Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has apologised after a man who served in a Nazi unit during World War II was honoured in Parliament, saying the “terrible mistake” harmed the memory of all those who suffered during the Holocaust.
“On behalf of all those who were present in this chamber, I would like to offer my most sincere apologies for what happened on Friday,” Trudeau said in French in the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon.
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“Paying tribute to this individual, without knowing who he was, was a terrible mistake and a violation of the memory of those who cruelly suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.”
Yaroslav Hunka, 98, received two standing ovations in the House last week during a special session attended by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who was in Ottawa to appeal for Canada’s continued support against Russia’s military offensive.
Jewish community groups later reported that Hunka served in the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Nazi military unit during World War II, and they called for an explanation and an apology.
Trudeau on Wednesday also apologised to Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian delegation that travelled to Canada to take part in the parliamentary session, saying the incident has fuelled Russian “propaganda”.
“It is extremely troubling to think that this egregious error is being politicised by Russia and its supporters to provide false propaganda about what Ukraine is fighting for,” the prime minister told reporters during a news conference before he spoke in Parliament.
Russia, which launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine last year, has described the decision to honour Hunka as “outrageous”.
“Many Western countries, including Canada, have raised a young generation that does not know who fought whom or what happened during the Second World War. And they know nothing about the threat of fascism,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov previously said.
The Russian authorities have justified their continued assault on Ukraine as part of a push to “de-Nazify” the country. Kyiv and its allies have dismissed that, accusing Moscow of trying to conduct a land grab.
Trudeau’s office and senior members of his Liberal Party government have said they had no advance knowledge of Hunka’s invitation to Parliament.
The prime minister reiterated on Wednesday that the speaker of the House of Commons, Anthony Rota, was “solely responsible” for his recognition.
“All of us who were in this House on Friday regret deeply having stood and clapped, even though we did so unaware of the context,” Trudeau said.
Rota announced his resignation earlier this week — which he said would come into effect at the end of Wednesday — amid mounting pressure to step down over the incident.
“I reiterate my profound regret for my error in recognising an individual in the House,” the speaker said on Tuesday.
Still, Trudeau — who has seen his popularity drop in recent months — continues to be hammered by his political opponents, with the head of the opposition Conservative Party, Pierre Poilievre, accusing the prime minister of failing to adequately vet Hunka.
“This is by far the biggest hit Canada’s diplomatic reputation has ever taken in its history, and it happened under Justin Trudeau’s government,” Poilievre said earlier on Wednesday.
Jagmeet Singh, leader of the progressive New Democratic Party (NDP), also said that “real damage has been done — real damage to the Jewish community, real damage to the war effort in Ukraine and real damage to Canada’s reputation”.
“What is [Trudeau] going to do in concrete terms to clean up this mess?” Singh asked in the House of Commons.