Yesterday Justin Trudeau apologized for unwittingly honouring a former Nazi in Canada’s Parliament.
He apologized to the Jewish community, the Ukrainians, the Roma and everyone else who suffered from the scourge of Adolf Hitler and his mad-dog fascism. But it was a day late and strangely hollow.
Justin Trudeau’s no-show in Parliament on the day House Speaker Anthony Rota resigned in disgrace, is the story here. It marks a new low in the PM’s political career, even though he took every question in question period today.
Instead of standing up to the barrage of insults, demands and denunciations that he knew was coming, he sent House leader Karina Gould into the fray to take the heat. In a voice sometimes reduced to a whisper, Gould did her best to take one for the team.
Gould admitted that honouring someone in Parliament who had fought with an SS unit against the Russians in the Second World War was shameful and unforgivable.
But she doggedly returned to a single point — that the decision to invite Yaroslav Hunka to Parliament during Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit to Canada was solely the call of one man — Anthony Rota.
Technically, Gould is right. The Speaker and his office rule the parliamentary precinct with full and independent authority. Which is to say that the Prime Minister’s Office doesn’t get to second-guess the Speaker or vet the guests that he, or the Opposition, chooses to honour in Parliament. Technically. But politics is never purely technical. It is more often emotional. And that sometimes obscures the facts.
According to Rota himself, it was he and he alone who made the decision to honour the 98-year-old veteran and resident of his Nipissing-Timiskaming riding, whose past no one in the Speaker’s office either knew about or checked. For that, they have been crushed by the law of unintended consequences.
It is worth noting that Rota wasn’t the only person who didn’t seem to grasp the crucial importance of Hunka’s affiliation with the 14th Waffen SS, a volunteer unit, later called the Galicia division, mostly composed of ethnic Ukrainians under Nazi command.
Hunka’s own son was the person who contacted the Speaker’s constituency office to suggest that his father should be invited to Parliament for Zelenskyy’s speech.
For one thing, Hunka was Ukrainian-born. For another, he had fought the Russians as a teenager. On paper, it must have looked good — widely separated generations standing up to the Russian Bear. Except, of course, for the Nazi thing.
Creating problems for Zelenskyy
The law of unintended consequences claimed a few more victims. Hunka’s son wangled the invitation to Parliament during Zelenskyy’s visit to garner praise for his father’s war record, and to show common cause with the embattled Ukrainian president.
Instead, Hunka has now been outed as a Nazi collaborator, who was part of a unit that swore allegiance to Hitler. The standing ovation he received in Parliament after being recognized by then-Speaker Rota has turned into something very different. He may now face extradition to Poland and retroactive justice for alleged war crimes.
The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies alleges that Hunka’s unit “was responsible for the mass murder of innocent civilians with a level of brutality and malice that is unimaginable.”
Even Zelenskyy himself now faces major headaches over the bungled guest list that has captured the world’s attention. Remember, Vladimir Putin has repeatedly said he invaded Ukraine to rid it of neo-Nazis. Canada’s face plant has empowered him.
Now there is video, during Yom Kippur no less, of Canada’s Parliament and the Ukrainian president applauding a former soldier who swore allegiance to Hitler. Expect to see the video of that infamous moment played and replayed during the next election in Canada.
Even though the federal government is not the author of this shameful incident, laying all the blame on Rota won’t work. Once blood flows in the political water, the frenzy feeding begins. There is no way to insulate Justin Trudeau from this debacle.
The Conservatives and the NDP were instrumental in forcing Rota’s resignation. They told him to his face in the House of Commons that his shameful blunder erased their confidence in his ability to continue as Speaker. After a little foot dragging, the Liberals agreed.
Poilievre’s own claimed vetting slip
It should be noted that the Conservative party’s new-found zeal for proper and professional vetting of people who get to meet parliamentarians rings slightly hollow.
While Pierre Poilievre is quick to say the PM should have looked into Hunka more carefully, using the RCMP, three of his own MPs recently met with German politician Christine Anderson.
Anderson is a member of the far-right AfD party, which is pro-Russian, anti-immigrant and anti-European Union. “Once inoculated by its Nazi past, Germany harbours growing far right currents,” wrote the Wall Street Journal.
Poilievre’s defence of his MPs meeting with a purported German fascist? They just didn’t know about her politics. Where was the leader of the Opposition and his office?
But the Liberals are daydreaming if they think Rota’s departure is the end of it. If Poland decides to extradite Hunka, it will be the PM who decides whether Canada will co-operate in that effort.
The political opposition will be watching every move Trudeau makes, ready to pounce on anything that looks like hesitation or indecision. If Trudeau dithers, it will be interpreted as insult added to injury to the Jewish community and other victims of Nazism. If he ignores due process, it will be seen as political opportunism.
What next for Rota?
And there is another question. If Rota was unfit to continue as Speaker of the House, is he also unfit to be a member of the Liberal caucus? That is a question that only Justin Trudeau can answer.
If Trudeau leaves Rota in place, it will be a constant reminder of the disgrace he unwittingly brought on himself, his country, and every Holocaust survivor and war veteran who fought the Nazis.
Up until now, Rota has had a solid grip on his northern Ontario riding, winning it six times since 2004. His only loss came to the Conservatives in 2011, during the robocalls scandal. Rota lost that one by 18 votes.
But his resignation as Speaker could be a game-changer. After all, who wants as their MP the guy who invited a Nazi into Parliament and led the standing ovation for him?
But if Trudeau kicks Rota out of caucus, there will be fresh blood in the water and the sharks will keep coming. The PM can set a Guinness record for grovelling apologies for what has happened, but that won’t stop the opposition from laying the blame for this mess at his doorstep.
After all, Trudeau was the guy who once said that with Liberals in power, “Canada is back.” Back where? The country is now humiliated over a jaw-dropping display of institutional incompetence at the highest levels.
Trudeau’s fall season
Is this apocalypse now for the Liberals? Way too early to tell, but it could be. The government’s baggage grows heavier by the scandal, of both the real and contrived varieties.
Remember Jaspal Atwal, who got an invitation to dine with the prime minister in Delhi during one of Trudeau’s trips to India? His name was put forward by a Liberal MP.
Atwal, convicted of the attempted assassination of an Indian cabinet minister in Vancouver, had his invitation cancelled before the dinner. But not before attending some of the trip’s events, including getting his picture taken with the PM’s wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau.
The PM is beginning to lose the war of perception versus reality. From holidaying with billionaires to donning blackface and playing Mr. Dress Up on a trip to India, real doubts about the PM’s judgment are beginning to stick.
Is he really the right leader to navigate the complexities and sensitivities of getting to the bottom of Hardeep Singh Nijjar’s unspeakable murder, and the possible involvement of the government of India? Is he the right leader to deal with alleged interference by the Chinese in Canadian elections? Or the cost-of-living pressures Canadians face, including a crisis of housing affordability?
With several pots boiling over on the political stove, the Nazi affair does nothing to assure Canadians that the guys running the show know what they’re doing.