“We have here in the chamber today a Ukrainian-Canadian veteran from the Second World War who fought for Ukrainian independence against the Russians and continues to support the troops today, even at his age of 98,” Rota said Friday, followed by a lengthy round of applause and a wave by Zelenskyy. “He’s a Ukrainian hero, a Canadian hero, and we thank him for all his service. Thank you.”
Jewish advocacy groups the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center and B’nai Brith Canada condemned his honoring as disturbing and “beyond outrageous” because he fought with the First Ukrainian Division — also known as the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division, which served under command of the Nazis.
Jewish news website The Forward reported that Hunka wrote blog posts describing his time in the unit on a Ukrainian-language website run by an association of the unit’s veterans, called “Combatant News.”
In a statement late Sunday afternoon, Rota said he recently became “aware of more information which causes me to regret my decision” to recognize Hunka. He said he takes full responsibility for the seismic gaffe.
“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 said. “This initiative was entirely my own, the individual in question being from my riding and having been brought to my attention.”
Conservative opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre called it an “appalling error of judgment” by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, since his office would have approved inviting and honoring Hunka, and demanded Trudeau apologize and refrain from “passing the blame to others as he always does.”
A statement from the prime minister’s office said it was not given any advance notice about the recognition or invitation from the speaker’s office, which acts independently from the prime minister.
The story was quickly picked up by Russian state-controlled media websites RT and Sputnik.
The Russian embassy in Canada posted on social media that it was an “insult to the memory of Canada’s sons and daughters who fought Nazism in WWII.”
Asked by reporters at a press conference Friday about wavering support for Ukraine in Congress and elsewhere, Zelenskyy said he looks to Canada for help in shoring up a united front, since Ottawa has a “powerful relationship with many countries of the world.”
The shocking news landed the same day the prime minister made a statement marking the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur.