OTTAWA, Ont. — Demands for a resignation over a stunning scandal. Embarrassment for Canada and Ukraine. A public relations win for Russia.
Not the results Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expected after welcoming Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Parliament last week — an official ceremony in the House that included a tribute to a 98-year-old “Ukrainian hero.”
Canadian lawmakers later discovered the veteran they’d recognized was part of a Nazi division in WWII, the massive own goal set off a chain reaction for Trudeau’s Liberal government, already struggling to shake scandals and crises that have plunged his approval ratings into the depths.
And it’s thrown the government even further off its game after a week of dealing with tanking relations with India. On a day when the Liberals were talking up their efforts to bring down grocery prices, the nation was talking about Nazis.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre called on Trudeau to apologize for allowing the man to attend and to “take responsibility” for this “massive diplomatic embarrassment and shame.”
Trudeau did not appear in the House of Commons Monday to speak to the issue, even though he was in Ottawa, the capital, meeting with the British Columbia Premier David Eby and only made brief remarks to media.
“Obviously it’s extremely upsetting,” he said. “This is something that is deeply embarrassing to the Parliament of Canada, and by extension, to all Canadians.”
This is just the latest political wound for Trudeau, whose government has struggled to explain its slow response to the rising cost of living and skyrocketing housing prices as he’s challenged by a firebrand rival rising in popularity.
House Speaker Anthony Rota, who the Liberals blamed for causing the bizarre incident that quickly caught the world’s attention, refused to heed calls to step down Monday and remained in his post overseeing proceedings that were mostly about a scandal that has him at the center.
He apologized in person and said he took “full responsibility” for inviting and leading the tribute to a veteran of a Nazi SS division of Ukrainian soldiers he called a “hero,” prompting a standing ovation from parliamentarians.
That man was Yaroslav Hunka, 98, who fought for the First Ukrainian Division, also known as the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the Nazi SS.
Jewish organizations reacted in shock. MPs in the House on Monday voiced concern the incident would fuel Russia’s misinformation machine. The Kremlin called it "outrageous."
MPs REACT WITH HURT, DISGUST
Conservative House Leader Andrew Scheer accused Trudeau’s office of dropping the ball on something “a straightforward Google search” would have prevented.
“What kind of message does that send to Canada’s partners and allies around the world?” he said in the House of Commons Monday. “There was a Nazi in the Chamber.”
Liberal House Leader Karina Gould, a Jewish MP who called it “deeply embarrassing” and “hurtful,” made an appeal against turning the incident into a political football and spent her time in Parliament pointing the finger at Rota, saying he acted on his own.
Voices quivered with fury when lawmakers addressed Rota in tense debate, with opposition members saying they weren’t going to collectively own the embarrassment.
Two opposition parties, including the NDP which is currently propping up the government in a minority Parliament, are calling on Rota to resign. But the Conservatives sought to have the prime minister’s office wear the blame for failing to fully scrutinize the guests in the gallery seats.
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner called it a “stain” on Canada — something that showed an “abject, egregious lack of judgment that has tarnished the reputation of our country.”
Liberal MP Irek Kusmierczyk described it as “deeply painful” to his community and to Polish Canadians, describing the military division in question as an “exceptionally cruel” one that “murdered thousands of Jews, thousands of Poles in eastern Poland.”
UNLIKELY FIGURE AT CENTER
Rota is among the last people anyone in Canadian politics would have had on their bingo cards for the next big scandal to grip the nation.
He’s been around federal politics for decades, having arrived on the scene back in 2004 when he won election under the Liberal banner and had been free of controversy until now.
Members of Parliament elected him in 2019 as House speaker, a ranking role in Parliament — though still far away from any top post. It’s viewed as an administrative job full of perks that requires a lawmaker who can act relatively impartially, typically meaning they’ll have a milquetoast public persona until they leave the role.
WHAT COMES NEXT
Trudeau will be forced to respond directly to the opposition’s demands the next time he attends question period. The preview for that: He said Monday that the speaker “has acknowledged his mistake and apologized.”
And Rota will have an increasingly tough time in his job if he holds onto it.
“We still have many, many questions, and this issue does not end with your statement or your apology,” Scheer said to Rota.
If Rota doesn’t step down, opposition parties may press for his resignation in Parliament and call for a vote or reach for other tools. The matter could be sent to a committee for study, breathing more oxygen into the scandal so it slow burns for weeks.
Whatever actions lie ahead, pressure is about to ramp up.
“I’ve known Anthony for 20 years. I consider him a very honorable man,” NDP MP Charlie Angus told reporters Monday.
“But something really went wrong the other day and Parliament was put in an untenable position. And we have to send a very clear message to the world we do not celebrate people who have dubious pasts when it comes to the mass killings in Ukraine and Russia in WWII.”