(Bloomberg) -- Canadian lawmakers are demanding that a parliamentary official resign after he invited a Ukrainian war veteran who fought in a Nazi unit to be a featured guest during President’s Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s speech last week.
The episode is deeply embarrassing to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, though his staff say the government had no knowledge about the invitation ahead of time, and neither did the Ukrainian delegation.
The guest, Yaroslav Hunka, was invited to the House of Commons by its presiding officer, Speaker Anthony Rota, who introduced the 98-year-old after Zelenskiy’s speech on Friday. Rota, a Liberal lawmaker, described him as a Ukrainian-Canadian Second World War veteran “who fought for Ukrainian independence against the Russians.”
The entire chamber gave Hunka a standing ovation, including Trudeau and the Ukrainian president, who raised his fist.
Over the weekend, Jewish organizations in Canada demanded an apology for Hunka’s invitation, pointing to his history serving with the 1st Galician division, a unit of the German military’s Waffen-SS.
The timing of the incident is highly unfortunate for Zelenskiy. On the margins of the United Nations annual gathering he fell out with Poland, his ally and neighbor, and his visit to Washington was a marked contrast from last year’s warm welcome, when support for his efforts to repel Russia out of Ukraine was far more forthcoming.
His visit to Ottawa was originally viewed as a success, given that Canadian lawmakers of all political stripes broadly agree on the scale of support for Ukraine.
“Obviously it’s extremely upsetting that this happened,” Trudeau told reporters Monday. “The speaker has acknowledged his mistake and has apologized. But this is something that is deeply embarrassing to the parliament of Canada and by extension to all Canadians.”
Rota apologized but has so far refused to resign over the incident, despite opposition political parties calling on him to do so. In a prepared statement Monday morning, Rota told lawmakers his intention had been to “show that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is not a new one.”
“I have subsequently become aware of more information which causes me to regret my decision to recognize this individual,” Rota said, adding that Hunka lives in his electoral district. “I am deeply sorry that I have offended many with my gesture and remarks.”
He said it was his decision alone to invite Hunka, and nobody else was “privy to my intention or my remarks prior to their delivery.”
Rota’s role as speaker of the House of Commons is elected by lawmakers from all parties in the chamber, and it is unclear whether he can stay on.
Peter Julian, who serves as House leader for the New Democratic Party, said Rota had made an “unforgivable error which puts the entire house in disrepute.”
“Regrettably, I must respectfully ask that you step aside,” he said.
The Bloc Quebecois, a Quebec-based party, has also urged Rota to quit.
But Trudeau’s Liberal Party caucus has so far not asked for Rota’s resignation, instead seeking to have Hunka’s recognition in the chamber stricken from the official record.
The story was swiftly picked up by Russian state-controlled media RT and Sputnik. Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to justify his invasion of Ukraine as aiming to “de-Nazify” the country, even though Zelenskiy himself is Jewish.
Russia’s embassy in Canada said in a statement on X, the social-media platform formerly known as Twitter, that the standing ovation for Hunka was “yet another” insult by the Trudeau government to the “memory of Canada’s sons and daughters who fought Nazism in WWII.”
Poland’s ambassador to Canada, Witold Dzielski, has called for an apology over the incident.
--With assistance from Flavia Krause-Jackson.
(Updates with context on Zelenskiy’s current challenges in paragraphs 6-7.)
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