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Canada's House speaker has stepped down after inviting a Nazi veteran to Parliament

The Speaker of the House of Commons Anthony Rota delivers a speech following an address by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023.
Sean Kilpatrick
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AP
The Speaker of the House of Commons Anthony Rota delivers a speech following an address by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023.

TORONTO — The speaker of Canada's House of Commons resigned Tuesday for inviting a man who fought for a Nazi military unit during World War II to Parliament to attend a speech by the Ukrainian president.

Just after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivered an address in the House of Commons on Friday, Canadian lawmakers gave 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka a standing ovation when Speaker Anthony Rota drew attention to him. Rota introduced Hunka as a war hero who fought for the First Ukrainian Division.

Observers over the weekend began to publicize the fact that the First Ukrainian Division also was known as the Waffen-SS Galicia Division, or the SS 14th Waffen Division, a voluntary unit that was under the command of the Nazis.

"No one in this House is above any of us. Therefore I must step down as your speaker," Rota said in Parliament. "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," he added.

Rota stepped down after meeting with the House of Commons' party leaders. All main opposition parties had called for Rota to step down, and House government 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," Gould said.

Gould said that Rota invited and recognized Hunka without informing the government or the delegation from Ukraine, adding that the fact that Rota didn't inform anyone and didn't do diligence broke trust with lawmakers.

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

"Never in my life would I have imagined that the speaker of the House would have asked us to stand and applaud someone who fought with the Nazis," Gould said.

"This is very emotional for me. My family are Jewish holocaust survivors. I would have never in a million of years stood and applauded someone who aided the Nazis."

Gould said Rota found out about it over the weekend. "He probably should have resigned as soon as he learned about it," she said.

Yaroslav Hunka, right, waits for the arrival of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Onatario on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023.
Patrick Doyle / AP
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AP
Yaroslav Hunka, right, waits for the arrival of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Onatario on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023.

Canadian Health Minister Mark Holland had called the incident "incredibly embarrassing."

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."

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 it was Hunka's son who contacted Rota's local office to see if it was possible if he could attend Zelenskyy's speech.

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. 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,

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.

"Canada's reputation is broken. This is by far the biggest hit Canada's diplomatic reputation has ever taken under in history and it happened under Justin Trudeau's watch," Opposition Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre said.

Poilievre said everyone in the House of Commons on Friday should have been vetted with Zelenskyy in attendance.

Robert Bothwell, a historian and professor at the University of Toronto, called Rota clueless for waiting so long to step down. He said an apology from Trudeau is also justified.

"He should not make it personal; there is nothing he personally did wrong, but the event embarrassed the country and as PM he takes responsibility," Bothwell said.

"Trudeau doesn't have the strongest image and this will cause other leaders to see him as damaged goods."

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