The blunder of the Canadian Parliament turned into a diplomatic fiasco. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday, September 27, offered his "sincerest apologies" for the tribute paid to a former Ukrainian Nazi soldier during President Volodymyr Zelensky's visit to the Canadian Parliament. The mistake has been exploited by the Kremlin, which accuses Ukraine's leaders of being "neo-Nazis" and argues, as justification for its invasion, the need to "de-Nazify" the country.
Justin Trudeau apologized to all MPs "for the situation in which Volodymyr Zelensky and the Ukrainian delegation were placed". On Friday, MPs from all parties, Justin Trudeau, his government and Volodymyr Zelensky, of Jewish faith, gave a standing ovation to Yaroslav Hunka, a 98-year-old Ukrainian veteran accused of fighting in the SS during World War II, ignoring details of his past.
The prime minister called the tribute a "terrible mistake" and a "violation of the memory of those who suffered cruelly at the hands of the Nazi regime." He also said Ottawa had already contacted Kiev and President Volodymyr Zelensky to apologize.
The Prime Minister however recalled that "the only responsible" was the Speaker of the House of Commons, Anthony Rota, who "accepted responsibility" and submitted his resignation on Tuesday. It was the latter who applauded Yaroslav Hunka, coming from his electoral district, presenting him as "a Ukrainian-Canadian veteran of the Second World War who fought for the independence of Ukraine against the Russians"
It was with a heavy heart that I announced in the House my resignation as Speaker. It has been a great honour as a parliamentarian to serve as Speaker during the 43rd and 44th Parliaments. Read my statement here: https://t.co/bxJ7Hc1st0
— Chair of the CDC (@CdcPresidence) September 26, 2023
Ottawa had been under pressure for several days in this affair described as "the greatest diplomatic embarrassment" in the history of the country by the leader of the Conservative opposition, Pierre Poilièvre.
According to the advocacy association for Jewish community in Canada, the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (FSWC), Yaroslav Hunka served in the SS's 14th Waffen Grenadier Division, a Nazi military unit whose crimes against humanity during the Holocaust are well documented.
Russian propaganda fueled
"It is disturbing to think that this blatant mistake is being politicized by Russia and its supporters in order to spread false propaganda," the prime minister said. This scandal is, indeed, widely commented on by the Russian authorities and state media, which present the offensive in Ukraine as a struggle against supposed neo-Nazis in power, supported by the West.
The Kremlin has also called for Yaroslav Hunka to be tried. "Canadian authorities have an obligation to bring this criminal to justice or hand over to those who want justice. It is clear that this is a Nazi," Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
"The speaker of the (Canadian) Parliament has resigned and taken upon himself this responsibility. But what about Parliament itself, which stood up and applauded this fascist? Reason demands a condemnation of Nazism (...) Otherwise it is a parliament that has defiled itself," Dmitry Peskov denounced on Wednesday.
"We can only honor the memory of Ukrainian veterans who fought fascism, including the grandfather of (Volodymyr) Zelensky," he added.
For his part, the Russian ambassador to Canada, Oleg Stepanov, spoke of "scandalous commemoration", asking the Canadian Prime Minister to also apologize to Russia for the "multiple war crimes" committed by this SS brigade against the Russian people.
In Poland, the government launched an investigation to verify whether this Ukrainian veteran had committed crimes on its territory, with a view to his possible extradition.
Canada has the second largest Ukrainian diaspora in the world after Russia, with some 1.4 million people of Ukrainian origin. This was the Ukrainian president's first official visit to Canada since Russia's invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022.
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