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Tom Mulcair: Why Anthony Rota had no choice but to resign

Anthony Rota has been an outstanding Speaker of the House of Commons. He is someone well-liked and respected by all parties, having practised the art of listening and compromising through two minority governments. He’s good at his job because he’s a good member of Parliament and a good person. MPs listen to him because there’s not a trace of fear or favour when he deals with the government or the opposition.

Rota also had no choice but to resign in the wake of the unprecedented political and diplomatic debacle that he caused when he invited 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka, a Nazi veteran from his Northern Ontario riding of Nipissing—Timiskaming, to hear the speech of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

One need only listen to the choice of words to understand that this was an MP writing his own stuff. Rota bone-headedly praised his constituent for fighting “the Russians” during the Second World War, forgetting that Russia, as the key component of the Soviet Union, was Canada’s ally throughout that war. If Rota had realized that, he wouldn’t have introduced the veteran. Make no mistake, this is entirely on Rota, as he himself admitted in a heartfelt apology issued on Sunday.

That obvious truth hasn’t stopped Pierre Poilievre and the Conservatives from playing petty politics with this, trying lamely to pin responsibility on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The Liberal leader has absolutely nothing to do with the Speaker’s totally independent choice of whom he puts in his own allotment of reserved seating for such an event.

The Conservatives sent out former speaker Andrew Scheer to try to muddy the waters by saying the federal government has an obligation to vet everyone. All he managed to do was to remind us of what a mediocre speaker he was under the tutelage of the “boys in short pants” of former prime minister Stephen Harper’s office. They could call the shots for Scheer, something that I witnessed first-hand. Rota is cut from a different cloth and always made his own calls. This was one of them. Period.

The Zelenskyy visit had been a perfect 10 for Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly. It managed to erase the bad taste left by his theatrical announcement of alleged Indian government involvement in the assassination of a Canadian on our own soil. That was timed to suck all of the oxygen out of the room in the return of Parliament and it largely worked. Opposition parties were erased for the day. But it came at a price – the Indian government was furious, having suspended Indian visa services for Canadians and issuing a travel advisory for Indians living in Canada.

Everything went perfectly with the Zelenskyy visit – his speech was Churchillian, the greeting profound and sincere, the timing impeccable, the weather even spectacular on a late summer day. What could go wrong?

As Trudeau and key cabinet members left for another highly successful event with Zelenskyy in Toronto, news of the gaffe started to trickle out. Like many young Ukrainians, that veteran had joined the forces that fought against the Soviets, whose forced genocide in the 1930s had cost the lives of millions of Ukrainians. Those forces were the German army and, in his case, the notorious Schutzstaffel, responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the Second World War.

In recognizing that there was no way for him to maintain the respect for the institution he cherishes and stay on in the job, Rota has once again shown what he’s made of. This must be an excruciatingly difficult moment for him. If history is going to retain the profound embarrassment caused by his mistake, it should, in fairness, also recognize what an important contribution he’s made to our democratic life. But no one has ever said that politics has to be fair.



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