House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota apologized again Monday for inviting and paying tribute to a Ukrainian Second World War veteran who fought for Nazi Germany and was present during Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit last week.
Rota, who said he regretted his decision and was “deeply sorry” for any hurt he caused, faced calls to resign from the role by the NDP.
“My intention was to show that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is not a new one; that Ukrainians have unfortunately been subject to foreign aggression for far too long and that this must end. I have subsequently become aware of more information which causes me to regret my decision to recognize this individual. I wish to apologize to the House. I am deeply sorry that I have offended many with my gesture and remarks,” he said.
“I would also like to add that this initiative was entirely my own, the individual in question being from my riding and having been brought to my attention. 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.”
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Zelenskyy was in Ottawa last Friday for his first trip to the country since Russia’s invasion began on Feb. 24, 2022.
During his visit to the House of Commons, MPs as well as Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian delegation gave a standing ovation when 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka was introduced by Rota.
“We have here in the chamber today Ukrainian Canadians (and) a Ukrainian-Canadian war veteran from the Second World War who fought (for) Ukrainian independence against the Russians, and continues to support the troops today, even at his age of 98,” Rota said last Friday.
“I am very proud to say that he is from North Bay and from my riding of Nipissing-Timiskaming. He is a Ukrainian hero, a Canadian hero, and we thank him for all his service.”
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MPs cheered, and Zelenskyy raised his fist in acknowledgement as Hunka saluted from the gallery during two separate standing ovations. What seemed like a moment of gratitude turned sour on Sunday when reports emerged that Hunka fought for the Nazis during the Second World War.
The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies said in a statement that Hunka served in the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, also known as the First Ukrainian Division, and demanded an apology.
“An apology is owed to every Holocaust survivor and veteran of the Second World War who fought the Nazis, and an explanation must be provided as to how this individual entered the hallowed halls of Canadian Parliament and received recognition from the Speaker of the House and a standing ovation,” it said.
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B’nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn said on X, formerly known as Twitter, Sunday the recognition was beyond outrageous, and that “we cannot allow the whitewashing of history.”
Rota said in a statement on Sunday that he recognized an individual in the gallery on Friday, and that he has “subsequently become aware of more information which causes me to regret my decision to do so.”
“I wish to make clear that no one, including fellow parliamentarians and the Ukraine delegation, was aware of my intention or of my remarks before I delivered them,” he wrote.
“I particularly want to extend my deepest apologies to Jewish communities in Canada and around the world.”
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Karina Gould, the government leader in the House of Commons, said she would urge all members of the House to agree to strike the tribute from the formal records.
But questions quickly emerged about how Hunka’s past was not identified by the government and security officials during vetting of who should be in the chamber during Zelenskyy’s visit.
A spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s Office repeated Rota’s assertion that he alone invited Hunka.
“Parliament and the Speaker’s office is independent from the prime minister and the Prime Minister’s Office,” Mohammad Hussain told The Canadian Press Sunday.
“The Speaker had his own allotment of guest seating at Friday’s address, which were determined by the Speaker and his office alone.”
— with files from The Canadian Press
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