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Trudeau apologizes for presence, recognition of Nazi unit veteran in Parliament

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized Wednesday on behalf of Canada's Parliament for applauding a man who fought alongside the Nazis in the Second World War after last week's address by Ukraine's president.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologizes for the events surrounding Ukraine President Volodomyr Zelenskyy's visit at a media availability in Ottawa on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized Wednesday on behalf of Canada's Parliament for applauding a man who fought alongside the Nazis in the Second World War after last week's address by Ukraine's president.

He made the brief statement before entering the House of Commons, where he extended "unreserved apologies" for what unfolded during President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's visit. 

"This was a mistake that has deeply embarrassed Parliament and Canada," Trudeau told reporters, declining to answer any questions.

"All of us who were in this House on Friday regret deeply having stood and clapped even though we did so unaware of the context." 

The prime minister reiterated that Speaker Anthony Rota, who is stepping down over the issue, was solely responsible for inviting and recognizing 98-year-old Ukrainian veteran Yaroslav Hunka, who hails from Rota's Ontario riding.

The Liberal government and Prime Minister's Office have maintained that they had no knowledge of Hunka's invitation or of Rota's plan to acknowledge him. 

Twice last Friday, members of Parliament and other guests in the House stood and applauded Hunka, who Rota lauded as both a Ukrainian and a Canadian "hero." 

"I also want to reiterate how deeply sorry Canada is for the situation this put President Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian delegation in," Trudeau said. 

"It is extremely troubling to think that this egregious error is being politicized by Russia and its supporters to provide false propaganda about what Ukraine is fighting for." 

He repeated a similarly worded apology in the chamber. 

Ahead of those remarks, Trudeau had faced heavy pressure from Opposition Conservatives and the federal NDP to deliver an apology,with both parties' leaders accusing him of ducking accountability since it happened. 

Tory Leader Pierre Poilievre earlier in the day charged that if Trudeau wants power, "he has to take responsibility" and apologize to "Jews, Poles, Ukrainians and all Canadians."

Poilievre went on to say that Trudeau should call Zelenskyy directly, a suggestion the prime minister did not address on Wednesday. 

In the House of Commons, the Conservatives rejected the apology Trudeau delivered on behalf of Parliament.

They said he needed to take personal responsibility for the incident, given the harm it has caused to those affected by Nazi war crimes, the country's reputation and the Ukrainian cause. 

"It was his personal responsibility to make sure (Zelenskyy's visit) was a diplomatic success," Poilievre told MPs on Wednesday. 

He suggested that government officials should have vetted the guests not only for security purposes but for diplomatic ones. 

Poilievre added that Hunka's presence created a "monumental, unprecedented and global shame" on Parliament. 

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has also been calling on Trudeau to apologize and present a plan for how the government intends to fix the damage done to the country's reputation.

"Now, finally, after three days, the prime minister has finally said something," Singh said Wednesday.

"But he's got to take action."

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said in a statement that it received "private apologies and expressions of profound regret," including from deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland and Rota himself. 

The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre, a non-profit focused on Holocaust education, said Wednesday before Trudeau's apology that it had not received any outreach or apology from the Liberal government about the incident. 

Ukraine's embassy in Ottawa has not responded to multiple requests for comment. The Ukrainian Canadian Congress, an outspoken advocacy group, has not commented either.

Before Trudeau apologized, many Liberal MPs heading into their weekly caucus meeting on Wednesday said they felt Rota's apology and resignation stood for itself. 

But Ottawa representative David McGuinty said caucus should at least discuss a potential government apology. 

"If we make this any more ... partisan, it's just not good for our country and it's not good for countries that are watching this country." 

Health Minister Mark Holland suggested apologizing should be an individual choice made by each parliamentarian, pointing to his own decision to do so. 

"I stood and applauded. I stood in my place and applauded and for that I am deeply sorry, personally." 

The event has sparked international controversy. Comedian Rob Schneider cancelled his upcoming trip to Canada, saying on social media that what happened is "beyond the pale."

Trudeau explicitly condemned Russia for trying to make hay of the incident. 

Russian ambassador Oleg Stepanov demanding an apology Tuesday specifically for Russians. 

He said Hunka's division had carried out war crimes against Russians, and added that Russia might follow Poland in pursuing a criminal case and extradition request.

In Moscow, Russia's foreign ministry said the incident adds credence to its justification for invading Ukraine, which it claims is being run by a Nazi regime, despite Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy being Jewish.

Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova gave a 18-minute statement Wednesday about the incident that happened in Ottawa.

"We view Canada as an extremely unfriendly state, whose authorities have tainted themselves with complicity with Nazism," Zakharova said in Russian.

She noted government House leader Karina Gould's failed motion Monday to not just strike the incident from the record but to have it deleted from any House of Commons multimedia recording, saying the Liberals are "ridiculous and clumsy."

The Conservatives had opposed that motion on the basis that history should not be erased.

Zakharova denounced Western countries for ignoring Canada's "flirtations with the Nazis" and "liberal fascism," which will "inevitably affect Russian-Canadian relations, which are in the deepest crisis due to Ottawa's positions."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 27, 2023.

— With files from Dylan Robertson and Mia Rabson.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press