actual Nazi.”
In 2020, a monument to the division in Oakville, Ont., was vandalized in a similar way.
The decision to admit Ukrainian immigrants who had served in the division in the post-war period was contentious, with Jewish groups arguing they should be barred from the country.
In 1950, Ottawa decided to allow Ukrainians living in the U.K. to come to Canada “notwithstanding their service in the German army provided they are otherwise admissible. These Ukrainians should be subject to special security screening, but should not be rejected on the grounds of their service in the German army.”
In 1985, then-prime minister Brian Mulroney called for a royal commission to examine whether Canada had become a haven for war criminals.
The Deschenes Commission found there were about 600 former members of the First Ukrainian Division living in Canada at the time.
But Justice Jules Deschenes said membership in the division did not itself constitute a war crime.
Commemoration sparks international outrage
Witold Dzielski, Poland’s ambassador to Canada, demanded an apology in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Sunday. He said Poland is the “best ally” Ukraine has, but that it “will never agree on whitewashing such villains.”
Meanwhile, the episode plays into the narrative promoted by Russian President Vladimir Putin that he sent his army into Ukraine last year to “demilitarize and denazify” the country, a European democracy whose Jewish president lost family members in the Holocaust.
Western nations have refuted this, saying Putin’s invasion is an imperialistic-style land grab.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday Hunka’s recognition showed a careless disregard for historical truth, and that the memory of Nazi crimes must be preserved.
“Such sloppiness of memory is outrageous,” Peskov told reporters.
“Many Western countries, including Canada, have raised a young generation that does not know who fought whom or what happened during the Second World War. And they know nothing about the threat of fascism.”
Ukraine’s foreign ministry did not return Global News’ request for comment by publication.
— with files from The Canadian Press