June 19, 2024

(Bloomberg) — The speaker of Canada’s House of Commons resigned on Tuesday over inviting a Nazi-linked war veteran to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s speech last week, a fiasco that badly embarrassed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government.

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Anthony Rota, a Liberal lawmaker who was first elected speaker in 2019, initially declined to step down over the controversy, but eventually bowed to pressure from members of parliament, including from his own Liberal Party.

“I reiterate my profound regret for my error in recognizing an individual in the House during the joint address to parliament of President Zelenskiy,” Rota said in the House of Commons.

“That public recognition has caused pain to individuals and communities, including the Jewish community in Canada and around the world, in addition to survivors of Nazi atrocities in Poland among other nations. I accept full responsibility for my actions.”

Rota on Friday invited to Yaroslav Hunka to sit in the gallery during Zelenskiy’s address to parliament. Rota introduced the 98-year-old 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.

But in the days afterward, 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 revelation about Hunka’s background sparked fury from lawmakers from all political parties, who were embarrassed at having applauded the veteran before knowing his background. The incident also cast a pall over Zelenskiy’s visit to Canada, which had otherwise been deemed a success.

Read More: Nazi Veteran Lauded at Zelenskiy Speech Embarrasses Trudeau

Rota said he was resigning with a “heavy heart,” adding that it was his “greatest honor” to have been elected by his peers to the role. His resignation will take effect at the end of day Wednesday to prepare for the election of a new speaker.

Trudeau’s staff have said the government had no knowledge about the invitation ahead of time and neither did the Ukrainian delegation.

“This was deeply embarrassing for the House and for Canada,” Trudeau told reporters earlier Tuesday, before Rota’s resignation.

Karina Gould, the leader of the government in the House of Commons and a descendant of Holocaust survivors, said in the chamber shortly after Rota’s resignation that it was the speaker’s decision alone to invite Hunka.

“This is something that has brought shame and embarrassment to all of parliament and indeed all of Canadians, and the speaker did the honorable thing in resigning,” she said.

Members of all five parties in parliament, including Rota’s own Liberals, had called for him to step down. Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly said earlier Tuesday the incident was “completely unacceptable” and she had been in touch with her Ukrainian colleagues.

The story was quickly pounced on by Russian diplomats and state-controlled media. 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.

(Updates with photo of Rota, additional Gould’s comments in 12th paragraph)

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