House Speaker Anthony Rota resigns over Nazi veteran invite with 'profound regret'
Anthony Rota has resigned from his prestigious position as Speaker of the House of Commons over his invitation to, and the House's subsequent recognition of, a man who fought for a Nazi unit during the Second World War.
Rota announced his unprecedented decision to step aside after meeting with the House leaders from all parties on Parliament Hill Tuesday afternoon. His move comes amid days of steadily growing pressure from MPs of all stripes for him to "do the honourable thing" and vacate the Speaker's chair.
"The work of this House is above any of us. Therefore, I must step down as your Speaker,” Rota said, adding he was making the announcement with a "heavy heart" and that serving as House Speaker has been his "greatest honour."
The incident that led to this historic scene unfolding in the House of Commons took place during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's address to Parliament last Friday.
Following Zelenskyy’s remarks, Rota drew the room’s attention to a man in the viewing gallery that he described as “a Ukrainian Canadian war veteran … who fought for Ukrainian independence against the Russians” and “a Canadian hero, and we thank him for all his service,” prompting a standing ovation. It then came to light over the weekend that 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka was a Ukrainian veteran who fought in a volunteer unit under Nazi command.
Rota apologized first on Sunday, and then again to all MPs Monday, taking full responsibility for the mistake, and for not being aware until after the controversy exploded of his constituent’s historic involvement with the Waffen-SS Galicia Division.
"I have acted as your humble servant of this House, carrying out the important responsibilities of this position to the very best of my abilities," Rota said in his resignation speech. "I reiterate my profound regret for my error. ... That public recognition has caused pain to individuals and communities, including the Jewish community in Canada and around the world."
Rota's departure will be in effect as of the end of the sitting day Wednesday, to allow preparations for the election of a new Speaker. In the meantime, the deputy Speakers will share responsibility for chairing House proceedings.
His decision to resign was met with applause in the chamber.
NDP House Leader Peter Julian, who was the first to call for Rota to resign on Monday, thinks Rota did "exactly the right thing" in putting the institution first.
"It's a sad day, of course, but the reality is he made the right decision," Julian told reporters in the foyer following Rota's remarks. "Parliament has been tarnished and so many people have been hurt by what happened."
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
The rules of the House of Commons require the Speaker—who is responsible for administrative matters as well as maintaining order and upholding members privileges—to operate outside of partisan lines and at all times "show, and be seen to show, the impartiality required to sustain the trust and goodwill of the House."
Rota, who has represented the Northern Ontario riding of Nipissing-Timiskaming as a Liberal since 2004, was first elected as Speaker in 2019. He was re-elected as the 37th Speaker of the House at the outset of the 44th Parliament, on Nov. 22, 2021, stating then that he'd treasure the "confidence" MPs had placed in him for the rest of his life, promising to be "fair and respectful."
The job comes with a $92,800 top-up—the same amount a minister receives—on the base $194,600 MP salary, along with an official residence called The Farm in Kingsmere, a community within Chelsea, Que.
It was there that Rota was scheduled to host a pre-scheduled garden party on Tuesday night, which with the announcement of his resignation, was swiftly cancelled.
According to the latest edition of the House of Commons Procedure and Practice, only two of the 36 speakers elected since Confederation were elected mid-session. In 1899, it was because the Speaker died while in office, and then in 1984 a replacement was needed because the Speaker resigned to become governor general.
Now that Rota has resigned—a historic and extremely rare occurrence—the House will be thrust into a secret-ballot election of his replacement. Precisely how and when this will unfold is still developing.
It's expected that once Rota's resignation is in-effect, when MPs convene on Thursday, the process to select a new House Speaker will get underway.
Typically, at the start of any Parliament, all MPs except for ministers and party leaders are eligible and automatically considered candidates for the role. If an MP doesn't want to be considered, they have to inform the House of Commons to remove their name from the list.
Since a rule change was made in 2015, the election of the Speaker is done by a secret and ranked ballot vote. This means the only information that will be made public at the end of the process is the name of the winner, not how many ballots it took, or by how many votes they won. Before the vote, each candidate has five minutes to make their case. Then, after a 30-minute break for any final lobbying, the voting begins.
MPs receive their ballots from a House clerk and then cast their votes behind the curtains. House officials will then count the votes and if no one candidate secures more than an absolute majority on the first ballot, the candidate with the fewest is eliminated and the votes they received are then redistributed to the second choice on those ballots. This continues until one person receives more than half of the votes.
Once the winner is named, they will be invited to take the chair. Traditionally, they are ushered up by the prime minister and Official Opposition leader, and the new Speaker is to display some degree of ceremonial resistance to walk up, given the role in the past was one MPs were actually reluctant to take.
The deputy and assistant deputy speakers are typically then named in subsequent days and generally are decided upon by consensus amongst the party leaders, but given there are existing MPs in these roles, it's unclear how this would work mid-session.
RESIGNATION FOLLOWS ALL-PARTY PRESSURE
On Tuesday morning, senior Liberal cabinet ministers and Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre joined the NDP and Bloc Quebecois in indicating they'd felt that Rota lost the confidence needed to continue in the role due to what they described as the deep embarrassment he'd caused Parliament and Canada.
While earlier on Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would not comment on whether he still had confidence in Rota, he spoke about the need to "ensure the dignity of the House going forward."
The prime minister’s office has said the federal Liberal government had no advanced notice that Hunka would be present, as he was a guest of the Speaker and the list of attendees was not shared, per parliamentary protocol.
Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly was the first cabinet minister to publicly call for Rota to "listen to members of the House and step down."
"What happened on Friday is completely unacceptable. It was an embarrassment to the House and to Canadians," Joly said.
After fielding all of the opposition questions on the controversy in the chamber on Monday, stopping short then of asking for Rota to resign, Government House Leader Karina Gould changed her tune Tuesday.
"Look, I think given what happened on Friday ... I can't see based on the conversations that I've had that he will continue to have the support of Liberal members of Parliament," Gould said.
"I think it's time for him to do the honourable thing."
While the Conservatives have centred their condemnation of there being "a Nazi in the chamber" and the impact this international incident has had on Canada’s reputation on Trudeau, Poilievre joined the chorus calling for Rota to resign on Tuesday.
Poilievre said that even if Rota stepped down, it would not excuse "Justin Trudeau's failure to have his massive diplomatic and intelligence apparatus vet and prevent honouring a Nazi." That line of attack continued in question period on Tuesday, following Rota's resignation.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called for Trudeau to come forward with a plan to remedy the negative impact this international headline-grabbing incident has had.
After Jewish community and advocacy groups initially called for, and received, an apology, the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center joined the calls for Rota to step down. They are now imploring the Procedure and House Affairs Committee to launch public hearings to investigate the vetting failures and measures needed to ensure a similar incident does not happen again.
"Speaker Rota's decision … has left a stain on our country's venerable legislature with profound implications both in Canada and globally," said the organization in a statement on Tuesday.
"This incident has compromised all 338 members of Parliament and has also handed a propaganda victory to Russia, distracting from what was a momentously significant display of unity between Canada and Ukraine. It has also caused great pain to Canada's Jewish community, Holocaust survivors, veterans and other victims of the Nazi regime."