Former House Speaker Anthony Rota apologizing to the House on September 25, 2023.
Former House Speaker Anthony Rota apologizing to the House on September 25, 2023. Credit: CPAC Credit: CPAC

When all members of Canada’s parliament gave a standing ovation to a man who had sworn allegiance to Hitler – as a member of the Waffen-SS – what should have been a triumphant visit for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy turned into a disaster.

Many are asking how it came to be that House of Commons speaker Anthony Rota invited the man in question, Yaroslav Hunka, to occupy a seat of honour for Zelenskyy’s address to the House of Commons. 

The speaker never fully explained, but he did fall on his sword. 

After two party leaders, a number of other MPs, and some senior cabinet ministers openly called on Rota to resign, he did just that.

But the Hunka affair is not over, or, at least, it should not be.

While it might be instructive to know how it came to pass that Rota issued his now-notorious invitation, that’s not the most important question.

The most pressing and relevant question is: How did Hunka get into Canada in the first place? 

The SS were a professional murder and torture outfit

During World War II, Yaroslav Hunka volunteered to be part of Nazi dictator Hitler’s personal militia, the Schutzstaffel or SS. He was a member of the 14th Waffen (armed) Grenadier division of the SS, also known as the Galician division.

Nobody forced Hunka into that role. He signed up willingly. 

The SS was not the regular German army, the Wehrmacht. Originally set up in the 1920s to provide “security” at Nazi party events, the SS morphed into Adolf Hitler’s chief instrument of terror, torture and murder. 

Hitler and SS leader Heinrich Himmler directed SS members to employ brutal and ruthless methods to assure the “racial purity” of the Nazi Reich. 

The paramilitary organization grew from a handful of party loyalists in the early 1920s, to over 50,000 at the time Hitler took power in 1933, to 800,000 at the height of World War II, in the early 1940s.

At the outset of the war, during the invasion of Poland, SS units specialized in burning whole villages (including their inhabitants), and mercilessly massacring unarmed children, women and men.

As the war advanced, and the Nazis seized more territory (including a good part of the former Soviet Union), the SS invented what is now known as the Holocaust-by-bullet. 

SS troops rounded up large groups of populations to be exterminated, especially Jews, brought them to open fields, forced them to disrobe and dig large ditches, and then shot them in cold blood.

The most notorious of such massacres happened at Babi Yar, in Ukraine

SS troops were also responsible for the numerous Nazi death camps scattered throughout Europe, among them Auschwitz-Birkenau and Mauthausen. There, as we know all too well, millions perished in gas chambers, while others died of starvation and disease, or were worked to death.

By the end of the war, the SS included many units of non-Germans, including Croatians, Albanians, Cossacks, Tatars and Ukrainians. 

Yaroslav Hunka joined one of those units, and was proud of it for the rest of his life. We know that because he said so, quite publicly, many times. 

After the war, Hunka managed to settle in the U.K. Then, in 1954, he emigrated to Canada. By that time, western countries, including Canada, had, in effect, decided to turn the page on the Nazis and their crimes. 

Cold War supersedes justice for victims of Nazis 

In 1945, at the conclusion of World War II, the wartime allies – including not only western countries such as the US and France, but also the Soviet Union – set up an unprecedented War Crimes Tribunal to try the leaders of the Nazi regime. 

The Tribunal, which convened in the historic German city of Nuremberg, found a handful of those leaders guilty. It sentenced some, including the last living senior SS commander, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, to death and others to long prison terms. 

But not too long after that, the West switched its focus. There was a new war now, the Cold War, and a new adversary, our erstwhile ally, the USSR.

That’s how Nazi collaborators and sympathizers such as Hunka came to be seen not as war criminals, but as reliable anti-communists. Canada welcomed many as regular immigrants. 

In the 1985, partly in response to reports that the Nazi angel of death at Auschwitz, Dr. Josef Mengele, might have found refuge in this country, the Canadian government of Brian Mulroney set up a Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals in Canada, headed by Justice Jules Deschênes.

Mengele never made it to Canada, but the Commission found that many other Nazis and Nazi collaborators did. 

Experts and advocates who testified to Deschênes gave widely varied numbers, from a low in the hundreds to a high of 3,000. But nobody denied that Canada had been a safe haven for people who did not deserve any sort of haven. 

Curiously, while Deschênes’ report characterized former members of the Waffen-SS, to which Hunka belonged, as Nazi collaborators, it did not label them war criminals. 

But there is much that the Commission did uncover we still do not know. The government of Canada has never seen fit to make the entire Deschênes report public. 

Notably, successive Canadian governments have heavily censored much of the section Alti Rodal, the Commission’s chief historian, wrote, entitled: “Nazi War Criminals in Canada: The Historical and Policy Setting from the 1940s to the Present”. 

And all governments have entirely suppressed Part II of the Commission report, which named names, addressing individual cases. 

As well, to this day, the Canadian government carefully guards and keeps out of public view hundreds of Nazi war crimes files – files which were at one time property of the RCMP and the Justice Department. 

As recently as this past July, David Matas, senior counsel to B’nai Brith Canada, was calling for release of this crucial information

Matas wrote, in an opinion piece for the Globe and Mail: “The Holocaust ended in 1945, more than 78 years ago. The Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals reported almost 37 years ago. The Canadian effort to bring Nazi war criminals to justice has ended. The survivors are fast disappearing.”

There are still a few Holocaust survivors alive to bear witness to the beyond-horrific events – which many, over the years, have tried to downplay or outright deny.

But Matas points out the obvious: sometime in the near future we will have no more firsthand witnesses. All we will have is the written record, which is why many believe making that record fully public is more important than ever. 

A hot potato for Canadian politicians of all parties

If and when those files see the light of day, there are certain to be Canadian politicians and other officials, both living and dead, whose reputations will suffer. 

In 1987, for instance, the New York Times reported, based on Alti Rodal’s work, that Louis St. Laurent, Liberal prime minister from 1948 to 1957, agreed to admit a Slovak Nazi collaborator to settle in Canada, upon a direct request from Pope Pius XII. 

Rodal is also said to have noted that St. Laurent personally contacted Nazi collaborators from Vichy France who settled in Quebec after French courts convicted them, in absentia, of war crimes. 

Others point the finger at another former prime minister: the current PM’s father, Pierre Trudeau.

There are reports that as justice minister in the mid-1960s, and later as prime minister, the elder Trudeau worked to head off prosecutions of suspected war criminals.

Indeed, over the years, Canadian politicians of all stripes have considered the Nazi war criminals file to be a hot potato they would rather not touch. 

They have feared offending powerful ethnic communities who are well established in this country, and were reluctant to re-open old wounds and provoke bad feelings between those ethnic groups and Canada’s Jews. 

That’s probably why Mulroney gave Deschênes an excessively narrow mandate. 

He limited the Commission’s scope, and would not allow it to consult Soviet and Eastern European archives. Diaspora groups in Canada insisted such evidence would be unreliable. 

In the wake of the Hunka affair, B’nai Brith Canada is again calling on the government to open “all Holocaust-related records to the public”.

“Canadians,” the Jewish organization says, “deserve to know the full extent to which Nazi war criminals were permitted to settle in this country after the war.”

For his part, Matas underscored his point by citing Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana. 

In the very first years of the 20th century, Santayana undertook an ambitious project of the sort that has since become unfashionable. He attempted to write an all-encompassing, comprehensive philosophy, in the grand tradition of Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Hegel.

Santayana called his four-volume effort The Life of Reason. The first volume is Reason in Common Sense, and the last line of that book is:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Politicians often like associating themselves with common sense – or, as they say more poetically, in French, “le gros bon sens”. Pierre Poilievre did that at last month’s Conservative convention.

Well, one philosopher whom few, sadly, read today, has some common-sense wisdom for today’s Canadian parliamentarians. 

Will they heed that advice?

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...