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One Miss Is All It Takes
Nominally small staff errors can bring down titans
Yesterday’s resignation of House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota is historically awkward, with no previous Speaker having resigned in Canada’s history, and is a textbook example of how quickly things can go sideways in politics. Even long and distinguished political careers are always only one misstep away from an early and ungraceful end.
One can imagine the process that resulted in the Speaker’s disastrous decision to honour a former Nazi SS soldier in the Parliamentary gallery in honour of the Jewish leader of Ukraine who was there to shore up military support to defend the country from invasion by Russia.
The same Russia, it should be noted, that was our ally at the time of the soldier’s military service, in spite of having split Poland in two with Nazi Germany, each invading from opposite sides, and resulting in the western allies declaring war on Germany due to their invasion of Poland from the west, but not on Russia, in spite of their nearly simultaneous invasion of Poland from the east.
The Galician division in question was created by the Nazi leadership to have Aryan-looking Ukrainian-speaking volunteers whose territory had been annexed by Poland in the prior Polish-Ukrainian war fight the Russian invaders on behalf of their German invaders.
Clear as mud, right? But the bottom line was that the Galician division that Yaroslav Hunka belonged to was a volunteer division of the Waffen SS, the armed militia of the Nazi party, not your average wartime conscripts.
Fast forward to the preparations for last week’s ceremony when someone, somewhere, presented to the Speaker the idea that there was a Ukrainian veteran who had fought a previous Russian invasion living in his riding, and that there was an obvious opportunity to honour him as part of President Zelenskyy’s speech to Parliament. Sounds good, signs off a busy Speaker, as the die is cast for this week’s events.
September 21st, 2023 comes along. Zelenskyy makes an impassioned speech. And as part of his extensive remarks in reply, the Speaker says:
“We have here in the chamber today a Ukrainian Canadian war veteran from the Second World War who fought for Ukrainian independence against the Russians and continues to support the troops today even at his age of 98. His name is Yaroslav Hunka. I am very proud to say that he is from North Bay and from my riding of Nipissing—Timiskaming. He is a Ukrainian hero and a Canadian hero, and we thank him for all his service. Thank you.”
As those familiar with wartime history pondered under which army a Ukrainian veteran may have been fighting our ally, the Russians, in World War Two and came to the obvious answer, the brief comment in the House became a firestorm, resulting in an apology in the House by the Speaker on Monday and his resignation on Tuesday effective today. In his Monday comments is this one tidbit, emphasis mine:
“I would also like to add that this initiative was entirely my own, the individual in question being from my riding and having been brought to my attention.”
MPs, Ministers, Speakers, opposition leaders, corporate leaders, and numerous others rely on the quality of the information they are given, and on assurance that appropriate research and vetting would take place, before any kind of public statement is made. For most in public office, there is an implicit trust between the office holder and their team that such mistakes will not be made.
Hunka’s profile, prior to last Thursday, was low. That Poland is now seeking to extradite him only after learning about him through this controversy, and that it turns out there’s a monument commemorating his Waffen SS unit in an Oakville cemetery, is a testament to how an average staffer’s quick Google search vetting might have failed.
In spite of public comments by the opposition with a political axe to grind, further vetting of gallery guests for an event such as this is surprisingly limited, with security looking for immediate existential danger rather than historical records or political context. Gallery guests go through two layers of airport-style security, after all. A 98 year old veteran invited by the Speaker wouldn’t raise a lot of red flags.
At the end of the day, Speaker Rota is the one to have made the statement of recognition, and while the chances of him identifying and preventing the error in advance were low, it ultimately was his responsibility.
That’s all it takes to end a distinguished political career.