By Fakiha Baig in North Bay
Allan Hirsh sits on a lawn chair on a cool fall evening in North Bay, Ont., pondering the mixed emotions he’s been feeling since his community made international headlines.
The northeastern Ontario city is the current home to a man who was honoured with a standing ovation in the House of Commons during a visit from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiyy, but whose presence in Parliament later caused global outrage and embarrassment when details emerged about his past as a Nazi soldier during the second World War.
Hirsh says he can understand the pain many are feeling after Yaroslav Hunka’s reception in the House, noting his own ancestors fled persecution by the Russian Empire for practising Judaism during 17th-century pogroms and many of his loved ones lost relatives and friends during the Holocaust.
But Hirsh and other city residents say they are shocked to hear their long-time Member of Parliament Anthony Rota resigned as House Speaker over his choice to invite and recognize Hunka, questioning why he has faced sole blame for the debacle.
“I always think about that history and the Holocaust and everything that happened there always makes me emotional,” the 75-year-old retired psychotherapist said in an interview.
“But … am I angry at Anthony Rota? No. This is not something that he did intentionally. …Oddly enough, it’s Anthony that I’m feeling for.”
Hirsh says Rota is well-known in his community after spending 16 years as MP for the Nipissing-Timiskaming riding where North Bay is located.
He was first elected in 2004 and has served ever since except for a four-year break when he lost his seat in 2011, and Hirsh has been among those that voted for him.
Rota became House Speaker in 2019 and cemented a reputation for fairness and integrity across party lines.
But on Sept. 22, shortly after Zelenskyy’s address to Parliament, Rota introduced Hunka as a Ukrainian Second World War veteran who lives in his riding.
Rota described the 98-year-old as both a Ukrainian and Canadian hero, prompting a standing ovation from members of all parties. It later emerged that Hunka had fought the Soviet Union in Ukraine with the Waffen-SS Galicia Division, a voluntary unit created by the Nazis that Jewish groups say “was responsible for the mass murder of innocent civilians with a level of brutality and malice that is unimaginable.”
Calls for Rota’s resignation as House Speaker poured in from all sides, including some senior Liberal cabinet ministers, and Rota stepped down from the role effective Wednesday.
Hirsh and other residents feel their MP was “thrown under the bus.”
“We were so proud of his career when he became a speaker. He’s done, I thought, a good job. He serves his constituents. He apologized for that mistake. To see this happen to him, it’s really, really sad,” Hirsh said.
Since then, the Conservatives have brought a motion to the government operations committee to summon the RCMP, parliamentary security and officials from the Prime Minister’s Office to study how Hunka made his way from North Bay to Ottawa.
Hirsh isn’t the only one processing complex feelings dredged up by the week’s events.
Karrie Emms, a local business owner, says she has been thinking a lot about when and how the city she has been living in for 35 years welcomed someone like Hunka.
“We know that we never know a true or full story for somebody so I would be interested in finding out what (Hunka’s) story actually is,” she said.
“I want to know more but not necessarily to hold them accountable … Mr. Rota is very well known and everyone knows he is from North Bay so it’s going to be a bit of an issue to overcome.”
She, too, questions why Rota has borne sole responsibility for the scandal.
“I know they’ve apologized but nobody else has lost their jobs over it that I know of,” she said, referencing the apology Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered on Wednesday. “I find that a little disheartening.”
Emms, who works with youth, says there is one silver lining — Canadians of all stripes, including young people in North Bay, are now taking time to educate themselves on eastern European history.
Fellow city resident George Maroosis says he was shocked to learn that Hunka lives in North Bay.
“It’s very unfortunate,” he said while working at his downtown North Bay business.
“My big question is if the Jewish community knew who this guy was and what his background was, where was our so-called intelligence agency that could have warned as to what the situation was with this particular individual.”
After inquiring about Hunka at an assisted living home in North Bay, a Canadian Press reporter was asked to leave the property immediately, and one employee said they were prepared to call the police.
Another employee later said Hunka had lived at the home, but has since moved in with his family.
Hirsh says as political parties try to determine more details of Hunka’s visit to Parliament, he hopes the discourse remains respectful.
“(We need to look into) the nuances of everything that happened,” he said.
“It’s messy. There’s nothing black and white.”
Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fakiha Baig
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 30, 2023.