A serious incident in the Canadian Parliament has made international waves and prompted the speaker of the legislature to issue a profound apology to the country's Jewish communities. The reason: Over the weekend, chairman Anthony Rutte paid special tribute to a man who turned out to be a former SS fighter and earned him a standing ovation.
The incident occurred last Friday, shortly after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's address to both houses of parliament in Ottawa. Rutte went to the microphone and asked to draw the attention of those present to an elderly man sitting in the stands. "This is a hero who fought for Ukrainian independence against the Russian aggressors then, and continues to help the (Ukrainian) forces even today, at the age of 98," Rutte said. "He's a Canadian hero, a Ukrainian hero, and we thank him for that."
The Canadian Parliament applauds the Waffen-SS fighter in Zelenskyy's presence // Photo: Social Networks
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau applauded, Zelensky waved his hand in a fist, and everyone present united in loud applause. However, the Associated Press soon recognized that the elderly man who received the honor, Yaroslav Honka, was a former fighter in the Ukrainian First Division (Galicia) of the armed SS wing (the Waffen-SS). It was a unit composed of Ukrainian volunteers in the Galicia region.
The discovery caused a great uproar. The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Research issued a statement saying that the division "was responsible for the mass murder of innocent civilians with unimaginable brutality and evil." "We must apologize to every Holocaust survivor and former combatant who fought the Nazis in World War II, as well as provide explanations as to how this man entered the distinguished halls of the Canadian Parliament and received recognition from the Speaker of the House and applause from those present."
Former Waffen-SS fighter at a debate in the Canadian parliament, photo: AP
B'nai B'rith Canada Director General Michael Mostyn said the fact that a former member of a Nazi unit was received with respect was "incomprehensible." "The nationalist ideologues who enlisted in the Galicia division dreamed of a homogeneous Ukrainian state and supported the idea of ethnic cleansing," Mostyn said. "We expect a substantial apology."
"Forgiveness from Jewish Communities"
And the apology did come. Following the uproar, Rutte issued a lengthy statement accepting personal responsibility for the incident. "In my comments after the Ukrainian president's speech, I recognized a man in the stands," said Rutte, who said he hailed from his constituency. "I then received more information about him, which makes me regret my decision (to honor him). None of the members of parliament or the Ukrainian delegation knew of my intention to honor Honka. I want to ask for special forgiveness from the Jewish communities in Canada and abroad. The responsibility for the action is entirely mine."
Prime Minister Trudeau's office welcomed the announcement. "It was the right thing to do," it said. "No advance notice was given to the Ukrainian Bureau or delegation regarding the invitation or appreciation."
President Zelensky and Prime Minister Trudeau in the Canadian Parliament,
The storm affected not only the Jewish communities and spread to other channels. Within Canada's political system, Conservative Party leader Pierre Poalibert attacked Trudeau and demanded an apology. Poland's ambassador to Canada, Witold Dzieleski, also demanded an apology for the crimes committed by mixed SS units against ethnic Poles. At the same time, the Russian Foreign Service and Kremlin propagandists cut a coupon on the affair, exploiting it as part of the fabricated narrative about the war against the "Nazis" in Ukraine, which was used to frame and justify the invasion. Ambassador Oleg Stepanov said he would demand "explanations from the Canadian government."
The armed arm of the SS was found guilty at the Nuremberg Trials of committing mass massacres, including the persecution and extermination of Jews. However, the story regarding the Galicia division is more complex. It was established in 1943, trained by the Nazis and commanded by German officers. Its police units were accused of murdering ethnic Poles, and after the war thousands of its members settled in the West – about 2,000 of them in Canada, where there was and still is a huge Ukrainian community. Canada's State Commission of Inquiry (the Deshain Commission), established in 1985 to investigate whether the country had become a haven for Nazi criminals, stated that "the Galicia Division should not be blamed as a unit... War crimes charges against the division have never been proven... The mere membership of the Galicia unit is not a reason for initiating proceedings."
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