Yaroslav Hunka sat in the gallery and received an ovation during Volodymyr Zelenskyy's visit
Speaker of the House Anthony Rota apologized Sunday for honouring a man who fought in a Nazi unit during the Second World War.
Rota was responding to condemnation from Jewish groups and others stemming from a moment during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's visit to Parliament on Friday. During the visit, Rota said Yaroslav Hunka was
a Ukrainian hero, a Canadian hero, and we thank him for all his service.
Those gathered in the House responded with applause and a standing ovation.
I have subsequently become aware of more information which causes me to regret my decision to [honour Hunka]. 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, Rota said.
I particularly want to extend my deepest apologies to Jewish communities in Canada and around the world, he added.
Rota said he accepted
full responsibility for his actions.
WATCH | Reaction to the ovation for man who fought with Nazi unit:
Ovation for Ukrainian who served in Nazi unit in WW II 'deeply troubling,' Jewish organization says
To be a part of this unit, you swore allegiance to Hitler,' Dan Panneton, a director with the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center, said about the First Ukrainian Division — also known as the Waffen-SS Galicia Division — that Yaroslav Hunka served in during the Second World War. Speaker of the House Anthony Rota apologized Sunday for honouring Hunka during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's visit to Parliament on Friday.
Hunka, 98, was part of the First Ukrainian Division, also known as the Waffen-SS Galicia Division or the SS 14th Waffen Division, a voluntary unit that was under the command of the Nazis.
CBC News has attempted to contact Hunka and his family for comment, but have not been successful.
In a statement, the Prime Minister's Office said the decision to invite and honour Hunka was made by the Speaker's office alone.
The independent Speaker of the House has apologized and accepted full responsibility for issuing the invitation and for the recognition in Parliament. This was the right thing to do, said a PMO spokesperson.
The event was broadcast internationally, including by CBC.
Government House Leader Karina Gould also said Sunday that the government did not know about Hunka's presence.
The PM did not meet him. I am deeply troubled this happened. I urge MPs to avoid politicizing this incident, she said in a statement on social media.
Jewish groups and others had raised the alarm about Hunka's past actions.
The fact that this individual, and by proxy the organization he was a member of, was given a standing ovation in the House of Commons is deeply troubling, Dan Panneton, a director with the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center, told CBC News on Sunday.
I think association with this unit makes you a Nazi collaborator. To be part of this unit, you swore allegiance to Hitler and you were involved with the massacre of civilians. So it doesn't matter if you try and claim that you were defending against communism, you were still involved with the Nazi war machine. That makes you complicit, he said.
Panneton said he believes that solidarity with Ukraine in its fight against Russian invasion is incredibly important.
However, solidarity cannot tolerate the distortion or outright celebration of Nazi collaboration or war crimes. So in future events, people have to be a lot more careful about who they're associating with when they're expressing support and solidarity for the very just cause of Ukraine, he said.
In a statement on Friday, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre accused the prime minister of being responsible for the incident and called for him to apologize. The Prime Minister's Office says it was Rota's office who was in charge of Hunka's invitation.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh issued a statement Sunday saying his party shared the concerns of those condemning the incident and noting that the NDP was not aware of the man's background at the time of the visit.
'Obviously the optics are not good,' historian says
Dominique Arel, chair of Ukrainian studies at the University of Ottawa, told CBC News on Sunday that the division Hunka was part of had attracted thousands of Ukrainian volunteers, many joining with hopes they could achieve Ukrainian independence.
Only Germans from Germany itself were able to fight in the German army, Arel explained, so non-German volunteers who believed in Nazi aims or sought to use Nazi power for their own ends were organized into SS divisions.
We have the issue of symbolism here, the optics of serving in a military unit whose logo is that of arguably the greatest criminal organization in the 20th century ... So obviously the optics are not good.
Arel said it was difficult to determine whether specific groups of a division had committed any atrocities, though he did say that by the time Hunka's division would have reached the Eastern Front in 1944 after training in Germany, Nazi operations related to the Holocaust in the area would have already concluded.
WATCH | Zelenskyy calls upon Canada to maintain support for embattled Ukraine:
Zelenskyy asks Canada for continued support against Russia
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed Parliament, thanking Canadians for their unwavering support since Russia invaded — and asking for Canada to stick with Ukraine until it wins.
Arel said there was an extremely
complex, if not somewhat dark legacy left by Ukrainian nationalist movements at the time of the Second World War that sometimes adhered to far-right ideologies and collaborated with the Nazis against the Soviet Union.
For them, the ultimate evil was Moscow occupation, Arel said.
They were ready to fight for what they believed to be their own independence. That's the take-away from between today and then. But the association with the SS and the constant use of symbolism to this day, that is highly problematic.
In 1985, then-prime minister Brian Mulroney called for a royal commission to examine whether Canada had become a haven for war criminals.
The Deschênes Commission found there were about 600 former members of the Waffen-SS Galicia Division living in Canada at the time. But Justice Jules Deschênes said membership in the division did not itself constitute a war crime.
Arel said the commission had found there was no evidence the division was implicated in atrocities specifically against Jews, though the division was implicated in later attacks on Polish civilians.
Christian Paas-Lang (new window) · CBC News