December 10, 2023

The speaker of Canada’s Parliament faces growing calls to resign, after he honoured a man who fought in a Nazi unit during World War II as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited the House of Commons last week.

Speaker Anthony Rota said this week that he was “deeply sorry” for inviting 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka to Friday’s special parliamentary session, where he recognised Hunka as a “Ukrainian hero”.

“What happened on Friday is completely unacceptable,” Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly told reporters on Tuesday morning.

“It was an embarrassment to the House and to Canadians, and I think the speaker should listen to members of the House and step down.”

Hunka served in the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the Nazi’s SS military unit, said Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish community group.

He received standing ovations in the House of Commons, including from Zelenskyy and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who were in attendance.

“This initiative was entirely my own,” Rota said in Parliament on Monday as he faced questions from Canadian legislators. “No one, including you – my fellow parliamentarians – or the Ukraine delegation was privy to my remarks prior to their delivery.”

But despite his apology, Rota faces growing pressure to step down, including from the progressive New Democratic Party (NDP).

“This was an unforgivable error that puts the entire House in disrepute, and unfortunately I believe a sacred trust has been broken,” said NDP House leader Peter Julian. “Sadly, I don’t believe you can continue in this role.”

Canadian broadcaster Radio-Canada also reported on Tuesday that “several influential members” of Trudeau’s Liberal cabinet said they would not be able to publicly support Rota if a motion to remove him from his speaker’s role is put forward.

The speaker of the House of Commons is elected by fellow parliament members to preside over the proceedings.

“If we voted in favour of him, it would be as if we’re endorsing the actions he took last week,” a Liberal source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Radio-Canada. “Being stubborn and staying there, it embarrasses everyone, including the prime minister.”

The episode came as Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, on Friday addressed Canadian parliamentarians for the second time since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of his country in February of last year.

The Russian authorities justified their continued assault on Ukraine as part of a push to “de-Nazify” the country. Kyiv and its allies have dismissed that as Russian propaganda, accusing Moscow of trying to conduct a land grab.

This week, Russia said it was “outrageous” that Hunka was honoured in Canada. “Such sloppiness of memory is outrageous,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

“Many Western countries, including Canada, have raised a young generation that does not know who fought whom or what happened during the Second World War. And they know nothing about the threat of fascism.”

Roland Paris, director of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, said while Rota’s quick apology was welcomed, it did not go far enough.

“It was so egregious – so injurious to Canada, our Parliament and our Ukrainian partners, and so offensive to Jews everywhere – he needs to resign,” Paris wrote on social media.

Trudeau also has faced questions from opposition Conservative Party lawmakers over what he knew about Hunka’s background and how he was vetted.

CBC News reported that Rota is expected to meet with the government and opposition leaders around midday on Tuesday.

“Obviously it’s extremely upsetting that this happened,” Trudeau told reporters this week.

“The speaker has acknowledged his mistake and has apologised, but this is something that is deeply embarrassing to the Parliament of Canada, and by extension, to all Canadians.”

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