Speaker's Nazi veteran invite 'profoundly embarrassing' Trudeau says, as Rota faces calls to resign
Tensions flared in the Commons on Monday over opposition calls for House Speaker Anthony Rota to resign after apologizing to Parliament for inviting, recognizing and leading the chamber in a standing ovation for a man who fought for a Nazi unit during the Second World War.
The incident took place during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's Friday address to Parliament. Now, the New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois want Rota to step down and the Conservatives are suggesting Rota is being used as a scapegoat for what they see as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's failure to vet all who were present in the House for the historic occasion.
"Canadians are sick and tired of a prime minister who never takes responsibility for the things that happen under his watch. Whether it's the record high inflation or interest rates… or the constant international embarrassments, he always finds someone else to throw under the bus. Are you that person?" Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre asked, in an uncommon scene in the House that saw Rota presiding over a back-and-forth that was dominated by discussion of his widely condemned decision.
First thing on Monday morning, Rota apologized to all MPs and took full responsibility.
He then took his seat in the Speaker's chair to listen to MPs from all sides decry how damaging it was that he invited and drew the chamber's attention to 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka, who fought for the First Ukrainian Division, a volunteer unit under Nazi command otherwise known as the Waffen-SS Galicia Division.
While letting Rota's apology stand, Trudeau—who was not in question period on Monday— called it a "profoundly embarrassing" situation, and said he was thinking about the impact it is having on Jewish parliamentarians.
Speaking briefly to reporters on Parliament Hill, Trudeau did not take responsibility, saying that "it's going to be really important that all of us push back against Russian propaganda, Russian disinformation, and continue our steadfast and unequivocal support for Ukraine."
ROTA'S ERROR 'UNFORGIVEABLE': NDP
Government House Leader Karina Gould, who fielded all the questions directed at the government over this controversy, was the first MP to address Rota's mistake, saying that as a Canadian of Jewish origin and an MP who was photographed with the veteran in question, "this hurt all of us."
"As parliamentarians, we place our trust in you. There are many times when we recognize people in the gallery and we do so on your good advice," Gould said.
"And all of us here did that in the chamber on Friday... I think this unfortunate situation has been deeply embarrassing for Canada's Parliament. I think it's been deeply embarrassing for Canada. And I think it was deeply embarrassing for the president of Ukraine."
Going a step further, NDP House Leader Peter Julian called Rota's error "unforgiveable," and put the entire House of Commons in "disrepute."
"Unfortunately, I believe a sacred trust has been broken. It's for that reason, for the good of the institution of the House of Commons that I say, sadly, I don't believe you can continue in this role. Regrettably, I must respectfully ask that you step aside," Julian said.
Conservative House Leader Andrew Scheer focused his remarks on the overarching role and responsibility Trudeau's office should have had in vetting any guest lists and making related security assessments, and what message this dropping of the ball sends to the world, and to Zelenskyy, who is Jewish.
"The prime minister failed… There was a Nazi in the chamber. There was only one entity, one group that could have done anything about, it that could have flagged that," Scheer said.
Scheer noted the incident—which he said could have been prevented with a "straightforward Google search"— has fed into Russia's propaganda narrative about the "bogus justification for Putin's illegal invasion."
Just prior to question period, Poilievre unsuccessfully moved a unanimous consent motion, trying to condemn Trudeau and the Government of Canada for "failing to do appropriate vetting on this individual, or having done vetting and failed to stop him being admitted to, and recognized in Parliament."
Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said Monday afternoon that in his assessment, Rota has lost the confidence of the House, and he should act responsibly and relinquish his role. Blanchet said he has sent a letter requesting a meeting with Rota and the House leaders of all parties.
Speaking later to CTV News, in light of these calls to resign, Gould said she thinks Rota "needs to personally reflect about whether or not he can maintain the confidence of the House."
After repeated attempts to implore MPs to "not politicize this issue," she then tried to seek unanimous consent to strike Hunka's recognition from Parliament's record.
Her request to wipe the record clean was rejected by the Conservatives who took the position that "those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
ROTA'S ROLE, REMARKS, APOLOGY EXPLAINED
Rota’s in-person apology on Monday echoed a similar one he made on Sunday in writing.
"My intention was to show that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is not a new one; that Ukrainians have unfortunately been subject to foreign aggression for far too long now… I have subsequently become aware of more information, which causes me to regret my decision to recognize this individual. I wish to apologize to the House. I am deeply sorry that I have offended many with my gesture and remarks," Rota said Monday morning.
"I would also like to add that this initiative was entirely my own, the individual in question being from my riding and having been brought to my attention. No one, including you my fellow parliamentarians, or the Ukrainian delegation, was privy to my intention or my remarks prior to their delivery. "
After 35 minutes of MPs rising to express their concerns, Rota apologized again to every MP, saying his intention "was not to embarrass this House," before moving the MPs into routine parliamentary business.
As Speaker of the House of Commons, while Rota has been a Liberal MP since his first election in 2004, the rules of the House of Commons require him to operate outside of partisan lines and at all times "show, and be seen to show, the impartiality required to sustain the trust and goodwill of the House."
If Rota was to resign, it's likely that deputy speaker Conservative MP Chris d'Entremont would take the chair and preside over the secret-ballot election of a new speaker. According to the latest edition of the House of Commons Procedure and Practice, only two of the 36 speakers elected since Confederation were elected mid-session. In 1899, it was because the Speaker died while in office, and then in 1984 a replacement was needed, because the Speaker resigned to become governor general.
There are also procedural options—albeit arguably unprecedented—for MPs to move a motion indicating a loss of confidence or desire for the Speaker to vacate the chair, but so far that's a step that has not been taken in this instance.
The House of Commons begins sitting at 11 a.m.— Rachel Aiello (@rachaiello) September 25, 2023
FWIW here's some of what the rulebook says about the 'impartiality of the Chair' and what would happen if a Speaker election is required during a session.
(Snippets pulled by me) Full read: https://t.co/TNa9CAC1EX #cdnpoli pic.twitter.com/85xUBs52lq
PMO: TRUDEAU DIDN'T MEET HUNKA
The controversy exploded over the weekend when it came to light that MPs from all parties, Trudeau and Zelenskky honoured this individual with cheers, salutes and applause. Both Poilievre and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh issued statements indicating they were not aware of Hunka's history when attention was drawn to him in the House on Friday.
"We have here in the chamber today a Ukrainian Canadian war 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 on Friday. "I am very proud to say that he is from North Bay and from my riding of Nipissing—Timiskaming. He is a Ukrainian hero and a Canadian hero, and we thank him for all his service."
On Sunday, the Prime Minister's Office told reporters that Rota was able to invite his own allotment of guests to Friday's address at his sole discretion.
"The independent Speaker of the House has apologized and accepted full responsibility for issuing the invitation and for the recognition in Parliament. This was the right thing to do," said PMO spokesperson Mohammad Hussain in a statement. "No advance notice was provided to the Prime Minister’s Office, nor the Ukrainian delegation, about the invitation or the recognition."
Amid further questions about the level of vetting done, and whether, as social media posts from his family had suggested, Hunka, attended reception with Trudeau, the PMO confirmed on background Monday morning that Trudeau "did not meet this person, nor did he cross paths with him."
The PMO said Trudeau did not attend any reception on the Hill, and to his office's knowledge, there was no reception, noting a photo circulating of Hunka waiting in a reception hall, appears to have been taken in the Speaker's office, not Trudeau's.
Still, opposition parties are taking the position that Trudeau's office shares the responsibility for what's turned Zelenskyy's historic visit to Parliament into an international incident.
"Based on what I've heard in the House today, I feel like this is the government trying to collectivise responsibility for an incident that was solely within their purview. By inviting the Ukrainian president to our country, we had a duty to protect him in all aspects," said Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner.
"This is a time in which… our allies need to be standing with us. There should be no question about whether or not we have our act together, and yet here we are having this debate. It's beyond an embarrassment. It is a stain on our country."
Seeking to clarify the type of vetting undertaken, Gould told the House during question period that the Parliamentary Protective Service (PPS) "had the appropriate screening in place to ensure the security of last Friday's event," while doubling down on stating the government "had no prior knowledge that this individual was being invited."
In a subsequent email to CTV News, the PPS indicated that what Gould had said "was not in accordance with the facts," seeking to implore clarity that its mandate "is to ensure physical security on the grounds of Parliament Hill and within Parliamentary Precinct buildings," and that "granting or vetting access to Parliamentary Precinct guests falls outside of our jurisdiction."
Each party in the House is granted a certain allotment of invitations for official addresses to Parliament, and while a central protocol office compiles those submissions to send the invites, the lists are not shared between parties, according to House Speaker's Office spokesperson Amelie Crosson.
"Lists are compared by protocol staff as there is frequently overlap between them and the names are all shared with the Corporate Security Office to facilitate accreditation of guests," Crosson said in a statement to CTVNews.ca.
Over the weekend, attendees took to social media to express their dismay and condemnation. Jewish advocacy groups also used their platforms, to call for the federal government to provide a full explanation of the vetting process undertaken that saw— as The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies put it—the House welcoming a member of the Waffen-SS Galicia Division "responsible for the mass murder of innocent civilians."
"We appreciate the apology issued… Proper vetting is imperative to ensure such an unacceptable incident does not occur again," said The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) in a post on "X," formerly known as Twitter, after initially posting that it was "deeply troubled and disturbed" about the incident.
"Canada's Jewish community stands firmly with Ukraine in its war against Russian aggression. But we can't stay silent when crimes committed by Ukrainians during the Holocaust are whitewashed," CIJA said.
In 1985, the Deschenes Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals in Canada found that hundreds of the SS14th Waffen Division were living in Canada at the time, according to The Canadian Press. Canada's post-war permittance of these former members is something prominent Jewish Canadians have been critical of.
CTV News has reached out to Hunka and his family for comment.
This article was updated on Sept. 28, to include comment from the Parliamentary Protective Service.