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How did a volunteer from a Nazi unit get invited to Parliament? Your questions, answered

Un vieil homme assis au milieu d'autres personnes, les yeux fermés.

Yaroslav Hunka, à droite, est assis dans la galerie des invités dans la Chambre des communes et attend l'arrivée du président ukrainien Volodymyr Zelensky le 22 septembre 2023. (Photo d'archives)

Photo: La Presse canadienne / Patrick Doyle


Invitation process is 'pretty opaque,' former official says

Questions are still flying — in Parliament, the media and across borders — after a man who fought for the Nazis during the Second World War was invited into the House of Commons and cheered as a hero during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's momentous visit last week. 

Yaroslav Hunka, 98, waved and nodded to the gallery as he received two standing ovations from Parliament — and Zelenskyy, who is Jewish — for defending his native Ukraine. It later emerged he'd done so as part of a notorious Nazi unit. 

The diplomatic disaster has seen Speaker Anthony Rota resign and the prime minister apologize for the deeply embarrassing episode. Russian propagandists, meanwhile, have capitalized on the optics and historians are calling for a reckoning of Canada's past treatment of Nazis.

How did Hunka get invited?

Ahead of Zelenskyy's visit, Hunka's son contacted Rota's constituency office and asked whether it would be possible for him to attend. Hunka lives in North Bay, Ont., a city some 300 kilometres north of Toronto that is part of Rota's riding. 

Rota gave him one of the seats in his own viewing gallery. 

Generally, the process of who gets invited to such events is pretty opaque, according to one former official, but the Speaker would certainly have sway.

Le président ukrainien Volodymyr Zelensky et le premier ministre Justin Trudeau applaudissent.

Le président ukrainien Volodymyr Zelensky et le premier ministre Justin Trudeau rendent hommage à Yaroslav Hunka, qui était présent et a combattu avec la Première division ukrainienne pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale avant d'immigrer plus tard au Canada.

Photo: La Presse canadienne / Patrick Doyle

He certainly would've invited a number of people himself, said Roy Norton who, as chief of protocol, was Canada's most senior official overseeing high-level international visits and other diplomatic matters. 

Though Rota is also a Liberal MP, the role of Speaker is non-partisan and entirely independent of the government.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has blamed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for the mishap, but Norton says the government would have had zero role in inviting Mr. Hunka or, for that matter, who sat in the gallery. 

WATCH | 'Zero role' for government, former official says:

Government would have had ‘zero role’ in inviting Mr. Hunka to the gallery, former chief of protocol says

Former Chief of Protocol Roy Norton tells Power and Politics he would have been asked to ‘take a hike’ if he'd asked Parliamentary Protocol, the Speaker’s personal staff or the Speaker for a list of invitees to Parliament.

I can say with absolute confidence, if I had asked — as chief of protocol — the Speaker's personal staff or the Speaker himself who had been invited to come and sit in the seats in Parliament, I would've been told to take a hike, he said.  

Neither Hunka nor his family have responded to repeated requests for comment from CBC News.

How was Hunka vetted?

It's unclear. When it comes to vetting guests in the House, Norton says the process is equally murky. Staff might have had access to an RCMP database to look for criminal links, but it's more likely they would check out guests the same way everyday people do.

You used search engines. Google, he said. 

The Speaker's staff might not subject invitations from the Speaker to the same level of scrutiny that they would require of names submitted by other Parliamentarians ... the Speaker is supreme in Parliament, said Norton, who is now an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo.

The Parliament's Protocol Office co-ordinates invitations for addresses in the House. A confirmed guest list for Zelenskyy's visit was shared with corporate security, which is partly responsible for security in the parliamentary precinct.

How was Hunka involved in Nazi Germany?

Hunka fought with the Waffen-SS Galicia Division, also known as the SS 14th Waffen Division and sometimes as the First Ukrainian Division. The unit was made up of Ukrainian volunteers from Galicia, a region that's part of Poland and Ukraine and which, at the time, was occupied by the Germans. 

The unit was under Nazi command and its members pledged allegiance to Adolf Hitler.  

Historians say men joined for a variety of reasons. Many allied with the Nazis to fight for their nation's independence from the Soviet Union, of which the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was a part at the time and which had occupied eastern Poland, modern-day western Ukraine in 1939 under the German-Soviet non-aggression pact.

For others, volunteering was a way to avoid forced labour under the Nazis once Germany violated the pact in 1941 and invaded the Soviet Union.

Members of the division were responsible for the Pidkamin massacre on March 12, 1944, which saw hundreds of Polish villagers rounded up and killed.

It is not possible to say whether Hunka was involved in the massacre without examining historical records, experts say.

After a public inquiry headed by Justice Jules Deschênes in 1985, Canada determined that being involved with the division wasn't a war crime on its own, though people who were involved could still be prosecuted for specific brutalities.

How did Hunka get to Canada?

Many questions about Hunka's wartime involvement and his subsequent life in Canada remain unanswered.

Some details of his life were included in a University of Alberta newsletter announcing an endowment in his name in 2020 — a gift that has now been returned (new window).

It said Hunka married his wife, Margaret, in 1951 before immigrating to Canada in 1954. 

Four years earlier, Canada had made special accommodations (new window) to allow Ukrainians into the country after Britain asked for help managing an influx of soldiers who surrendered after the war. 

Officials said they could be admitted, notwithstanding their service in the German army provided they are otherwise admissible, though they would also go through a special security screening.

The Simon Wiesenthal Centre said 1,882 members of the 14th Waffen SS Volunteer Grenadier division immigrated to Canada in 1950.

Anthony Rota leaves the Speaker's entrance of West Block after announcing his resignation on Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Anthony Rota leaves the Speaker's entrance of West Block after announcing his resignation on Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Photo: La Presse canadienne / Sean Kilpatrick

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