Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau found himself in the midst of a substantial controversy and, perhaps, one of the more awkward apologies a leader could make, following an incident involving applause for Yaroslav Hunka, a 98-year-old former WWII Nazi SS veteran, during an event with Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky. Hunka was applauded by Trudeau and other lawmakers as a “Ukrainian and Canadian hero” who battled for Ukrainian independence during World War II against the Russians.
Hunka fought with the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, a Ukrainian unit orchestrated by the Nazi regime in 1943. This unit is notorious for its unspeakable atrocities against Jews and Poles during World War II. The applause swiftly morphed into a series of regrets and apologies when the background of Hunka came to light, forcing House Speaker Anthony Rota to resign, given he was the one who introduced Hunka as a hero. Rota’s resignation didn’t dissolve the embarrassment and the public outcry, pushing Trudeau to respond, stating that the incident was “deeply embarrassing for parliament and Canada.”
Trudeau continued to throw Rota under the bus, stressing that the invitation and recognition of Hunka were solely the Speaker’s responsibility. Trudeau claimed he regretted the applause, stating everyone present that day lamented their actions, albeit made in ignorance of Hunka’s grim past. Ironically, though, the prime minister claimed ignorance despite Rota’s introduction of Hunka as someone who “fought the Russians” during World War II— a statement implying alignment with Nazi Germany.
The incident spurred intense criticism, particularly from Russia, Poland, and Jewish advocacy groups. The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center condemned Hunka’s wartime unit for their unimaginable brutality and mass murder of innocent civilians. Russia did not miss the opportunity to sharply criticize Trudeau’s regime, portraying it as steeped in “unbridled Russophobia.”
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