The damage wrought by the spectacle of Canadian parliamentarians and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky unwittingly applauding a veteran of Adolf Hitler’s war machine will not easily be remedied.
The belated resignation of Speaker Anthony Rota is the start, but cannot be the end, of that process. Canadians, Mr. Zelensky and our allies deserve a formal apology from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and a full accounting of how this debacle occurred.
The Liberal government did not create this mess, but it is up to Mr. Trudeau to demonstrate leadership, and to stop distancing himself from the controversy. That should begin with the Prime Minister deigning to show up in the Commons to address the country.
Until Tuesday, Mr. Rota appeared to believe that an apology was sufficient penance for his astonishing, and as yet unexplained, decision to invite 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka as a guest for Mr. Zelensky’s speech to Parliament, and then to lead a round of applause for him.
In doing so, the Speaker did not just embarrass himself, his fellow parliamentarians and Mr. Zelensky. He handed a dangerous propaganda weapon to Vladimir Putin in his war of aggression against Ukraine. Russia is already deploying that weapon, wielding it as proof of its grotesque lie that it is fighting to stamp out neo-Nazism in Ukraine.
Mr. Rota compounded that damage by refusing to immediately resign when it became clear that Mr. Hunka was not a “Ukrainian hero” but in fact a former member of a Waffen SS unit made up of Ukrainians recruited to fight against the Soviet Union – and for Nazi Germany.
The Galicia division of the Waffen SS, later airbrushed with the name the First Ukrainian Division, was part of the investigation by the Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals in the 1980s, including the decision to allow members of the division to immigrate to Canada in the 1950s. The commission, headed by Justice Jules Deschênes, concluded that membership in the Galicia division, by itself, did not constitute a war crime. And it rejected a call to examine why Ottawa allowed veterans of the division to immigrate despite opposition from Jewish Canadian groups. Those decisions helped to build an unjustified aura of respectability around the Galicia division.
Mr. Rota and all Canadians should be clear on one simple fact: anyone who enlisted in the Galicia division, whatever their motivation, was consciously siding with the Nazi regime. That is a morally reprehensible and indefensible act, even if not a war crime in the formal sense.
The Speaker’s contrition, however sincere, was never going to be enough. If that was not obvious to Mr. Rota before Monday, the proceedings in the Commons surely made it clear. The Speaker’s conduct was the issue up for debate.
The confidence of the House in his speakership was fatally undermined, even if it took until Tuesday morning for senior Liberal ministers to join in the call of opposition parties for Mr. Rota to resign.
House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota resigned from his post on Sept. 26 after he invited to Parliament a man who once fought with Nazis in Ukraine in the Second World War. Government and opposition parties say his resignation is the right move.
The Canadian Press
Now, it falls to Mr. Trudeau’s government to deal with the fallout. The first step in that process must be an apology from the Prime Minister. It does not matter that it was the Speaker and his staff who invited, and then failed to scrutinize, Mr. Hunka.
In the eyes of the world, this is Canada’s error, and a grievous one at that. A visit meant to bolster support for Ukraine’s war effort has had a decidedly opposite effect. At home, Friday’s events are deeply hurtful, especially for Jewish Canadians. (That the controversy exploded during the solemn time of Yom Kippur only intensifies that pain.)
An apology from Mr. Trudeau on behalf of the Commons will be a start in easing that pain, and in reassuring Mr. Zelensky and Ukraine.
The government must also abandon its carefully crafted defensive posture and spell out how Mr. Hunka came to be sitting in the Commons gallery. Understanding the mistake is the first step in making sure it does not happen again.
Beyond the short term, Ottawa should give serious consideration to a request from B’nai Brith Canada to amend the Access to Information Act in order to publish the entirety of the Deschênes commission’s work, particularly a redacted report that examines Canada’s policy on Nazi war criminals.
That has the potential to open up a divisive debate, but if the past few days have made anything clear, it’s that Canada suffers from a lack of historical memory, not too much.