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Canada’s parliament, Trudeau and Zelensky give inadvertent ovation to Nazi war veteran

TORONTO (AP) — The speaker of Canada’s House of Commons apologized Sunday for recognizing a man who fought in a Nazi military unit during World War II.

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 Canadian and Ukrainian war hero who fought for the First Ukrainian Division.

The First Ukrainian Division was a voluntary unit commanded by the Nazis that was also known as the Waffen-SS Galicia Division or the SS 14th Waffen Division. It was responsible for “mass murder” and “crimes against humanity during the Holocaust,” according to Canada’s Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center.

“In my remarks following the address of the President of Ukraine, I recognized an individual in the gallery. I have subsequently become aware of more information which causes me to regret my decision to do so,” Rota said in a statement.

He added that his fellow Parliament members and the Ukraine delegation were not aware of his plan to recognize Hunka. Rota noted Hunka, a Ukrainian immigrant, is from his district.

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“I particularly want to extend my deepest apologies to Jewish communities in Canada and around the world. I accept full responsibility for my action,” Rota said.

Hunka could not be immediately reached for comment.

Canadian lawmakers cheered and Zelensky raised his fist in acknowledgement as Hunka saluted from the gallery during two separate standing ovations. Rota called him a “Ukrainian hero and a Canadian hero, and we thank him for all his service.”

Zelensky was in Ottawa to bolster support from Western allies for Ukraine’s war against the Russian invasion.

Vladimir Putin has painted his enemies in Ukraine as “neo-Nazis,” even though Zelensky is Jewish and lost relatives in the Holocaust.

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, Sept. 22, 2023. The speaker of Canada’s House of Commons apologized Sunday, Sept. 24, for recognizing Hunka, 98, who fought in a Nazi military unit during World War II.(Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press via AP)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office said in a statement that Rota had apologized and accepted full responsibility for issuing the invitation to Hunka and for the recognition in Parliament.

“This was the right thing to do,” Trudeau’s statement said. “No advance notice was provided to the Prime Minister’s Office, nor the Ukrainian delegation, about the invitation or the recognition.”

That did not stop the leader of the opposition, Pierre Poilievre, from slamming an “error in judgment.”

Trudeau’s “personal protocol office is responsible for arranging and vetting all guests and programming for state visits of this kind,” the Conservative leader posted on X, calling on the prime minister to “personally apologize.”

Nazi veteran Yaroslav Hunka acknowledges a standing ovation in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Onatario on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. The speaker of Canada’s House of Commons apologized Sunday, Sept. 24, for recognizing Hunka, who fought in a Nazi military unit during World War II. (Screenshot CBC; used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)

The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies issued a statement Sunday saying the speaker’s adulatory remarks ignored “the horrific fact that Hunka served in the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, a Nazi military unit whose crimes against humanity during the Holocaust are well-documented… [It] was responsible for the mass murder of innocent civilians with a level of brutality and malice that is unimaginable.”

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

The Jewish advocacy group called the incident “shocking” and “incredibly disturbing.”

“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 in a statement.

B’nai Brith Canada’s CEO, Michael Mostyn, said it was outrageous that Parliament honored a former member of a Nazi unit, saying Ukrainian “ultra-nationalist ideologues” who volunteered for the Galicia Division “dreamed of an ethnically homogenous Ukrainian state and endorsed the idea of ethnic cleansing.”

“We understand an apology is forthcoming. We expect a meaningful apology. Parliament owes an apology to all Canadians for this outrage, and a detailed explanation as to how this could possibly have taken place at the center of Canadian democracy,” Mostyn said before Rota issued his statement.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Speaker of the House of Commons Anthony Rota (L) and Speaker of the Senate Raymonde Gagne (R) take part in a signing ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, on September 22, 2023. (Photo by Patrick Doyle / POOL / AFP)

Members of Parliament from all parties rose to applaud Hunka. A spokesperson for the opposition Conservative party said the party was not aware of his history at the time.

AFP contributed to this report.