Trudeau and Zelensky in Canada's parliament, last week/Reuters
Canada's Speaker of the House of Commons apologized Monday after praising a 98-year-old Ukrainian who served in a Nazi unit during World War II, saying he was unaware of his past. Yaroslav Khonkeh's praise during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's visit last week was condemned by Jewish groups and used by the Kremlin to promote the narrative that Russia is fighting "Nazis" in Ukraine.
In a statement today, Speaker of the House of Commons of Canada, Anthony Rutte, said that on September 22, after Zelenskyy's speech to parliament, "I mentioned in my remarks a person who was in the gallery." "I later learned more information that makes me regret my decision to do so," he said.
Rutte added: "No one, including members of parliament and the delegation from Ukraine, was aware of my intentions or words before I carried them. This initiative was completely mine, the person in question is from my district who was brought to my attention."
The incident occurred on Friday, when Rutte pointed to Honka as "a Ukrainian hero, a Canadian hero, and we all thank him for his services," and those in parliament applauded him. Honka served in a Nazi division composed of Ukrainian fighters who aided in the war in the Soviet Union, which ruled Ukraine during World War II.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was with Zelensky in parliament at the time. Trudeau said today that the invitation was "very embarrassing" but he did not call for Rutte to resign. "It's very upsetting that this has happened. The chairman acknowledged his mistake and apologized," Trudeau said. "But it's something that is very embarrassing to the Parliament of Canada and therefore to all Canadians."
Opposition members have called on the speaker of parliament to resign, including Democratic MP Peter Julian, who called it an "unforgivable mistake". "Unfortunately, I believe that sacred trust has been broken."
Canadian Jewish group CIJA said it was "deeply concerned" that a former member of the Nazi division who participated in the murder of Jews was being applauded, stressing that this should never happen again, while acknowledging the apology.
Trudeau's office said the decision to invite Honka to parliament was made by the speaker's office, and it denied there had been a meeting between Honka and the prime minister. Trudeau warned today that Russia could use the incident to promote its false narrative about Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has tried to justify the invasion of Ukraine on the false claim that he wants to "denazify" the former Soviet republic. "I think it's going to be very important that we all push back against Russian disinformation and continue our determined and unequivocal support for Ukraine," Trudeau said.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the incident "scandalous." "Many Western countries, including Canada, have raised a young generation that does not know who fought whom and what happened during World War II. And they don't know anything about the threat of fascism."
But the anger at Canada didn't just come from Russia. Poland, which is in crisis of its own with its ally Ukraine, also demanded an apology from parliament for "whitewashing such scoundrels." Apart from the murder of Jews, Honke's unit – the 14th Waffen-Grenadier SS Division – was also accused of murdering Poles.
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