Trudeau and Zelensky lead Canadian parliament in honoring member of Hitler’s SS
At left, 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka, a veteran of Hitler's SS, returns the salute from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the Canadian Parliament on Friday. At Zelensky's side, joining in the standing ovation for Hunka, is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland. | Screengrab / AP

TORONTO—The Canadian political establishment is in damage control mode after parliamentarians—led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—joined in a standing ovation for a member of Hitler’s SS on the floor of the House of Commons on Friday.

Facing condemnation from Jewish groups, House Speaker Anthony Rota issued an apology on Sunday for having introduced 98-year-old Ukrainian-Canadian Yaroslav Hunka as a “hero who fought for Ukrainian independence from Russia during the Second World War.”

Rota thanked Hunka “for all his service,” while Trudeau and most MPs stood, smiling and clapping. Zelensky raised a clenched fist in salute of the SS veteran.

The incident was mostly ignored by the mainstream media initially, with the only mention being a reference to Hunka in an Associated Press photo caption in a story about Zelensky’s visit to Canada. The situation quickly blew up online, however, as people pointed out who Hunka was and the true nature of his military unit.

Widely known for running the concentration camp system, the SS also had a section that recruited people from conquered countries to join the fascist cause. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Hunka became one of them, cooperating with the Nazis against his homeland. He fought the Red Army as a member of the 14th “Galicia” Waffen SS Grenadier Division. Hunka has even published photos of himself in his SS uniform.

The Galicia Division was a participant in the Nazis’ campaign of murder and destruction in eastern Europe. It took part in mass executions of Ukrainians, Poles, Jews of various nationalities, and others and also helped the SS put down the uprising of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto.

The historical record shows it was active in carrying out other mass killings, as well, often under the pretext of “anti-partisan” campaigns. “Partisans” is the name given to the Communists and other guerilla fighters who resisted Nazi rule behind the frontlines. The details of Hunka’s personal participation in any of these atrocities, if any, are not yet known.

A photo posted online by Yarsolav Hunka in 2010. Here, he is seen in his SS Nazi uniform. His caption: ‘Guys from my village Urman, Berezhan District. I stand in the middle.’

Prof. Ivan Katchanovski, a University of Ottawa political scientist who has studied the Galicia SS unit and is writing a book about the war in Ukraine, called the decision to honor Hunka “beyond comprehension.”

He recalled President Vladimir Putin’s use of “de-Nazification” as one of the rationales for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and said Trudeau and Zelensky honoring a known fascist fighter was sure to be employed as evidence to justify the war. “This will be used by Russia,” Katchanovski said.

The Kremlin on Monday was already calling the incident “outrageous,” and the Russian ambassador in Ottawa said he would be demanding an explanation from Trudeau.

Katchanovski’s research shows efforts to whitewash the reputation of the SS Galicia unit have been underway since the end of World War II. The 14th Waffen SS Grenadier Division, of which Hunka was a member, was renamed the “First Ukrainian Division” after 1945 as part of an effort to cover up its Nazi ties and depict its members as fighting to protect Ukraine from a Russian invasion.

Ukraine was a part of the USSR, however, so the only “invasion” from Russia at that time was the return of Red Army troops fighting to expel Nazi Germany from Soviet Ukraine.

Canada’s Ukrainian fascist problem

After the war, some 600 members of the Galicia Division were allowed to immigrate to Canada, a government decision that has long been a source of controversy. Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was even forced to establish a commission in the 1980s to determine whether Canada was a haven for war criminals, but the body quickly wrapped up its business by simply saying that SS Galicia Division members were individually screened before admission.

With the lauding of Hunka, however, questions about the adequacy of those screenings are being raised again.

“At a time of rising anti-Semitism and Holocaust distortion, it is incredibly disturbing to see Canada’s parliament rise to applaud an individual who was a member of a unit in the Waffen SS—a Nazi military branch responsible for the murder of Jews and others,” the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center said in a statement.

Dan Panneton, a director of the Center, told CBC News:

“I think association with this unit makes you a Nazi collaborator. To be part of this unit, you swore allegiance to Hitler and you were involved with the massacre of civilians. So, it doesn’t matter if you try and claim that you were defending against communism, you were still involved with the Nazi war machine. That makes you complicit.”

The CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, Michael Mostyn, said his organization was outraged that Canadian MPs applauded an SS veteran, saying that Ukrainian “ultra-nationalist ideologues” who volunteered for the Galicia Division during World War II “dreamed of an ethnically homogenous Ukrainian state and endorsed the idea of ethnic cleansing.”

Another Canadian Jewish group, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said it was “deeply troubled” that a fighter for one of Hitler’s military units that participated in the genocide of Jews was celebrated by Canadian lawmakers and the Ukrainian president.

A photo posted online by Yarsolav Hunka in 2010 showing him with fellow SS fighters. Hunka is second from the left.

For years, Jewish Canadian groups have campaigned against monuments in Canada that honor Ukrainians who fought on the Nazi side during the war.

Trudeau’s Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, however, who is of Ukrainian heritage, has cultivated close ties to the right-wing Ukrainian diaspora community in Canada. She stood applauding with Zelensky and Trudeau during the ovation for Hunka. Even if her boss might try to claim ignorance, she is deeply knowledgeable in Ukrainian and Russian history and would know the background of the Waffen SS.

Freeland has her own connections to Ukrainians who collaborated with the Germans. Evidence has been published purporting that her grandfather, Michael Chomiak, was a Nazi propagandist during the war who edited a newspaper in Poland with grotesque anti-Semitic editorials and praise for the Ukrainian Waffen SS division. The newspaper he ran was founded after the Nazis stole the press from a Jewish publisher sent to a death camp.

The Canadian corporate media eventually published information about Freeland’s family history, but she alleged it was part of a “Russian disinformation” campaign.

She has also been linked with Ukrainian politician Andriy Parubiy, who came to Ottawa in 2016 to lobby Canada against resuming regular diplomatic relations with Russia. Freeland met with him several times, as did Trudeau and former Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan.

In the 1990s, Parubiy was a co-founder of the Social Nationalist Party (Svoboda), modeled on the Nazi Party, in Ukraine. In the past, criminal proceedings were launched against Parubiy over his role in the Odessa Trade Union House massacre in 2014 in which fascist forces set fire to offices with 50 union members and communists trapped inside who were burned alive. In May 2019, Freeland met with him and proudly posted a photo of them together on her Facebook page: “Canada stands with Ukraine and its vibrant democracy!”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine last year tamped down most mainstream media coverage of these connections, but with the Hunka controversy, the Canadian government’s “Ukrainian fascist” problem has resurfaced.

Damage control

A photo posted online by Yarsolav Hunka in 2010 showing him in military training with other SS soldiers. He is standing next to the machine gun without a helmet.

Once the Hunka revelations could no longer be ignored, House Speaker Rota issued an apology on Sunday.

“I have subsequently become aware of more information which causes me to regret my decision to [honor Hunka]. I wish to make clear that no one, including fellow parliamentarians and the Ukraine delegation, was aware of my intention or of my remarks before I delivered them,” Rota said. “I particularly want to extend my deepest apologies to Jewish communities in Canada and around the world,” he added.

Trudeau’s office dodged any responsibility and tried to pin all the blame for the embarrassing incident on Rota. A statement from Trudeau’s spokesperson simply declared: “The independent Speaker of the House has apologized and accepted full responsibility for issuing the invitation and for the recognition in Parliament. This was the right thing to do.”

Zelensky’s office has so far said nothing of the incident. Although his own Jewish heritage is often cited as proof that Russia’s “de-Nazification” claims are purely propaganda, increasingly, that alone is not enough to prevent questions about the level of political power and influence that fascist elements hold inside Ukraine today.

Over the past several years, Nazi collaborators and right-wing historical figures, such as Stepan Bandera, have been retroactively made into national heroes in Ukraine, and armed fascist militias, including the Azov Battalion, have been integrated into the official Ukrainian military.

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C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left.