Anthony Rota resigned as Speaker of the House of Commons on Sept. 26, a few days after he invited the House of Commons to honour a man who had served in a notorious Nazi division.
Members of Parliament gave Yaroslav Hunka, a 98-year-old veteran who had served with 14th Waffen Grenadier Division, which fought alongside Nazi units, a standing ovation on Friday Sept. 22. The honour occurred during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s address to Parliament.
Rota, a Liberal MP, introduced Hunka in the House, calling him “a Ukrainian hero, a Canadian hero and we thank him for all his service.”
Hunka had been invited to hear Zelensky’s address to the House and Senate by Rota, and lives in the speaker’s constituency of Nipissing-Timiskaming in Northern Ontario.
“I reiterate my profound regret for my error in recognizing an individual in the House,” Rota said announcing his resignation shortly before the start of Question Period. “That public recognition has caused pain to individuals and communities, including the Jewish community in Canada and around the world, in addition to survivors of Nazi atrocities in Poland, among other nations.”
Jewish organizations, which had called for Rota’s resignation, said they were relieved the Liberal MP stepped down after a weekend of controversy.
“As the representative of the House of Commons, to have such an institution, of which I was member of for nine years, soiled by the presence and honour given to this man, he did the right thing and resigned,” Richard Marceau, vice-president of external affairs for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said in an interview with The CJN.
“What happened was a stain on Canada and it’s an insult to Jews, to Holocaust victims and their families but also to all Canadians.”
Liberal MPs, Rota and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau all apologized for the recognition. But the damage was done.
“It’s extremely upsetting that this happened. The Speaker has acknowledged his mistake and has apologized. This is something that is deeply embarrassing to the Parliament of Canada and by extension to all Canadians, I think particularly of Jewish MPs and all members of the Jewish community across the country who are commemorating Yom Kippur today,” Trudeau said on Monday.
Rota’s resignation is effective Wednesday. The House’s 338 MPs will now vote for a new speaker.
Over the weekend, as anger continued to mount, some high-profile Liberal MPs agreed that Rota had lost the confidence of the House.
Karina Gould, Government House Leader, said in Question Period on Monday, “Personally, as a descendant of Jewish Holocaust survivors, I was very hurt and I know everyone in the House was hurt too. As the Leader of the Opposition knows, and as you mentioned, Mr. Speaker, it was your decision and yours alone. Neither the government nor the Ukrainian delegation was aware of the situation ahead of time.”
The incident sparked international reaction from both Poland and Russia, and once again cast a light on Canada’s record of admitting suspected war criminals after the Second World War.
Poland’s Education Minister posted a letter on X (formerly Twitter) stating that he would seek to extradite Hunka.
The Polish Ambassador to Canada has also called for an apology, posting that the “14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS is responsible for murdering Poles and Jews (both Polish citizens) in German-occupied Poland.”
Meanwhile the Kremlin called the honour given to Hunka “outrageous.” Russia has sought to portray the invasion of Ukraine as an attempt to “denazify” the country, which is led by a Jewish president.
Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies called on the Parliamentary Procedure and House Affairs Committee to hold public hearings, investigating the episode and “propose measures to ensure that no such incident could ever happen again.”
“What we saw happen in Parliament speaks to a troubling lack of historical literacy, particularly among our elected officials,” Dan Panneton, FSWC’s director of allyship and community engagement, said in an interview.
The incident has also brought attention to Canada’s record on vetting suspected Nazi war criminals and the country’s attempts to identify and deport them after the Second World War.
The 14th Waffen SS, the unit in which Hunka served, “carried out numerous atrocities against civilians and fought alongside regular Nazi German armed forces in the battle of Brody,” B’nai Brith Canada said in a statement.
“We cannot allow the whitewashing of history,” said Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith. “It is beyond outrageous that Parliament has honoured a former member of a Nazi unit in this way. Canadian soldiers fought and died to free the world from the evils of Nazi brutality.”
In an article from 2011 which appeared in The Combatant News, a blog published by Ukrainian veterans, Hunka wrote that in 1943, at age 16, he volunteered to join the Waffen SS-Galicia Division and what followed “were the happiest two years of my life.”
The entire SS organization was declared a criminal organization by the International Military Tribunal during the Nuremberg Trials.
The Deschenes Commission, a Canadian investigation into war criminals living in Canada, headed by Justice Jules Deschenes in the mid-1980s, concluded, however, that membership in the Waffen-SS was not a war crime. This assertion was contested by Jewish organizations at the time.
“We do know this unit was involved in several infamous massacres, particularly of Polish civilians, so the categorization as not criminal was incorrect,” Panneton said.
The case of Hunka is not an isolated one, said Marceau, but points to systemic issues in identifying and deporting potential war criminals.
“We can also think of (Helmut) Oberlander who played and made mockery of the Canadian justice system for years and ended up dying quietly in his own bed at a ripe old age.”
The federal government spent decades trying unsuccessfully to strip Oberlander, a member of a Nazi death squad, of his Canadian citizenship.
Canada’s justice minister should “task his war crimes unit to investigate and look at Nazi war criminals in Canada,” Marceau said. “Those men should not live tranquil lives in Canada when they were part of a killing machine.
B’nai Brith has called for the government to fully open the reports of the Deschenes Commission, most recently in a submission to the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics in February, 2023.
The commission issued a report in two parts, one of which is heavily redacted and a second volume which has never been released, said Rich Robertson, manager of research for B’nai Brith Canada. Another study, which examined the policy decisions behind Canada’s decision to admit suspected war criminals has also never been made public.
“We are calling for the release to the public, because one, we feel that the information that the public can glean… would allow us not to make mistakes like what happened in Parliament on Friday,” he said.
“As well, there is no healing process and Canada remains scarred by this, but it will help with moving forward.
“It won’t bring us closure, but it will help to educate.”
- A Canadian diplomat explains the consequences of Canada’s “mind-boggling” ovation for former Nazi soldier, on The CJN Daily.