The speaker of Canada’s House of Commons has apologised to Jewish communities after honouring a veteran who fought for a military unit under Nazi command during World War Two.
Anthony Rota had invited his fellow MPs to give a standing ovation to Yaroslav Hunka, 98, following Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s address to Parliament on Friday.
Mr Rota introduced Mr Hunka as a war hero who fought for “Ukrainian independence against the Russians”.
“He’s a Ukrainian hero, a Canadian hero, and we thank him for all his service,” Mr Rota said as the Commons stood to applaud him.
However, Jewish groups have condemned the move, identifying Mr Hunka as a member of the First Ukrainian Division – previously known as the Galicia or 14th Division of the Waffen-SS.
The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies said the division “was responsible for the mass murder of innocent civilians with a level of brutality and malice that is unimaginable.”
“An apology is owed to every Holocaust survivor and veteran of the Second World War who fought the Nazis,” the organisation said as it demanded an explanation.
The Commons Speaker said he had since been made aware of information “which causes me to regret my decision”.
In a statement to The Telegraph, he said: “I particularly want to extend my deepest apologies to Jewish communities in Canada and around the world.”
Mr Rota added that the decision to recognise Mr Hunka was “entirely” his own. He noted the 98-year-old veteran is one of his constituents
He added: “I accept full responsibility for my actions.”
Canadian MPs from all parties cheered and Mr Zelensky raised his fist in acknowledgement as Mr Hunka was saluted from the Commons gallery.
The incident has cast a shadow over Mr Zelensky’s visit to rally Western support for Ukraine’s war.
Russia has used the pretext of the “de-nazification” of Ukraine to justify its invasion, despite the country being led by Mr Zelensky, a Jewish president who lost relatives in the Holocaust.
To further those claims, Moscow has drawn on controversial elements of Ukrainian history, such as when nationalist forces allied with the Nazis in a bid to expel the Soviets and gain Ukrainian sovereignty.
Reports of Mr Hunka’s presence in Canada’s House of Commons were swiftly disseminated by Russian state media.
Moscow’s ambassador to Canada, Oleg Stepanov, said she would be writing to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday.
The Commons Speaker said “no one”, including his fellow MPs, Mr Trudeau and Mr Zelensky’s delegation, was aware of his intention to recognise Mr Hunka or his planned remarks.
Mr Trudeau’s office also stressed that the prime minister had “no advance notice” of the speaker’s plans, and said Mr Rota’s apology was “the right thing to do”.
The First Ukrainian Division consisted mostly of ethnic Ukrainian volunteers in German-occupied territory and was under the control of leading Nazi Party member Heinrich Himmler.
According to a history of the division written by Myroslav Shkandrij, a professor at the University of Manitoba, “the primary motivation” for signing up to the division in 1943 was “to fight Stalin, Russia and Bolshevism, and to create a military formation that would struggle for Ukraine’s independence.”
Michael Mostyn, the CEO of Jewish organisation B’nai Brith Canada, said it was outrageous that Parliament honoured a former member of a Nazi unit.
He said Ukrainian “ultra-nationalist ideologues” who volunteered for the Galicia Division “endorsed the idea of ethnic cleansing.”
Mr Hunka could not be immediately reached for comment.