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Family of man who fought in Nazi unit unaware Hunka would be honoured in Parliament, friend says

A longtime friend says the Hunka family was unaware 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka would be honoured in Parliament last week in front of Ukraine's president, setting off an international controversy. 

Barb Bonenfant, who lives in North Bay, Ont., told CBC News that Hunka's daughter-in-law sent her a message on Sunday after the public backlash began. 

"She said that her family was shocked at what happened," said Bonenfant. "If her and her husband would have had any idea what was going to happen, they would have never brought this 98-year-old man to Ottawa."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered "unreserved apologies" on Canada's behalf on Wednesday for parliamentarians giving a standing ovation without knowing the Ukrainian Second World War veteran fought for Nazi Germany. Trudeau called it an "egregious error" that "deeply embarrassed Parliament and Canada." 

Trudeau also said Canada reached out to Kyiv through diplomatic channels to apologize to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Hunka's local MP Anthony Rota first apologized on Sunday and again in the House of Commons on Tuesday when he tendered his resignation as Speaker. Rota said he was unaware of Hunka's past after it came to light he served with the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS. 

A sign on the side of the road says "Anthony Rota, MP." A truck is driving in the background.
An Anthony Rota sign is displayed on the side of the road in North Bay, Ont. Rota resigned as speaker Wednesday after he invited a Ukrainian Second World War veteran fought for Nazi Germany to Canada's Parliament. (Olivier Hyland/CBC)

The Speaker's office has said Hunka's "son contacted Rota's constituency office and asked if it would be possible for Mr. Hunka to attend the address in the House of Commons by Mr. Zelenskyy." The Speaker's office said it accepted this request.

Rota's constituency's office policy is to forward all invitations to the speaker's office. The Speaker's office won't say who wrote Rota's speech. 

In light of the uproar, B'nai Brith Canada and the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies are reiterating longstanding calls for the federal government declassify secret documents about Nazi war criminals in Canada.

This week, Immigration Minister Marc Miller said Canada "has a really dark history with Nazis in Canada" and could revisit demands to release documents.

Reaction in North Bay

CBC News traveled to North Bay, Ont., this week where shock waves from the political controversy are being felt in Rota and Hunka's home town. 

"The family is in hiding here in North Bay," Bonenfant said. "I'm sure [they're] afraid to show their faces." 

A woman stands in front of a china cabinet.
North Bay, Ont., resident Barb Bonenfant said Yaroslav Hunka's daughter-in-law sent her a message on Sunday saying their family was in 'shock.' "They just thought he would be in the same room as the [Ukrainian] president,' said Bonenfant. 'They didn't know that he would be brought to attention. (Olivier Hyland/CBC)

Larry Fuld is a North Bay resident who is part of the city's small Jewish community. He lost family members in the Holocaust. Fuld said the words "Nazi" and "SS" conjure up horrible imagery — and deservedly so. 

Fuld said Rota called him on Sunday to personally apologize. 

"He explained that he made a mistake and that Mr. Hunka was introduced to parliament and his background was unknown," said Fuld. "And he regrets the situation, he regrets any pain or discomfort that he's caused to the Jewish community."

Fuld said he accepted the apology. He said he told Rota he knows there was no intended malice.

Fuld said he met Rota about 20 years ago at a synagogue fundraiser, adding that he's a "staunch supporter of Israel." 

"I think it's just very unfortunate that this lapse of investigation and protocol has got us to where we are today," he said. 

Fuld said he doesn't personally know the Hunka family, but does know that Yaroslav Hunka's son, Martin Hunka, is a "well respected member of our community" who has been very philanthropic. 

A man stands on a dock.
North Bay resident Larry Fuld said he accepted his MP Anthony Rota's apology. Fuld lost family in the Holocaust and said how this whole situation has unfolded is 'very unfortunate on so many levels.' (Olivier Hyland/CBC)

Before retiring, Yaroslav Hunka was the CFO at Redpath Mining, a major employer in North Bay. He was also the chair of the North Bay Hospital Foundation, but is no longer named on the hospital's website.

The Hunka family received a request for an interview from CBC News on Thursday and has not yet responded. 

Bonenfant said she's known the Hunka family for more than 30 years and they have a reputation in North Bay for "their integrity." She described them as a "honest, kind, helping family."

All she knew about Yaroslav Hunka, Bonenfant said, is that he's a "proud Ukrainian" who supported Zelenskky's fight against Russia. 

The Hunka family did not know in advance that Rota would honour him during his speech or call him a "hero," said Bonenfant. "They just thought he would be in the same room as the president."

Fuld said he supports Jewish groups' calls for an investigation into Hunka's past for "everybody's sake."

"Either he should be exonerated and we should know he came here properly and there's nothing in the background; or we should find out that there is and the proper authorities will deal with it," said Fuld.

Residents say Trudeau should share some blame

In North Bay, many members of the community told CBC News they felt Rota made a significant mistake and was right to step down, but felt he shouldn't have shouldered the blame alone. 

Three men sit in the House of Commons.
Yaroslav Hunka, right, waits for the arrival of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the House of Commons on Sept. 22. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau later apologized for Parliament’s recognition of Hunka, who fought in a Nazi unit during last week’s address by Ukraine's president. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press)

Residents Hana and Ivan Srut said the Prime Minister should have taken more responsibility.

"If your soldiers make a mistake, the general is responsible," said Ivan Strut of Trudeau. "The general should bear the responsibility for his soldiers. And this is the case that he should be the one that maybe steps away as well."

The couple fled Czechoslovakia in 1968, they said, because of the Russians and started a new life in Canada. They ran a local restaurant for decades that's now closed. Hunka and Rota separately dined there and the Struts said they were regulars and good customers. 

They said they didn't know about Hunka's military experience. 

The Sruts question why parliament's protocol office doesn't go beyond a criminal record check when allowing guests in parliament during a world leader's visit. They also question why Hunka was allowed to live in Canada in the first place. They said it's the "entire system's" fault. 

A man and a woman face stand in front of a brick building.
North Bay residents Hana and Ivan Srut said they know Yaroslav Hunka because he dined at their former restaurant, but didn't know about his military past. 'He was coming as a customer he was not telling us any of his life stories,' said Ivan Srut. (Olivier Hyland/CBC)

'Why are potential war criminals living here?'

Political science professor David Tabachnick at Nipissing University said North Bay isn't a natural Liberal riding, but people voted for Rota because of his deep roots as an MP, former city councillor, businessman and his work at his university.

Those who know Rota personally "think it's a terrible shame" what unfolded, but understand and "accept the nature of the resignation," said Tabachnick.

WATCH / PM apologizes for Parliament's tribute to man who fought in Nazi unit: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized for Parliament's tribute to a man who fought for the Nazis in the Second World War. But for some the words don't go far enough, and for others, it needs to be followed by action.

"Why are war criminals or potential war criminals living here in Canada as members of our immigrant community?" said Tabachnick. "This is the larger story and I think quite eye opening to many members that really don't know about this history."

The Hunka family is a "fairly well known" in the community, Tabachnick said, and some have played prominent roles in business, charity and fundraising.

"Many members of the community are very surprised this person is associated with this past," he said. "What actually he did, we do not know."

"Not only is Anthony Rota's reputation damaged, this family's reputation is damaged. We might not feel very sympathetic for a former member of the SS unit, but he has children, and grandchildren, friends and family here in the community that many of them probably did not know his past."