Members of Parliament are facing backlash following a standing ovation for a man who fought for a Nazi unit during the Second World War.
The incident occurred on Friday during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit to Ottawa. 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka, who fought for the First Ukrainian Division, was invited by Speaker Anthony Rota and introduced to the House of Commons.
“I am very proud to say that he is from North Bay and from my riding of Nipissing—Timiskaming,” Rota said. “He is a Ukrainian hero, a Canadian hero, and we thank him for all his service.”
MPs cheered and Zelenskyy raised his fist in acknowledgment as Hunka saluted from the gallery, during two separate standing ovations.
The First Ukrainian Division, also known as the Waffen-SS Galicia Division or the SS 14th Waffen Division, was a voluntary unit that served under the Nazis during World War II. The division was responsible for the mass murder of innocent civilians and shared the Nazi ideology of creating an ethnically homogenous society through ethnic cleansing.
Following the incident, Jewish advocacy organizations such as the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, B’nai Brith Canada, and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs condemned the act, calling for an apology from Parliament.
“This is an outrage and an insult to Holocaust survivors and veterans who fought against the Nazis,” said Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada. “Parliament must apologize to all Canadians for this incident and provide an explanation for how it happened.”
On September 22, in the House of Commons, I recognized an individual in the gallery. I regret my decision to do so, and accept full responsibility for my actions. Read my statement here: https://t.co/Hd9chtHFNJ
— Speaker of the HoC (@HoCSpeaker) September 24, 2023
In response to the outcry, Speaker Rota released a statement saying he recognized an individual in the gallery on Friday and has since become aware of more information that has caused him to regret his decision. “I wish to make clear that no one, including fellow parliamentarians and the Ukraine delegation, was aware of my intention or of my remarks before I delivered them,” he wrote.
The statement did not name Hunka or specify what new information Rota had learned.
The Prime Minister’s Office also released a statement reiterating Rota’s assertion that he alone invited Hunka as a guest. However, they did not provide further comment on the incident.
The national leaders of major political parties took different approaches in responding to the controversy. Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre laid the blame at the feet of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, while Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet called it a “collective error.” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh expressed concerns and apologized to the Jewish community for the harm caused.
The decision to admit Ukrainian immigrants who had served in the SS Waffen Division after the war was contentious, with Jewish groups arguing they should be barred from the country. In 1985, the Deschênes Commission investigated Canada’s handling of suspected war criminals, including members of the Waffen-SS Galicia Division.
The incident has reignited discussions around the contentious issue of Canada’s treatment of suspected war criminals and the responsibility to remember and honor victims of the Holocaust.