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Ottawa’s accidental feting of an ex-Nazi has yielded a resignation, but only after a series of events as disorganized and chaotic as the vetting process that caused it.
The prime minister making bizarre accusations of Russian “disinformation,” Liberal MPs attempting to erase the incident from the Parliamentary record, and Canadian Jewish groups expressing disbelief at the government’s apparent attempt to initially skate through this with nothing more than an apology.
And on Monday, Poland’s ambassador to Canada revealing that he’s been busy coaching up senior Liberals on some basic details about the Second World War and the Waffen-SS.
“There’s a lack of education,” Witold Dzielski told CBC in an interview following his meeting with House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota. Dzielski – whose government is one of the most fervently supportive of Ukraine’s fight against Russia – said he wanted to remind Canadians that Poles were often the primary victims of Ukrainian collaborationist units such as the Waffen-SS Galicia Division.
It was Rota who, on Friday, introduced former Ukrainian Waffen-SS soldier Yaroslav Hunka to the assembled Parliament as a “Canadian hero.”
Rota issued an apology on Sunday saying he had “subsequently become aware of more information which causes me to regret my decision” – but resisted any suggestion of resigning. He changed course only after widespread calls for his dismissal from both the opposition and members of the Liberal caucus.
Rota is a Liberal MP who represents the Northern Ontario riding of Nipissing-Timiskaming. While the Speaker is ostensibly a non-partisan position, it’s almost always filled by a member of the governing party, and in any tied House of Commons vote Rota would be expected to break it by voting as a regular MP – where there’s no guarantee he wouldn’t be subject to party discipline.
However, the initial PMO line on the scandal was that Rota’s office is “independent” of theirs, and that no resignation was necessary. “I’m sure he’s reflecting now on how you ensure the dignity of the House going forward,” Trudeau said.
Former Liberal cabinet minister Marco Mendicino sounded a similar note on Sunday, opining on social media that this was a teachable moment for everyone. The incident “is a sober reminder of the need for education about the Holocaust & the atrocities committed against the Jewish people,” he said.
Then in a press scrum on Monday, the prime minister added a bizarre aside on the scandal that “it’s going to be really important that all of us push back against Russian propaganda, Russian disinformation.”
This isn’t the first time that the Trudeau government has cited “Russian disinformation” in relation to a substantiated criticism regarding Canada’s soft handling of Ukrainian ex-Nazis.
In 2018, Russia’s Canadian embassy pointed out that there are two monuments on Canadian soil to the Galicia Division, the Waffen-SS unit of which Hunka was a part. The statement is true, but internal documents later obtained by Postmedia revealed that the accusation prompted a flurry of activity from Global Affairs Canada in attempting to have the statement pulled down from social media as an example of “disinformation.”
The Liberal government’s first official action in regards to the scandal, meanwhile, was to attempt to have it purged from the Parliamentary record.
“I move … the recognition made by the Speaker of the House of an individual present in the galleries during the joint address to Parliament by His Excellency Volodymyr Zelenskyy be struck from the appendix of the House of Commons Debates of Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023, and from any House multimedia recording,” said Gould – before immediately being shouted down by the Conservative benches.
Gould had met with Hunka during his Parliament Hill visit and posted a photo of them together, but swiftly deleted the image from her Instagram over the weekend.
Jewish groups have been among the most fervent critics of Hunka’s invitation, for obvious reasons. The Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre suggested on Monday that at the very least Rota should resign, followed by an investigation into how the Parliamentary vetting process had failed so catastrophically.
“This incident has compromised all 338 Members of Parliament and has also handed a propaganda victory to Russia, distracting from what was a momentously significant display of unity between Canada and Ukraine,” wrote the centre.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said that while they stood “ firmly with Ukraine in its war against Russian aggression, Canada had effectively “whitewashed” the not-insubstantial role of Ukrainian collaborators in the Holocaust.
We are deeply troubled & disturbed that a Ukrainian veteran of the infamous 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the Nazi SS – which actively participated in the genocide of Jews – was celebrated with a standing ovation in the Canadian Parliament.
#Canada‘s Jewish community stands…
— CIJA (@CIJAinfo) September 24, 2023
It was Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly who became the first cabinet minister to break with the government line that an apology from Rota was sufficient. “I think the Speaker should listen to members of the House and step down,” Joly told reporters, citing the blanket call from opposition parties for Rota to leave. This swiftly prompted an apparent about-face from Gould, who also told reporters “I think it’s time for him (Rota) to do the honourable thing.”
While the Polish ambassador ultimately struck a conciliatory tone towards Canada and Rota, Poland’s education minister Przemysław Czarnek was less so, promising on Tuesday that he intended to turn this into a full-fledged diplomatic incident.
In a post on X, Czarnek denounced the “scandalous events in the Canadian parliament” and said he was seeking the extradition of Hunka as a war criminal.
What’s unknown through all this is the effect on Hunka himself, who quietly left Ottawa on Friday as his identity remained mostly unknown among the Parliamentarians who had applauded him.
Hunka’s daughter-in-law Theresa posted an image online of the 98-year-old smiling in the House of Commons reception area as he awaited “Trudeau and Zelenskyy” and thanked Rota for “making this happen.” As of press time, however, her and the social media accounts of any other Hunka relatives appear to have been deleted.
IN OTHER NEWS
It’s been a week since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau first publicly accused India of orchestrating an assassination on Canadian soil – before promptly refusing to release any evidence to that effect whatsoever. But the Washington Post was able to secure video of the June shooting of Sikh nationalist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar. The video shows a coordinated hit in which Nijjar’s vehicle (a pickup truck) is cut off by a pursuing sedan, allowing two gunmen to spring out and fire multiple rounds into the truck. That’s still not evidence of Indian involvement, but The Washington Post story also details a notably lacklustre police response, with investigators showing up only after 20 minutes, and failing to gather surveillance footage from properties neighbouring the site of the murder.
Two years ago, the Trudeau government made a point of adding a mention of Crown-Indigenous treaties to Canada’s official citizenship oath. The new oath now includes this amended line “I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada, including the Constitution, which recognizes and affirms the Aboriginal and treaty rights of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.” “Reconciliation is a national project that involves all of us, including our newest citizens,” declared the ministry of immigration at the time. So it’s notable that, just two years later, Canada’s newest immigration minister is pushing a policy to effectively do away with the oath. Marc Miller (who used to be minister for Crown-Indigenous relations, incidentally) said this week he’s “keeping the options open” on a digital citizenship oath in which new Canadians would simply click a checkbox similar to agreeing to the terms and conditions on a piece of software.
It is a frequent theme of this newsletter that Canadian governments these days are often pushing policy that isn’t even close to aligning with public opinion (bail and gender-neutral language being great examples). This, in turn, has enabled a kind of ideological arbitrage in which enterprising politicians merely have to adopt wildly popular policies that – for whatever reason – have been chronically ignored or dismissed by those in charge. One word for this phenomenon is “populism,” and the spectacle is apparently so baffling to those at York University that they’ve opened an “Observatory of Populism” (that’s really what they called it). Naturally, the Observatory has not even begun operations before concluding that populism is a bad thing that relies on “disinformation and demonization of minority ‘others’ to gain influence.”
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