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Canadian Parliament gives standing ovation to literal Nazi
Yaroslav Hunka fought with the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS in the Second World War.
On Sept. 22, Canadian Parliament gave a standing ovation to a 98-year-old man who fought for the Nazis in the Second World War as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the House of Commons.
The chorus of applause for Yaroslav Hunka was acknowledged twice in initial mainstream Canadian media coverage of Zelenskyy’s speech — in a cutline for a Canadian Press photo, which was reprinted by the Associated Press and Toronto Star, and a CBC News voiceover — neither of which recognized his sordid past.
That changed on Sept. 24 — the eve of Yom Kippur — following the online hullabaloo that justifiably ensued, courtesy of a tweet from an account called @LiamShitter, and an excellent piece from Lev Golinkin in The Forward.
The Sept. 22 CP cutline reads:
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recognize Yaroslav Hunka, who was in attendance and fought with the First Ukrainian Division in the Second World War before later immigrating to Canada, in the House of Commons on Friday [emphasis added].
The First Ukrainian Division is also known as the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, or Galician Division — the same unit memorialized with monuments in Edmonton and Oakville, as well as Detroit and Philadelphia.
In the CBC’s initial report, journalist Ashley Burke didn’t name Hunka, but described applause for a “98-year-old Ukrainian Canadian who fought for Ukrainian independence against the Russians during the Second World War,” which is technically correct but obscures whom he was fighting with.
The unit he served in was armed and trained by the Nazis, and even received a visit from SS head Heinrich Himmler.
Speaker of the House Anthony Rota introduced Hunka, who resides in Rota’s Nipissing—Timiskaming riding, to the House of Commons, calling him a “Ukrainian hero and a Canadian hero,” despite Hunka having fought on the opposite side of Canada in the Second World War. Rota appears to have been the one who invited Hunka to Zelenskyy’s address.
“The SS-Galizien began its career with the destruction of several Polish communities in winter and spring 1944,” Yale historian Timothy Snyder, who has staked out a hawkish position on the current conflict in Ukraine, noted in his book, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999.
The same division perpetrated the Huta Pieniacka massacre, in which somewhere between 500 and 1,000 Polish villagers were burned alive. Not exactly the shining example of heroism Rota described.
Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre (FSWC), a Holocaust education organization named after the famed Nazi hunter, has been a strong voice pushing back against the rehabilitation of Ukrainian Nazi collaborators.
The organization, which is currently led by former Liberal MP Michael Levitt, called the reception Hunka received “shocking” and “disturbing” in a statement, which reasonably added:
An apology is owed to every Holocaust survivor and veteran of the Second World War who fought the Nazis, and an explanation must be provided as to how this individual entered the hallowed halls of Canadian Parliament and received recognition from the Speaker of the House and a standing ovation.
In response, the Speaker’s office issued a vaguely worded statement saying he had no idea the person he introduced as having fought Russia during the Second World War may have done so with the Nazis. Throwing himself under the bus, he said “no one, including fellow parliamentarians or the Ukraine delegation, was aware.”
The Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement saying it received “[n]o advanced notice” of Hunka’s attendance and MP Karina Gould, who is Jewish on her father’s side, claimed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t meet with him, as she did.
But Theresa Hunka, Yaroslav’s daughter-in-law, posted a Sept. 22 photo on Facebook with a caption boasting that Yaroslav Hunka was in Parliament’s reception hall awaiting a meeting with Zelenskyy and Trudeau.
In a characteristically nasty, hyper-partisan statement, Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre claimed this was all Trudeau’s bidding, who tricked his entire caucus into applauding a Nazi.
“Without warning or context, it was impossible for any parliamentarian in the room (other than Mr. Trudeau) to know of this dark past,” Poilievre wrote.
Saying Hunka fought against the Russians in the Second World War might have been a clue.
To be clear, I don’t think any of the MPs standing up to applaud Hunka are aware that he fought with a literal SS unit. But that tells you a lot about the degree of historical literacy among our elected representatives.
While many voices will argue that Ukrainian nationalists did what they felt they had to do to secure independence from the Soviet Union during the Second World War — that it was a messy, morally ambiguous process — it’s hard to make that case for those who joined the Waffen SS, which was declared by the Nuremberg Trials to be a criminal organization as a whole, no ifs, ands or buts.
There’s an understandable tendency to ignore Ukraine’s history of Nazi collaboration, or the presence of Nazi militias operating in Ukraine currently, given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s disingenuous claim that he’s surrounded by Nazis and has no choice but to invade Ukraine.
It’s much easier to lazily point out Zelenskyy is Jewish and move along. But as recently as 2021, Zelenskyy himself condemned a march in Kyiv honouring those who fought in the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division.
“We categorically condemn any manifestation of propaganda of totalitarian regimes, in particular the National Socialist, and attempts to revise truth about World War II,” Zelenskyy said of the event.
Now, in a testament to what war does to a person’s psyche, he’s participating in a standing ovation to these very forces.
This rehabilitation of Nazis isn’t just confined to historical memory. There are avowed neo-Nazi forces operating in Ukraine as we speak. As The Maple reported last year, Canadian media had no issue describing the Azov Regiment as a fascist battalion until around May 2022.
When we ignore these historical and political realities to engage in Nazi apologia, we’re doing Putin’s propaganda for him.
But if your goal is to keep the money spigot flowing to Ukraine in a war with no end in sight, as is the position of every single party with representation in Canadian Parliament, then it’s hard to acknowledge that these funds may be going towards some unsavoury elements.
This piece has been updated to reflect statements from the Prime Minister’s Office, Leader of Opposition and Speaker of the Legislature.