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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recognize Yaroslav Hunka, who was in attendance and fought with the First Ukrainian Division in Second World War before later immigrating to Canada, in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sept. 22.Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press

The Speaker of the House of Commons apologized Sunday for publicly honouring a Ukrainian Canadian man as a Second World War hero after President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech to Parliament last week.

The recognition of the man – it was later revealed that he served in a Nazi SS unit during the war – prompted unanimous standing ovations that experts say could now be used by Russia to spread disinformation about Ukraine.

When Mr. Zelensky finished his speech last Friday, Anthony Rota drew attention to a 98-year-old man from North Bay, Ont., named Yaroslav Hunka, who was seated in the chamber as an invited guest, and lauded him for “fighting for Ukraine independence against the Russians” during the Second World War.

“He is a Ukrainian hero and a Canadian hero, and we thank him for all his service,” Mr. Rota said. His comments led to cheers and two standing ovations, which included Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mr. Zelensky.

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But the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies said in a statement on the weekend that the man served in the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, a Nazi military unit with documented evidence of “crimes against humanity” during the Holocaust.

“The fact that a veteran who served in a Nazi military unit was invited to and given a standing ovation in Parliament is shocking,” the group said, joining other Jewish organizations that called on the government to publicly apologize.

In a statement Sunday afternoon, Mr. Rota said he had “become aware of more information” that made him regret the decision to invite Mr. Hunka, who is from his riding.

“I particularly want to extend my deepest apologies to Jewish communities in Canada and around the world,” he said.

His statement does not specify any details about the information he received. He said no one else, including the Ukrainian delegation, was aware of the invitation or his remarks before he delivered them.

A statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office said that Mr. Hunka was a guest selected independently by the Speaker – and that “no advance notice was provided to the Prime Minister’s Office, nor the Ukrainian delegation, about the invitation or recognition.”

Ivan Katchanovski, a University of Ottawa political scientist who has published on the SS unit and is writing a book about the Ukraine war, called the standing ovations “beyond comprehension.” He said the televised clips could now be used by Russia, which has falsely claimed the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine as one of the reasons for its invasion of the country last year.

“Russia propagandists have gone out of their way to justify their claims, which are totally without merit,” said Daniel Panneton, the director of allyship and community engagement for Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre. “This is an example they can use in bad faith to provide weight to their argument.”

Dr. Katchanovski said that the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS was renamed the First Ukrainian Division at the end of the war – a move that he said was meant to distance the unit from Nazi ties, and depict its members as fighting for Ukrainian independence from the Soviets as the Germans retreated.

Yaroslav Hunka was praised by speaker Anthony Rota in Parliament on Sept. 22 and received two standing ovations from the audience who had assembled with Prime Minister Trudeau to hear a speech by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The Globe and Mail

The volunteer unit was originally formed in 1943, under the Waffen SS, the combat branch of the Nazi Party’s paramilitary, and has been linked to massacres of civilians carried out in villages in Poland.

The unit has been a source of continuing controversy both in Canada and Ukraine. Statues commemorating the unit were vandalized in Edmonton in 2021. A few months before Russia’s invasion, Dr. Katchanovski said, a march celebrating the unit was held in Kyiv, and publicly criticized by Mr. Zelensky, who is Jewish.

In a blog post, written in Ukrainian, on a website dedicated to the First Ukrainian Division, a writer named Yaroslav Hunka, from Canada, describes volunteering for the unit in 1943, when he was 18. He said he feared a Russian invasion with the German army planning a retreat from western Ukraine.

The writer explains that he signed up with other fellow students. “We felt our duty to our native land,” he writes. The unit surrendered to the British Army at the end of the war.

In 1950, the Canadian government agreed to accept members of the division who had volunteered to fight under the Germans against the Russians, if they were otherwise qualified to come. That was a decision that was criticized by Jewish groups at the time, especially since the Waffen SS had already been declared a criminal organization at the Nuremberg Trials.

A 1985 royal commission studying whether Canada had become a haven for criminals, made the controversial finding that being a member in the unit was not a war crime on its own, unless the person was personally found to have participated in a crime.

A 2012 paper in the journal Canadian Slavonic Papers said that two narratives about the unit have competed for “historical truths.” One portrays ex-members as traitors and war criminals and the other that they chose the lesser of two evils by joining the Germans to defend their country.

B’nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn said the group expected a “meaningful apology,” as well as a “detailed explanation as to how this could possibly have taken place at the centre of Canadian democracy.”

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said Sunday that the Prime Minister also needed to “personally apologize” for what he called “an appalling error in judgment.”

Mr. Poilievre pointed out that parliamentarians had no opportunity to vet the man’s past – a task for an important state visit that he said should have been handled by the Prime Minister’s Office.

With reports from The Canadian Press

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article referred to the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS being depicted as fighting to protect Ukraine from a Russian invasion. This version has been updated to clarify that the group was depicted as fighting for Ukrainian independence from the Soviets. As well, it has been updated to clarify that a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office said that Mr. Hunka was a guest selected independently by the Speaker.

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