OTTAWA — Jewish groups in Canada want an apology from members of Parliament after they honoured a man who served as an SS officer for the Nazis during the Second World War.
During Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit to Ottawa on Friday — his first to Canada since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began — MPs honoured 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka, who fought for the First Ukrainian Division.
Hunka was invited by Speaker Anthony Rota, who called him “a Ukrainian hero and a Canadian hero.”
The First Ukrainian Division, also known as the Waffen-SS Galicia Division or the SS 14th Waffen Division, was a voluntary unit under the command of the Nazis.
The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies said in a statement Sunday that the division was responsible for the “mass murder of innocent civilians with a level of brutality and malice that is unimaginable.”
“An apology is owed to every Holocaust survivor and veteran of the Second World War who fought the Nazis,” the statement said.
“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.”
Rota issued a statement Sunday afternoon, saying that he has “subsequently become aware of more information which causes me to regret my decision” to recognize Hunka.
“I wish to make clear that no one, including fellow parliamentarians and the Ukraine delegation, was aware of my intention or of my remarks before I delivered them,” he wrote.
“I particularly want to extend my deepest apologies to Jewish communities in Canada and around the world.”
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, which represents Jewish federations across the country, said it is deeply troubled by the incident.
“Canada’s Jewish community stands firmly with Ukraine in its war against Russian aggression,” the group said on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.
“But we can’t stay silent when crimes committed by Ukrainians during the Holocaust are whitewashed.”
While MPs from all parties rose to applaud Hunka, the federal Conservatives have said the party was not aware of his history.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre laid the blame at the feet of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“No parliamentarians [other than Justin Trudeau] had the opportunity to vet this individual’s past before he was introduced and honoured on the floor of the House of Commons,” he said.
“Without warning or context, it was impossible for any parliamentarian in the room [other than Mr. Trudeau] to know of this dark past.”
A spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s Office said Rota had an allotment of guest seating, which were determined by him and his office.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh shared his concerns, saying that Hunka was not a guest of the party and the NDP was not aware of his association with “the Nazi regime.”
“This event has caused harm to the Jewish community and for that, I am sorry,” said Singh.
“We must all stand together against the rising tide of antisemitism.”
The Waffen-SS Galicia Division surrendered to the British army in 1945.