Speaker of the House steps down after leading a standing ovation for a former Nazi soldier

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shakes hands with Canadian House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota during a ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Sept. 22, 2023. (Dave Chan/AFP via Getty Images)

By Jeremy Appel

(AJNews) – Federal Speaker of the House Anthony Rota resigned from his position on Sept. 26 after sparking outrage from Jewish groups for inviting a veteran of a Ukrainian Waffen-SS unit to attend Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s address to Parliament. 

Yaroslav Hunka, 98, who fought for the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, or the Galicia Division, during the Second World War, after which he moved to Canada, was given a standing ovation by all parties after Rota introduced him as “a Ukrainian-Canadian war veteran from the Second World War who fought for Ukrainian independence against the Russians.” 

Rota also referred to Hunka, who lives in his Nipissing—Timiskaming riding as “a Ukrainian hero and a Canadian hero.” 

It was apparently lost on parliamentarians that Hunka was introduced as having fought against a Canadian ally in the Second World War.

While Canada’s 1986 Deschênes Commission found no evidence of war crimes from the Galicia Division, the Nuremberg Trials concluded that the entirety of the Waffen SS is a criminal organization. 

Even a cursory glance at SS Galicia reveals its links to the Nazi campaign of destruction against the Jews and murder of civilians,” noted journalist David Pugliese in the October 2020 edition of the Espirit de Corps military magazine. 

The unit’s commander was Oberfuhrer Fritz Freitag, who was directly involved in murdering Jews, as were commanding officers SS Hauptsturmfuhrer Heinrich Wiens, who served with the Einsatzgruppen D murder squad, and SS Obersturm-bannfuhrer Franz Magall. 

The Galicia Division, which was founded in 1943, included officers from the Ukrainian Nachtigall battalion, which committed mass murders of Jews in 1941. 

Perhaps the division’s most notorious crime was the 1944 Huta Pieniacka massacre, in which upwards of 1,000 Polish villagers were burned alive.

Despite this history, monuments to the Galicia Division exist in Edmonton, Oakville, Ont., Philadelphia and Detroit. 

On Sept. 24, two days after Zelenskyy’s speech, Jewish organizations expressed concern about Hunka’s reception in the House. 

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, which represents Jewish federations across the country, said it was “deeply troubled” and “disturbed” that an individual who fought in a unit that “actively participated in the genocide against Jews” receiving a standing ovation. 

Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre (FSWC) for Holocaust Studies said in a statement that there’s no doubt the Galicia Division “was responsible for the mass murder of innocent civilians with a level of brutality and malice that is unimaginable.”

“An apology is owed to every Holocaust survivor and veteran of the Second World War who fought the Nazis, and an explanation must be provided as to how this individual entered the hallowed halls of Canadian Parliament and received recognition from the Speaker of the House and a standing ovation,” said the statement. 

Dan Panneton, a director with FSWC, told CBC News that division members swore an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler, so “it doesn’t matter if you try and claim that you were defending against communism.”

He added that it’s important for allied nations to demonstrate “solidarity for the very just cause of Ukraine.”

“However, solidarity cannot tolerate the distortion or outright celebration of Nazi collaboration or war crimes,” Panneton said. 

B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn called Hunka’s standing ovation “beyond outrageous.”  

“Canadian soldiers fought and died to free the world from the evils of Nazi brutality,” Mostyn noted.

In response, Rota apologized for inviting Hunka. 

“On Friday, September 22, in my remarks following the address of the President of Ukraine, I recognized an individual in the gallery,” Rota wrote in a statement, which claimed that it was his decision alone to invite Hunka. 

“I have subsequently become aware of more information which causes me to regret my decision to do so.” 

He expressed his “deepest apologies to Jewish communities in Canada and around the world.” 

The Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement reiterating that Rota acted independently. 

“No advance notice was provided to the Prime Minister’s Office, nor the Ukrainian delegation, about the invitation or the recognition,” the statement said.  

Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre, on Sept. 24, blamed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for allowing Hunka, whom Rota introduced as a “war veteran from the Second World War who fought for Ukrainian independence against the Russians,” to receive applause from all parties in the House.

“Without warning or context, it was impossible for any parliamentarian in the room (other than Mr. Trudeau) to know of this dark past,” Poilievre wrote in a post on X (formerly known as Twitter). 

In a statement posted to X, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh said he shares “concerns about the individual honoured with a standing ovation in the House of Commons on Friday.” 

He added that he wasn’t invited by the NDP, nor was the party “aware of his background” and association with the Nazis. 

University of Ottawa political scientist Ivan Katchanovski, who has been critical of Western support for Ukraine, told the Globe and Mail he found the applause for Hunka to be “beyond comprehension,” adding that it will be used to fuel Russian propaganda, which has depicted modern Ukraine as a Nazi state. 

Rota announced his resignation on Sept. 26 — the same day FSWC requested it. 

FSWC CEO and president Michael Levitt, a former Toronto Liberal MP, called this the “correct decision,” but cautioned that “important questions remain as to how this debacle occurred.”

“If there’s to be any silver lining, it must be the reaffirmation of the critical importance of Holocaust education and remembrance, particularly as the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles and antisemitism escalates in Canada and around the world,” Levitt added.  

“We hope all Canadians see this as an example of how important it is to learn from history, including the darkest chapters.” 

B’nai Brith and FSWC are calling on the government to re-open the aforementioned Deschênes Commission, whose full results have never been made public. 

It’s now time for Ottawa to not only release the unredacted files related to the Deschenes Commission, but to also address the stark reality that there are still former Nazis with blood on their hands living in Canada,” said Levitt.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, whose Ukrainian grandfather edited a Nazi newspaper in occupied Krakow before immigrating to Canada, was asked about Hunka multiple times at an unrelated announcement on Sept. 26. 

“What happened was really terrible and really damaging. It was damaging to communities across Canada, first and foremost the Jewish community, but damaging for us all,” Freeland said. 

But Freeland wouldn’t commit to re-opening the Deschênes Commission. 

“As a government, we’re going to be thoughtful about any further steps that need to be taken,” said Freeland. 

In 2021, President Zelenskyy, who joined the applause for Hunka on Sept. 22, condemned a Kyiv march celebrating the Galicia Division.

Jeremy Appel is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter. 

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