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Canada's speaker quits after Ukrainian Nazi veteran's speech

September 26, 2023

The speaker of Canada's House of Commons lower chamber, Anthony Rota, came under fire after publicly praising a Ukrainian World War II veteran, who it transpired had fought for the Nazis.

Speaker of the House of Commons Anthony Rota
Image: Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press via ZUMA Press/picture alliance

Anthony Rota, the speaker of Canada's House of Commons, said he would quit on Tuesday, following days of pressure over a guest speaker in the lower house of parliament called in for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's visit to Ottawa last week.

Rota told members of the house that he had made a mistake by inviting a 98-year-old ex-soldier, Yaroslav Hunka, to attend the session last Friday. 

Soon after, it emerged that Hunka, who received two standing ovations, had served in one of Adolf Hitler's Waffen SS units during World War II. Russia called the incident outrageous. 

Rota had publicly lauded Hunka during the session, calling him a war hero. 

"That public recognition has caused pain to indviduals and communities, including the Jewish community in Canada and around the world ... I accept full responsibility for my actions," Rota, a member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal party, said. 

He said his resignation would take effect on Wednesday and that a deputy speaker would fill in for him until a replacement was found. Rota also expressed "profound regret for my error" and said the "initiative was entirely my own." Hunka lives in Rota's voting district.

The speaker had also apologized on Monday

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recognize Yaroslav Hunka in the House of Commons in Ottawa. September 22, 2023.
Visiting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also joined the ovations for Hunka, whose precise service record had not been made clearImage: Patrick Doyle/AP/picture alliance

Russia quick to condemn and seek to capitalize on error

Hunka had been introduced as a member of the First Ukrainian Division, but that division was also known as the Waffen-SS Galicia Division, or the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS. 

These volunteer fighters made up "a Nazi military unit whose crimes against humanity during the Holocaust are well-documented," according to the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Several Canadian politicians had called on Rota to step down, and Foreign Minister Melanie Joly added her voice to the chorus earlier on Tuesday. 

"What happened on Friday is completely unacceptable," she told reporters at parliament. "It as an embarrassment to the House and to Canadians, and I think the speaker should listen to members of the House and step down."

Jaroslav Hunka sitting in Canada's House of Commons, waiting for the arrival of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. September 22, 2023.
Russia was quick to pounce on Hunka's appearance, calling it outrageousImage: Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press/AP Photo/picture alliance/dpa

The mistake played into Russia's hands, given its claims that its rationale for invading Ukraine last year was an attempt to "denazify" the country. 

The furor also distracted from Ukrainian President Zelenskyy's first in-person trip to Canada since the war began, scheduled to coincide with him heading to New York for the UN General Assembly and then on to the White House last week. 

Opposition Conservatives in Canada slammed the government for failing to properly vet Hunka, but Trudeau's government responded that it had received no advanced warning. 

msh/jcg (AFP, AP, Reuters)