Speaker of Canada’s House of Commons Resigns in Disgrace After Honoring Nazi - The Jewish Voice
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Speaker of Canada’s House of Commons Resigns in Disgrace After Honoring Nazi

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Edited by: TJVNews.com

In a surprising turn of events, the Speaker of Canada’s House of Commons, Anthony Rota, resigned from his position amid controversy and backlash after inviting a 98-year-old man, Yaroslav Hunka, who had fought for a Nazi military unit during World War II, to attend a speech pm Friday by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Parliament, as was reported by the AP. The incident has ignited a storm of criticism and condemnation, resulting in Rota’s resignation.

The controversy unfolded when, following President Zelenskyy’s address in the House of Commons on Friday, Speaker Anthony Rota introduced Yaroslav Hunka as a war hero who fought for the First Ukrainian Division. However, it soon came to light that the First Ukrainian Division was also known as the Waffen-SS Galicia Division, a voluntary unit that operated under the command of the Nazis, the AP report added,

The controversy unfolded when, following President Zelenskyy’s address in the House of Commons on Friday, Speaker Anthony Rota introduced Yaroslav Hunka as a war hero who fought for the First Ukrainian Division. Photo Credit: YouTube.com

The revelation sparked outrage among Canadians, with public figures and political leaders condemning the Speaker’s actions. Opposition parties swiftly called for Rota’s resignation, asserting that he had lost the confidence of the House of Commons, the AP said. Government House leader Karina Gould expressed her personal disappointment and described the incident as embarrassing for all Canadians.

Rota, in his resignation statement, accepted full responsibility for his actions, acknowledging the pain it had caused to various communities, including the Jewish community in Canada and Holocaust survivors around the world. He stated, “No one in this House is above any of us. Therefore I must step down as your speaker.”

He added that “I reiterate my profound regret for my error in recognizing an individual in the House during the joint address to Parliament of President Zelenskyy. That public recognition has caused pain to individuals and communities, including to the Jewish community in Canada and around the world in addition to Nazi survivors in Poland among other nations. I accept full responsibility for my actions.”

Rota stepped down after meeting with the House of Commons’ party leaders later Tuesday. The AP reported on Monday that all main opposition parties called for Rota to step down, and government House leader Karina Gould said that lawmakers had lost confidence in Rota.

“This is something that has brought shame and embarrassment to all of Parliament and indeed all Canadians. The speaker did the honorable thing in resigning,” Government Liberal House leader Karina Gould said, as was reported by the AP.

Gould said she is of Jewish origin and a descendent of a Holocaust survivor, according to the AP report. “This incident hurt me personally as it hurt all members of this House and all Canadians,” she said. She also said earlier that Rota invited and recognized Hunka without informing the government or the delegation from Ukraine, as was reported by the AP.  Canadian Health Minister Mark Holland had called the incident “incredibly embarrassing.”

On Tuesday morning, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard Diane Lebouthillier and Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly , among other ministers, told reporters they think Rota should resign, as was reported by CBC News.

On his way into a cabinet meeting Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was sure the meeting with House leaders would involve “very important conversations.”

“As I said yesterday, this was deeply embarrassing for the House and for Canada,” Trudeau said, according to the CBC News report. “It is a good thing that Speaker Rota apologized personally and I’m sure he’s reflecting now on how to ensure the dignity of the House going forward.”

The incident has far-reaching implications, not only within Canada but also on the international stage.

The AP report also indicated that the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies said in a statement that the incident “has left a stain on our country’s venerable legislature with profound implications both in Canada and globally.”

“This incident has compromised all 338 Members of Parliament and has also handed a propaganda victory to Russia, distracting from what was a momentously significant display of unity between Canada and Ukraine. It has also caused great pain to Canada’s Jewish community, Holocaust survivors, veterans and other victims of the Nazi regime.” The AP also reported that they added that the division  “was responsible for the mass murder of innocent civilians with a level of brutality and malice that is unimaginable.”

Yaroslav Hunka was born in Urman, then part of Poland, and volunteered for SS Galizien in 1943. He emigrated to Canada after the conclusion of World War II. Hunka is retired and lives in North Bay, Ontario. Photo Credit: Wikipedia.org

In an earlier apology on Sunday, Rota said he alone was responsible for inviting and recognizing Hunka, who is from the district that Rota represents. The AP report said that the speaker’s office said Monday it was Rota’s son who contacted Hunka’s local office to see if it was possible if he could attend Zelenskyy’s speech.

The Speaker was allocated a set number of spots in the viewing gallery and the list of potential guests was shared with Parliament’s Protocol Office, which co-ordinates the sending of invitations, as was reported by CBC News.

The names of confirmed guests were passed to the Corporate Security Office to “facilitate accreditation of guests,” Amélie Crosson, the Speaker’s communications director, said in a statement to CBC News.

“Mr. Hunka’s son contacted Mr. Rota’s constituency office and asked if it would be possible for Mr. Hunka to attend the address in the House of Commons by Mr. Zelensky. This request was accepted by the Speaker’s Office,” Crosson said.

Members of Parliament from all parties rose to applaud Hunka unaware of the details of who he was.

The prime minister’s office said it was unaware that Hunka was invited until after the address. The speaker’s office also confirmed it did not share its invite list with any other party or group, as was noted in the AP report. The vetting process for visitors to the gallery is for physical security threats, not reputational threats, the speaker’s office said.

In Moscow, a Kremlin spokesman said it was “outrageous” that Hunka received a standing ovation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has painted his enemies in Ukraine as “neo-Nazis,” although Zelenskyy is Jewish and lost relatives in the Holocaust.

“It’s highly unfortunate and the only winner here is the Putin regime, which is already spinning what happened on Friday to justify its ongoing military actions in Ukraine,” said Daniel Béland, a political science professor at McGill University in Montreal, according to the AP report.

The opposition Conservatives in Canada have blamed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, but Béland noted that the speaker’s role in Canada is as an officer of Parliament who does not participate in partisan caucus meetings and is not a member of the Cabinet, the AP report said.  Trudeau called the incident “extremely upsetting.”

The AP report noted that in Ottawa, opposition leader Pierre Poilievre blamed Trudeau and the Liberal government for creating a “massive diplomatic embarrassment and shame” for not properly vetting Hunka. “The prime minister is responsible,” the Conservative leader said. “Will he take responsibility for his latest embarrassment?”

In an earlier apology on Sunday, Rota said he alone was responsible for inviting and recognizing Hunka, who is from the district that Rota represents. The speaker’s office said Monday it was Rota’s son who contacted Hunka’s local office to see if it was possible if he could attend Zelenskyy’s speech, the AP reported.

In a statement written in French, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said Rota had lost the confidence of the House. The AP report said that Rota, who issued a written apology Sunday and repeated it in the House on Monday, did not immediately resign.

“The speaker has acknowledged his mistake and has apologized,” Trudeau told reporters, according to the AP report. “This is something that is deeply embarrassing to the Parliament of Canada and by extension to all Canadians.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recognize Yaroslav Hunka, who was in attendance in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (AP)

In his apology, Rota said he alone was responsible for inviting and recognizing Hunka. “I am deeply sorry that I have offended many with my gesture and remarks,″ he said. “No one — not even anyone among you, fellow parliamentarians, or from the Ukrainian delegation — was privy to my intention or my remarks prior to their delivery.”

In an editorial that appeared on Tuesday on Canada’s National Post web site (nationalpost.com),  Carson Jerema writes, “Trudeau simply can’t pull himself away from narrow partisan concerns for a single moment and take responsibility for the fact that someone who, as a Ukrainian volunteer, fought for the murderous Waffen-SS unit was honored in Canada. He was honored not just during Zelenskyy’s visit, but, because he is Ukrainian, was chosen specifically for the visit. Even if Rota is at fault, Trudeau is the leader of the government. The technicality that the man, Yaroslav Hunka, was the guest of the Speaker, may work for Liberals who spend all their time in a positive feedback loop on social media, but it is a pointless distinction for everyone else.”

Jerema added that, “Trudeau also wants to ensure Canadians learn something from this. “It’s going to be important that all of us push back against Russian propaganda, Russian disinformation,” he said Monday. Was that an acknowledgement that this incident has been seized on by the Russians to use against Zelenskyy, or just laying more groundwork for the coming “online harms” bill the government is planning? Or was it, simply, that instead of taking responsibility, Trudeau wanted to speak to some “larger truth” that only he recognizes?”

As for Hunka, according to a Wikipedia report, he was born in Urman, then part of Poland, and volunteered for SS Galizien in 1943. He emigrated to Canada after the conclusion of World War II. Hunka is retired and lives in North Bay, Ontario.

During his time in SS Galizien, Hunka was photographed training in Munich and Neuhammer (present day Świętoszów). In 1944, Hunka was deployed into combat against Red Army forces on the Eastern Front of World War II.

Wikipedia also reported that following the conclusion of World War II in Europe, Hunka settled in the United Kingdom and joined the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain.In 1951, he married Margaret Ann Edgerton (1931–2018), and the couple emigrated to Canada three years later, settling in Toronto, where they raised their two sons, Martin and Peter, and became active in the Ukrainian-Canadian community. After graduating from a technical college, Hunka worked in the aircraft industry, eventually becoming an inspector for De Havilland.

In Canada, Hunka remained active in Waffen SS veterans circles and maintained a blog on the Internet where, in the early 2010s, he compared veterans of SS Galizien to the Israelites, arguing that both groups were spread in worldwide diasporas from their homeland and could only return after several years of exile, according to the Wikipedia report. As of 2022, Hunka travelled to Greater Sudbury to protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  Describing the situation in Ukraine, Hunka told CTV News that the “Destruction is just unbelievable but it will take years and years to rebuild it, … But Ukrainians will win and God Bless Ukraine and I pray for it.”

The First Ukrainian Division, also known as the Waffen-SS Galicia Division was a World War II Nazi German military formation made up predominantly of military volunteers with a Ukrainian ethnic background from the area of Galicia, later also with some Slovaks, Wikipedia reported. Formed in 1943, it was largely destroyed in the Lvov–Sandomierz offensive, reformed, and saw action in Slovakia, Yugoslavia, and Austria before being renamed the first division of the Ukrainian National Army and surrendering to the Western Allies by May 10, 1945, the Wikipedia report added.

On September 23, 2020, the Ukrainian Supreme Court ruled that symbols of SS Division Galicia are not connected with Nazism and therefore cannot be banned in the country. The same claim was made by the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, led at the time by Volodymyr Viatrovych.

Also on Tuesday, CBC News reported that Poland’s education minister, Przemysław Czarnek, has initiated efforts to extradite Yaroslav Hunka.

Minister Przemysław Czarnek announced on social media that he has initiated steps toward Hunka’s possible extradition to Poland in light of the scandal, CBC News reported.  However, Canada’s Minister of Justice and Attorney General, Arif Virani, stated that he cannot comment on the move as no formal extradition request has been made, and the Polish government has not contacted him.

Extradition expert Robert Currie, a law professor at Dalhousie University, explained that Canada does not have a formal extradition agreement with Poland, according to the CBC report.  However, he noted that while the absence of such an agreement might require additional paperwork, it does not preclude extradition.

In Hunka’s case, several challenges to extradition exist. Poland would need to present evidence of a crime recognized by Canada, as extradition typically requires a recognized criminal offense, CBC News reported.  Canada does not have crimes of association, except for specialized cases related to organized crime.

Moreover, Hunka’s advanced age and his fitness to stand trial could present additional challenges. Extradition law often takes into account the physical and mental condition of the individual, particularly when the person is elderly, as was noted in the CBC News report.  Hunka could also potentially challenge extradition in court, a process that could extend over several years.

Currie pointed out that the Netherlands had refused an extradition request from Poland in 2020 due to concerns about the independence of Polish judges from the government. When government interference with the courts is perceived, it can be argued that the right to a fair trial is endangered, providing a potential argument against extradition, as was reported by CBC News.

While the extradition request aims to address a concerning historical issue, it has also shed light on the controversial figure of Przemysław Czarnek himself.

Czarnek, a member of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, has a history of making controversial and divisive comments. Last year, he had to retract a statement linking the LGBTQ rights movement with Nazism, a statement that drew widespread criticism and condemnation, CBC News reported.  Poland’s right-wing President Andrzej Duda, who was re-elected in 2020, has also taken a strong stance against what he terms “LGBT ideology.”

Another contentious incident involving Czarnek was his description of a memorial for Jews killed by Poles during the Holocaust as an “anti-Polish scandal.” The memorial, created by artist Dorota Nieznalska, had been the subject of controversy, and Czarnek’s call for its removal sparked further debate, the CBC News report said.

Czarnek’s academic background includes earning a PhD from the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin in 2006. In the fall of 2020, he assumed the position of minister of education and science, a role that places him in charge of a wide range of educational matters in Poland. This includes overseeing pre-school, general, special, and vocational education, as well as the approval of textbooks and issues related to the employment of teachers.

(Sources: AP.com. CBC.ca, nationalpost.com, Wikipedia.org)

– Additional reporting by: Fern Sidman

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