Speaker of the House Anthony Rota has issued a public apology for recognizing a man who served in a Nazi unit during World War II, following backlash from Jewish organizations and others. The incident occurred during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit to the Canadian Parliament, where Rota praised Yaroslav Hunka as “a Ukrainian hero, a Canadian hero, and we thank him for all his service.” This statement was met with applause and a standing ovation.
Rota’s apology comes in the wake of increased scrutiny and condemnation. He expressed regret for honoring Hunka, citing new information that came to light after his initial remarks. Rota clarified that neither fellow parliamentarians nor the Ukrainian delegation were aware of his intention or his comments before delivering them. He specifically extended his deepest apologies to Jewish communities in Canada and around the world and accepted full responsibility for his actions.
Hunka, aged 98, served in the First Ukrainian Division, also known as the Waffen-SS Galicia Division or the SS 14th Waffen Division, a voluntary unit under Nazi command.
The Prime Minister’s Office clarified that the decision to invite and honor Hunka was solely made by the Speaker’s office. They commended Rota for apologizing and taking full responsibility for the invitation and recognition during the parliamentary session. The event was broadcast internationally.
Government’s Lack of Awareness and Call for Caution
Government House Leader Karina Gould emphasized that the government had no knowledge of Hunka’s presence, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not meet him. She urged MPs not to politicize the incident in a statement on social media.
Jewish groups and others had voiced concerns about Hunka’s past associations and actions. Dan Panneton, a director with the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center, deemed the standing ovation in the House of Commons deeply troubling. He argued that association with the unit in question implicates individuals as Nazi collaborators, as they swore allegiance to Hitler and were involved in civilian massacres.
While solidarity with Ukraine’s struggle against Russian invasion remains crucial, Panneton stressed the need for careful consideration of associations during expressions of support, emphasizing that solidarity should not tolerate the celebration of Nazi collaboration or war crimes in future events.
Scholar Discusses Controversy Surrounding WWII Division and Symbolism
Dominique Arel, Chair of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Ottawa, has weighed in on the controversy surrounding Yaroslav Hunka’s association with a World War II division. Arel highlighted that the division Hunka was part of had drawn in thousands of Ukrainian volunteers, many of whom joined with the aspiration of achieving Ukrainian independence.
Arel explained that only Germans from Germany itself were permitted to serve in the German army. Non-German volunteers who aligned with Nazi objectives or aimed to leverage Nazi power for their own purposes were organized into SS divisions. The use of symbolism in this context is particularly problematic, as these divisions bore the insignia of what is arguably considered one of the most heinous criminal organizations of the 20th century. Arel emphasized that from an optics perspective, this association raises concerns.
Regarding the question of whether specific groups within the division had committed atrocities, Arel stated that it is challenging to determine. However, he noted that by the time Hunka’s division would have reached the Eastern Front in 1944 after training in Germany, Nazi operations related to the Holocaust in that area would likely have already concluded.
Arel’s insights shed light on the complexities of historical associations and the sensitivity surrounding symbols and affiliations during a turbulent period in history.