The speaker of Canada’s parliament has resigned after inviting a Ukrainian Nazi veteran to attend a special session of parliament, and then calling the man a “hero” amid two standing ovations.
Anthony Rota stepped down as speaker on Tuesday after meeting with party leaders in Ottawa amid growing cross-party calls for his resignation.
“This house is above any of us,” he told lawmakers.
Earlier in the day, Canada’s foreign minister, Melanie Joly, called the situation “deeply unacceptable” and an “embarrassment”. The government house leader said Rota should do the “honourable thing” and step down. The Conservative leader, Pierre Poilievre, also criticized Justin Trudeau for the fiasco, saying the prime minister had “brought shame on Canada” after the government’s failure to have its “massive diplomatic and intelligence apparatus vet and prevent honouring a Nazi”.
The scandal began on Friday, when lawmakers in Canada’s parliament welcomed the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Following a speech by Zelenskiy, Rota singled out 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka, whom he had invited to sit in the gallery, describing the man as a “Canadian hero”.
Zelenskiy raised his fist in acknowledgment as Hunka saluted from the gallery.
But over the weekend it emerged that Hunka had been a member of the Waffen-SS “Galicia” Division or the SS 14th Waffen Division, a volunteer unit that was under the command of the Nazis.
The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies said that the division “was responsible for the mass murder of innocent civilians with a level of brutality and malice that is unimaginable.”
Other prominent Jewish groups joined in the condemnation of Hunka’s invitation and the incident quickly became a major political embarrassment for Canada’s government.
Rota later said he had “subsequently become aware of more information which causes me to regret my decision” to invite the war veteran, who lives in Rota’s electoral district. “I particularly want to extend my deepest apologies to Jewish communities in Canada and around the world. I accept full responsibility for my action.”
The prime minister’s office said there was no advance notice Hunka would attend Friday’s session of parliament because he was a guest of the speaker and the list of attendees is not shared.
In Canada, like others with Westminster-style parliaments, the speaker of the house of commons is a non-partisan role. The speaker is elected by all lawmakers and oversees the function of parliament.
On Monday, Trudeau called the moment “deeply embarrassing to the parliament of Canada and by extension to all Canadians”. But his party also attracted further scrutiny after the government house leader, Karina Gould, asked for Rota to “be struck” from the official records of parliament, including all recordings from the day.
Amid mounting condemnation of Rota, social media users speculated his resignation was imminent. The political commentator David Moscrop posted a picture of Rota and a head of lettuce, a nod to the final, embattled days of the former UK prime minister Liz Truss.
The focus on Hunka also prompted interest from Poland, where the country’s education minister said he had “taken steps” for Hunka to be extradited. “In view of the scandalous events in the Canadian Parliament, which involved honouring, in the presence of President Zelenskiy, a member of the criminal Nazi SS Galizien formation, I have taken steps towards the possible extradition of this man to Poland,” Przemysław Czarnek said in a social media post on Tuesday.
Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center said in a statement the event had also “handed a propaganda victory to Russia, distracting from what was a momentously significant display of unity between Canada and Ukraine”.