Canadian lawmakers gave Yaroslav Hunka, 98, a standing ovation after Rota recognized him as a “hero” following Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s historic speech in Parliament on Friday, a moment that produced some of the best images of Zelenskyy’s visit.
But the story took a twisted turn and hit global headlines over the weekend when it emerged that Hunka was part of the First Ukrainian Division, also known as the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS under the Nazis.
“This was an embarrassment for Canadians and was completely unacceptable,” Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said Tuesday before meeting with Cabinet.
Some opposition parties began calling for Rota to resign early Monday, when NDP House Leader Peter Julian said Rota broke a “sacred trust” with lawmakers.
But the issue did not come to a head until Tuesday, when representatives of each party met with Rota. He remained in the chair and presided over House of Commons proceedings on Monday after apologizing despite much of the debate focusing on him.
Liberal House leader Karina Gould said Rota invited and recognized Hunka “without informing either the government or the Ukrainian delegation or any parliamentarian that he was going to do this.”
Rota apologized Monday after learning of Hunka’s Nazi past, although his comments have been brief and he has not answered questions from the media.
“I deeply regret having offended many with my gesture and my comments,” he said in Parliament.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called it “deeply embarrassing” for Canada, but did not apologize after calls from opposition parties.
Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre posted on social media that Trudeau and Rota have “embarrassed Canada,” but Rota’s resignation does not excuse “Trudeau’s failure to make his enormous diplomatic and intelligence apparatus examine and prevent honoring a Nazi.”
State Department spokesman Matt Miller was asked about the strange incident at his daily briefing in Washington and said: “The Canadian government said it did not know about that individual’s past and expressed regret about it, and that seems be the appropriate step.”
In Ottawa, some of Rota’s colleagues stepped forward to defend his character.
“I was elected with Anthony in 2004,” said Health Minister Mark Holland. “He is a profoundly good man.”
Citizens Services Minister Terry Beech described it as a “regrettable mistake” and said “no one has been tougher on Anthony Rota than Anthony Rota”.
The Liberals attempted to remove comments and recordings of Hunka’s recognition from the House of Commons record on Monday, but the other parties opposed the move.
“It was an ugly reminder of what Holocaust survivors know very well: that we must never forget,” said Conservative MP Marty Morantz. “Eliminating the text of the speaker’s words (from the official record) would have only one purpose: to try to forget what happened and clean up the record.”