John Ivison: Ignorance of our history comes back to haunt Ottawa

Who did our MPs think they were applauding? The lack of historical literacy among the current generation of lawmakers in particular is distressing

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It is entirely appropriate that Justin Trudeau has issued a formal apology to Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Jewish communities around the world for the grave diplomatic humiliation of paying tribute to a Nazi in the House of Commons, even as the Ukrainian president struggles to kill the myth that Nazism is rampant in his nation’s politics and society.

Trudeau has absented himself from the scene of the crime, rather like T.S. Eliot’s mystery cat Macavity, distancing himself from the whole incident until his statement before question period on Wednesday.

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Two days earlier, Trudeau noted that Speaker of the House, Anthony Rota, had acknowledged his mistake and called it “deeply embarrassing to the Parliament of Canada.”

But he did not apologize on behalf of the nation, apparently failing to recognize that the episode is being seen around the world as a stain on Canada’s reputation.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre accused Trudeau of “hiding in his cottage for three days.”

That lapse has at least now been rectified.

Trudeau said Rota has accepted his responsibility and stepped down, but said it remains “a horrendous violation of the memory of the millions of people who died in the Holocaust.”

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The prime minister said he is deeply sorry “on behalf of all of us in this House” that the incident put President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a difficult situation and said it is troubling to think that “this egregious error” is being politicized by Russia.

It was an overdue apology, even if it was not good enough for Poilievre who called on Trudeau to make a personal apology for the “monumental, unprecedented global shame.”

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The fallout has been ruinous to Canada’s reputation, regardless of who screwed up to allow Yaroslav Hunka into the chamber. Russia’s propaganda machine has produced a fabricated image of a stamp with Hunka’s face superimposed over a photo of Zelenskyy in the Canadian House of Commons, which it claims is being sold by Ukrainian Post. The Russian embassy in the U.K. called on the British government to condemn “this display of Nazism.”

What remains unanswered is how the entire House of Commons rose as one to recognize an old soldier who fought against the Soviets without anyone wondering who he fought for.

It is rare that Vladimir Putin’s chief fabulist Dmitry Peskov stumbles over the truth, but his comment on the standing ovation given to a Nazi in the Canadian House of Commons was on the money.

“Many Western countries, Canada included, have raised a young generation that does not know who fought whom, or what happened during the Second World War. And they know nothing about the threat of fascism,” he said.

He’s right, even if thanks to his criminal boss they do know the perils of present-day corrupt, repressive dictatorships.

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But the lack of historical literacy among the current generation of lawmakers in particular is distressing.

Rota, the departing Speaker, called 98-year-old Hunka “a Ukrainian hero, a Canadian hero” for fighting against Stalin in the Second World War.

But Stalin was on our side.

Who did they think he was fighting for? There was a Ukrainian Insurgent Army of nationalists who fought against the Nazis, the Soviets and the Poles. But it was accused of its own atrocities against Poles in Galicia, was charged with participating in the Holocaust, and by 1944 was allied with the Germans.

Even if he had been nationalist partisan, Hunka’s past would have been extremely murky.

In reality, not only was he a member of the Waffen Grenadier Division, having pledged his allegiance to Adolf Hitler, he apparently had no regrets, saying in a 2011 blog published by Ukrainian veterans that his time in the Waffen SS “were the two happiest years of my life.”

Who did our MPs think they were applauding?

Scottish historian Niall Ferguson put it well when he said the biggest threat to western culture is posed not by other civilizations but by our own timidity — “and by the historical ignorance that feeds it.”

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In Ferguson’s eyes it is important for our cultural identity not to lose sight of our history. In this case, Canada needs to come to terms with the fact that it allowed many Nazis into the country. The entire SS was declared a criminal organization at the Nuremberg trials but the Canadian Deschenes commission in the 1980s said membership in the Waffen SS was not in itself a war crime. B’nai Brith has called for the government to fully open the Deschenes commission report, the second volume of which was never released. The attendant publicity may help ensure that more people are aware about the horrors that transpired in the countries caught between Hitler and Stalin, what historian Timothy Snyder called the “bloodlands.”

The provinces have their own cases to answer for in the way that history is taught in school, but the tone is set by the federal government. And this government has made clear its preferences.

Earlier this year, it unveiled its plan for the new passport, removing images from Canada’s history like the Vimy Ridge Memorial and replacing them with images that reflect Canada’s diversity, inclusiveness, wildlife and environment.

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Karina Gould, the minister responsible, said the images that were replaced were “fairly traditional.” “(But) if you look at the polar bears, people jumping into a lake and birds in winter, I mean it really captures the spirit of who we are as Canadians.”

The Royal Canadian Legion disagreed, saying the Vimy image was a “defining moment for Canada — a country emerging as an independent nation with limitless potential.”

But it is entirely typical of a hubristic government that lacks bench strength and historical memory, and which keeps making age-old mistakes for the first time.

Canadians who don’t learn about Vimy Ridge or the Battle of the Scheldt may as well have been born yesterday. And as historian Howard Zinn said, if you were born yesterday, then any leader can tell you anything.

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