Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized on behalf of Parliament on Wednesday afternoon for the recognition of a man who fought for the Nazis in the Second World War during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s speech there on Friday afternoon.
“The Speaker was solely responsible for the invitation and recognition of this man and has wholly accepted responsibility and stepped down. This was a mistake that has deeply embarrassed Parliament and Canada,” Trudeau said prior to question period.
“All of us who were in this House on Friday regret deeply having stood and clapped, even though we did so unaware of the context.”
Trudeau said that applause was a “horrendous violation” of the memory of the millions of people who died during the Holocaust, including Jews, Poles, Roma, LGBTQ+, disabled and racialized people.
The prime minister also extended a “heartfelt apology” to Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian delegation.
“It is extremely troubling to think that this egregious error is being politicized by Russia and its supporters to provide false propaganda about what Ukraine is fighting for,” Trudeau said.
In question period, Conservative members called on the prime minister to offer a personal apology and not just an apology on behalf of Parliament. Trudeau deferred his earlier apology.
Questions also revolved around the vetting process for guests during Zelenskyy’s address, which didn’t yield new information from the government.
Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet asked the prime minister in French if he has personally called Zelenskyy since Friday and if there is a strategy to fight Russian disinformation.
Trudeau replied Canada has sent several direct messages to Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people since Friday and it is “extremely unfortunate” to see the incident being used by the Russians as justification for their invasion. Russia has said they were engaging in a special military operation to “de-Nazify” Ukraine as justification for their invasion.
This came after calls for more action from the government in the wake of Anthony Rota’s resignation as Speaker of the House of Commons after he invited and recognized Yaroslav Hunka as a “hero” on Friday. Hunka fought for the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS. This was a volunteer unit made up predominantly of Ukrainians.
Meanwhile, the race is taking shape for who will occupy the Speaker’s chair as Rota’s resignation officially takes effect at the end of day Wednesday.
Both the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies and B’nai Brith Canada, a Jewish advocacy group, are calling on Canada to release the unredacted Deschenes Report, which investigated Nazis who came to Canada after the Second World War and if they were implicated in war crimes.
“That report has been heavily redacted and we still, as Canadians, do not know what took place in this country,” said B’nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn.
“B’nai Brith is demanding right now that leadership be shown by this government. And that starts with the prime minister.”
Prior to the Conservative caucus meeting, leader Pierre Poilievre called on the prime minister to issue an apology for the situation.
“Responsibility and power go together. If he wants the power, he must take the responsibility and come to the floor of the House of Commons today and apologize to Jews, Poles, Ukrainians and all Canadians,” Poilievre said.
Heading into the weekly Liberal caucus meeting on Wednesday morning, several MPs were asked about the calls for an apology and removing Deschenes Report redactions.
Some, like Montreal MP Anthony Housefather suggested more needs to be done.
“I think certainly we have to take responsibility for the fact that there was a Nazi in the chamber. And so I think that the Speaker has properly taken responsibility and stepped down, but it doesn’t mean that there’s no responsibility elsewhere,” he said.
When asked about specific actions, Housefather said the guest vetting process for head of state visits needs to be looked at.
As for the Deschenes Report, Immigration Minister Marc Miller said he’s read it twice this week and said removing redactions is something that could be worth examining, but he would need to learn more to form a concrete opinion.
However, he says Canada cannot shy away from its history with Nazis.
“There was a point in our history where it was easier to get in as a Nazi than it was as a Jewish person. I think that’s history. I think we have to reconcile,” Miller said.
Any changes to those redactions would go before Attorney General Arif Virani, who said there’s always room to learn more about human rights abuses but would not give a specific answer on whether the Deschenes Report should be reopened.
Still, those like Mostyn who advocate for more transparency on how Canada handled Nazis in the country after the war will keep pushing for answers.
“There has been essentially no accountability for the many Nazis that were welcomed into this country. And like Mr. Hunka, who was feted by our Parliament last Friday, he’s led a long and peaceful life,” Mostyn said.
“And victims who, by the way, also include ethnic Poles and other Ukrainians, not just Jews in Ukraine. They did not have that long life. So, we have we have a lot to answer for.”
The first candidate to put their name forward as the new Speaker of the house is Deputy Speaker Chris D’Entremont. The Nova Scotia Conservative has been in the deputy role since November 2021, and presided over the house when Rota was on a medical leave.
D’Entremont said that it will be a challenging job to bring down the tone of the House and a need for more respect for one an other to come back to the chamber.
As for the current tension, D’Entremont said sometimes it can be important to let people engage in this kind of debate.
“There’s times where you have to let the pressure out of the tire because it continues to build. It continues to build up in there sometimes. So you have to let some of that pressure go,” he told reporters.
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D’Entremont added he would like to look more into the process that saw Mr. Hunka invited to Parliament and what happened with guest vetting that led to this situation.
Quebec Liberal MP Greg Fergus announced his intention to run for speaker on his way out of the Liberal caucus meeting.
Fergus said he wants to ensure free and open debate can take place in the house for all members if elected Speaker. The media scrum with Fergus was cut short when Trudeau left cabinet, and did not take questions.
House leaders will have to determine if an interim Speaker will be appointed prior to an election, as the business of Parliament cannot take place without a Speaker. The vote has to happen in person, and D’Entremonet said he was not optimistic about a vote happening before the end of the week due to some MPs still needing to travel to Ottawa due to hybrid parliament.