MONTREAL (JR) — A leading Canadian lawmaker apologized, and then resigned from his leadership role, after inviting a former Nazi soldier to attend Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to Parliament last week.
Speaker of the House of Commons Anthony Rota said he had not known that 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka had volunteered with the Waffen SS Galicia Division in Ukraine during World War II when he invited Hunka to be his guest for Zelensky’s speech. The combat division was part of the Nazi army.
“I subsequently became aware of more information which causes me to regret the decision to do so,” Rota said.
Rota drew attention to Hunka’s presence before Zelensky’s speech, saying that the resident of his Ontario district was “a Ukrainian hero, a Canadian hero, and we thank him for all his service.” Zelensky joined the assembly in applauding Hunka, pumping his fist in the air in acknowledgment.
Jewish advocacy groups were quick to condemn the ovation, including B’nai Brith Canada, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies. The statements followed a report from the Forward about Hunka’s background.
“Canada’s Jewish community stands firmly with Ukraine in its war against Russian aggression,” the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said in a statement. “But we can’t stay silent when crimes committed by Ukrainians during the Holocaust are whitewashed.”
Hunka’s Waffen-SS division “was responsible for the mass murder of innocent civilians with a level of brutality and malice that is unimaginable,” the Simon Wiesenthal Center said in a statement Sunday.
Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, said he was distressed by Rota’s oversight but did not join in calls for Rota’s resignation coming from some advocates and lawmakers, including in his own party.
“It’s extremely upsetting that this happened. The speaker has acknowledged his mistake and has apologized,” Trudeau said. “But this is something that is deeply embarrassing to the Parliament of Canada and by extension to all Canadians.”
A day later, Rota stepped down as the House of Commons’ presiding officer, effective Wednesday. He will remain in the lawmaking body.
In his first apology, Rota emphasized that his office alone was responsible for not vetting Hunka adequately. “I particularly want to extend my deepest apologies to Jewish communities in Canada and around the world,” he said. “I accept full responsibility for my actions.”
In his second, issued in the Parliament and accompanying his resignation, Rota said, “I reiterate my profound regret for my error in recognizing an individual in the House. That public recognition has caused pain to individuals and communities, including the Jewish community in Canada and around the world, in addition to survivors of Nazi atrocities in Poland, among other nations.”
The episode drew notice from the Kremlin, which cited the presence of Nazis in Ukraine as a pretense for its invasion of the country in February 2022. “Such sloppiness of memory is outrageous,” a Kremlin spokesman said in response to Hunka’s recognition.
Prior to the Russian invasion, a tide of rising nationalism within Ukraine had included rallies in honor of the Waffen SS unit, which unlike the majority of Ukrainian volunteers during World War II fought against the Communist forces that would ultimately prevail. Zelensky denounced the rallies at the time.
More recently, the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Philadelphia temporarily covered a local monument to the Waffen SS division after drawing criticism for honoring it. That criticism was also spurred by reporting in the Forward, which has been covering Nazi and Nazi collaborator monuments across North America.
This story has been updated to reflect the Forward’s role in alerting Canadian Jewish groups and others to Hunka’s background, and to reflect Rota’s subsequent resignation as House of Commons speaker.