Last week’s revelation of a former Nazi soldier getting a standing ovation in the House was the final nail in the coffin of a bad political season for the Liberal leader.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on October 2, 2023.
OTTAWA—Aestas horribilis. Horrible summer.
That is all that can be said about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s attempt to reboot the agenda with a cabinet shuffle, new faces and a fresh parliamentary look.
Last week’s disastrous revelation of a former Nazi soldier getting a standing ovation in the House of Commons was simply the final nail in the coffin of a bad political season for the Liberal leader.
It is true that the prime minister was not responsible for the invitation to a former member of the Ukrainian 1st Galician division, a unit of the Nazi war machine.
That decision was the sole responsibility of the former speaker Anthony Rota.
Rota received a request from his constituency to have the war veteran at the parliamentary event welcoming Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenksy on Sept. 22.
The visit was supposed to showcase support for the Ukrainian effort to defend itself against the illegal invasion by Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Instead, it has become a tool for Putin’s false claim that his attack was really a defence against the Nazification of neighbouring Ukraine.
All Canadians were shocked to learn of veteran Yaroslav Hunka’s military record. The only person more shocked than the prime minister was Speaker Anthony Rota, who was forced to resign as pressure mounted following the revelation of the veteran’s Nazi status.
On Sept. 25, the New Democratic Party was the first to call for the speaker’s resignation. They were joined later in the day by the Bloc Québécois, and followed the next morning by several Liberal cabinet ministers, and ultimately by Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre.
Poilievre expressed his views on Rota’s status via X (formerly Twitter).
But he spent the whole of Question Period blaming the debacle on the prime minister. Even though Rota told the House that it was his decision and his alone to invite and recognize his constituent, Poilievre laid the whole mess at the prime minister’s feet.
Poilievre repeated his false claim that it was up to the prime minister’s security people to vet all visitors to the parliamentary gallery.
In reality, all Members of Parliament are entitled to issue invitations to their own personal guest list, and that list is not vetted by the government.
Trudeau argued during Question Period that to follow Poilievre’s logic, the government would have to sign off on all parliamentary visitors, which would be a breach of the separation that exists between government and Parliament.
But the opposition leader has made it his personal mission to make Trudeau wear the mess that Poilievre has characterized as “the worst diplomatic embarrassment” in Canadian history.
All other leaders appear to have accepted Trudeau’s explanation that, as leader of the government, he has no authority over the visitors invited to Parliament.
It remains to be seen how the public will view the personalized nature of the attacks by the leader of the opposition.
Most are probably as confused as Members of Parliament who had no idea they were offering multiple standing ovations to a veteran who fought against the Allies in the Second World War.
It seems complicated but is likely the egregious mistake of an overzealous constituency assistant who responded to a community request to attend the session.
As House speaker, Rota was not involved in any aspects of the Liberal government activity. But he also runs for re-election, and as such, his role as the speaker offers an opportunity to invite constituents to Ottawa for major parliamentary events like the opening of the House and international visits by dignitaries.
The role of the Speaker in the House of Commons is sacrosanct. They are the leader of the place, and no one, including the prime minister, has the power to edit their speeches or guest list.
Poilievre’s approach is to lay the blame squarely on the prime minister’s shoulders.
In a proposal to the House operations committee, a Conservative committee member suggested a list of invitees to a proposed review committee that, curiously, excluded the speaker.
That approach may not be parliamentary, but the Tory intention is to damage Trudeau and his government, and facts do not matter in this mission statement.
Poilievre’s aggression may cause some backlash from the public. In the meantime, it is Trudeau who is feeling the pain from the commencement to a fall session that is as acrimonious as Poilievre.
Following her new appointment this summer, Government House Leader Karina Gould vowed to lower the temperature during Question Period by restoring a sense of civility to the institution.
But the first parliamentary week continued to be an aestas horribilis.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.