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MPs bicker over how to study Parliament's recognition of former Nazi SS soldier

OTTAWA — Bickering over politics and procedure is getting in the way of efforts to have a House of Commons committee investigate how a man who fought with a Nazi unit was lauded as a hero in Canada's Parliament.

OTTAWA — Bickering over politics and procedure is getting in the way of efforts to have a House of Commons committee investigate how a man who fought with a Nazi unit was lauded as a hero in Canada's Parliament.

While all parties appear to agree a committee study is required, they differ on whom to blame: Liberal MP Anthony Rota, who resigned as Speaker after days of uproar over his choice to invite and recognize the man, or Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself.

The answer would determine which committee would pick up the probe into the events leading up to Yaroslav Hunka, 98, receiving a standing ovation in the House of Commons during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's Sept. 22 visit to Ottawa.

It later emerged that Hunka had fought in Ukraine during the Second World War with the Waffen-SS Galicia Division, a voluntary unit created by the Nazis to help fight off the Soviet Union.

The Conservatives brought a motion to the government operations committee on Thursday to summon the RCMP, parliamentary security and officials from the Prime Minister's Office to study what happened.

Alberta MP Stephanie Kusie, who introduced the motion, said it is a very "grave" situation and everyone needs answers.

"How in God's name did this occur?" she said. "We have an obligation that by God this never happens again."

Kusie's motion did not mention calling Rota or anyone from the Speaker's office. Rota resigned on Tuesday, after saying that he took sole responsibility for inviting Hunka, who lives in his northern Ontario riding, without having researched his history or letting anyone else know.

Kusie said she was open to adding Rota to the list, but by bringing the matter to the government operations committee and asking to hear from the PMO but not the Speaker's office, the Conservatives are signalling where they want the blame to lie.

"I don't think just laying it at the Speaker's feet is accurate," said Alberta Conservative Garnett Genuis.

The mandate of the government operations committee includes the activities of the PMO. The committee on procedure and House affairs, on the other hand, covers the activities of the House of Commons, which includes the Speaker and his office. The PMO and the House of Commons are independent from each other.

New Democrat Gord Johns and Bloc Québécois MP Julie Vignola both wanted the study sent to the procedure and House affairs committee.

While the Liberals on the committee remained mostly out of the debate, they voted in agreement with a motion by Vignola to adjourn debate over the motion put forward by Kusie.

Johns accused the Conservatives of "weaponizing" the incident for political gain, rather than truly wanting to figure out what vetting procedures were in place and how to prevent a repeat.

"We don't want to turn this into another partisan circus, which is what the Conservatives are wanting to do," he said. "They want to weaponize this and use a really hurtful and harmful issue and we want to fix the problem and correct it. To do that, it needs to go to the right place."

Johns moved a motion calling on the procedure and House affairs committee to launch its own study of the invitation and make it a priority. That motion ultimately passed, though it took more than half an hour of squabbling about the specific wording, including whether it would mention the former Speaker or the "Liberal government." 

The final decision was to mention neither, though the Liberals did finally weigh in to ask for the motion to specifically name the former Speaker as being responsible. 

"The words that 'it was caused by the Speaker' is the most accurate version of what transpired," said Ontario Liberal MP Irek Kusmierczyk.

Dozens of MPs have expressed horror that they applauded Hunka after Rota introduced him as "a Ukrainian hero and a Canadian hero" without knowing more details about his past.

Trudeau formally apologized on behalf of all MPs Wednesday afternoon, but has consistently said the invitation was Rota's responsibility alone and that neither he nor anyone in his office was informed ahead of time that Hunka was on the guest list.

Johns said he is not yet ready to say how the House should improve its vetting procedures, though it's clear they need to be fixed.

Liberal MP Anthony Housefather said in an interview that he thinks the simplest solution is that when Parliament is hosting a foreign leader, any guests who are going to be recognized publicly must undergo vetting that goes beyond physical security risks.

He said it wouldn't mean asking institutions such as the RCMP or CSIS to determine if someone can attend, but rather asking them to provide an MP with information about their proposed guest so the MP can decide if they should in fact be recognized.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 28, 2023.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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