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Canada House speaker resigns over ovation for man who fought with Nazis

TORONTO, Canada (AP) — 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 Zelensky 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.

It later was publicized that the First Ukrainian Division was also known as the Waffen-SS Galicia Division, or the SS 14th Waffen Division, a voluntary unit that was under the command of the Nazis.

Rota stepped down after meeting with the House of Commons’ party leaders Tuesday. All main opposition parties had called for Rota to step down, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government House leader Karina Gould earlier said that she believes lawmakers have lost confidence in Rota.

“It is time for him to do the honorable thing,” Gould said.

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Foreign Minister Melanie Joly had also urged him to resign.

“It is completely unacceptable. It was an embarrassment to the House and Canadians, and I think the speaker should listen to members and step down,” Joly said.

Joly said she spoke to the government in Ukraine about it.

Asked if he’ll continue in the job, Rota said earlier Tuesday: “We’ll have to see about that and I’m sure you’ll hear more about that later today.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau join a standing ovation for Yaroslav Hunka, who was in attendance in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Ontario, on Friday, September 22, 2023. The speaker of Canada’s House of Commons apologized Sunday, September 24, for recognizing Hunka, 98, who fought in a Nazi military unit during World War II.(Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press via AP)

“It’s a good thing that Speaker Rota apologized personally and I am sure that he is reflecting now on the dignity of the House going forward,” Trudeau said to reporters before he entered a Cabinet meeting.

Canadian Health Minister Mark Holland called it “incredibly embarrassing.”

The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies had also called for Rota to step down.

“While we acknowledge his apology, Speaker Rota’s decision to invite a former member of the Waffen-SS, notorious for its involvement in Holocaust atrocities, to Canada’s Parliament has left a stain on our country’s venerable legislature with profound implications both in Canada and globally,” the center said in a statement.

“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.”

Yaroslav Hunka, right, waits for the arrival of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Ontario, September 22, 2023. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press via AP)

In his 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 Hunka’s son who contacted Rota’s local office to see if it was possible to attend Zelensky’s speech.

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. The vetting process for visitors to the gallery is for physical security threats, not reputational threats, the speaker’s office said.

A photograph of Yaroslav Hunka, taken between 1943 and 1945, when he served in the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS. (Wikipedia)

Dani Dayan, the head of Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum, called the ovation a “deplorable moment [that] was a result of ignorance about the facts of the Holocaust.” He invited Canada’s leadership, including the speaker, to visit the center to learn about the Holocaust.

Polish Education Minister Przemysław Czarnek said he would seek Hunka’s extradition.

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

Russian President Vladimir Putin has painted his enemies in Ukraine as “neo-Nazis,” even though Zelensky 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 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.

Opposition Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre also urged Rota to resign, following similar calls by the opposition NDP and Bloc Québécois parties on Monday.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.