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Exclusive: Canada apologizes for honoring another veteran from unit that fought with Nazis

The representative of King Charles III in Canada expressed ‘deep regret’ for giving elite awards to Peter Savaryn, the former chancellor of the University of Alberta who served with SS Galichina during World War II.

Canada’s governor general apologized Tuesday afternoon for awarding one of the country’s highest honors to a Ukrainian immigrant who served in the same Nazi unit during World War II as the 98-year-old who was honored last month in the Canadian Parliament, an incident which sparked international outrage.

The statement from the governor general —  the representative of the British monarchy in Canada — concerned Peter Savaryn, who served as chancellor of the University of Alberta from 1982 to 1986 and in 1987 was appointed to the Order of Canada. The award is akin to the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, and is considered the second-highest distinction for Canadians, topped only by the Order of Merit available to all citizens of the British Commonwealth. 

Responding to an inquiry from the Forward, the statement from Governor General Mary Simon expressed “deep regret” about Savaryn’s appointment. A spokesperson said the office is also now reviewing two other honors it gave Savaryn: the Golden Jubilee (awarded in 2002) and Diamond Jubilee (awarded in 2012) medals.  

Savaryn’s background has come under new scrutiny since the Forward was the first news organization to reveal the background of Yaroslav Hunka, the veteran given a standing ovation in Parliament during the Sept. 22 visit of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. 

The story led to the resignation of House Speaker Anthony Rota, who had invited Hunka to Parliament; an apology from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; and a reckoning over Canada’s dark past welcoming Nazis and Nazi collaborators after the end of World War II. 

Savaryn has already been caught in the wake of Canada’s Hunka scandal; after the Forward’s coverage of the University of Alberta’s endowments honoring both him and Hunka, the university announced it was returning the money given by Hunka’s family and is investigating Savaryn’s endowment as well as several others in honor of SS Galichina fighters. 

Hunka and Savaryn were both volunteers in the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, commonly known as SS Galichina or the Galicia Division. The unit, which was formed in 1943 out of recruits from the Galicia region in western Ukraine, was armed and trained by the Third Reich, and commanded by German SS officers. It is accused of war crimes, including burning alive 500 to 1,000 Poles in 1944. 

Hunka and Savaryn were among the 2,000 or so SS Galichina fighters allowed to start new lives in Canada despite their Nazi past. 

Other Order of Canada honorees include hockey legends Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Sidney Crosby; filmmaker James Cameron; author Margaret Atwood; singer Joni Mitchell; and Gen. Roméo Dallaire, known for trying to prevent the Rwandan genocide in 1994. 

Non-Canadian citizens granted honorary membership include freedom fighters such as South African President Nelson Mandela and Václav Havel, the hero of Czech resistance who became president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. 

Membership in the Order of Canada is only effective during the honoree’s lifetime, so Savaryn, who died in 2017, cannot have his award rescinded. 

The Constitution of the Order of Canada terminates an individual’s membership to the Order upon their death and does not allow to retroactively revoke appointments of deceased persons,” the Governor General’s office said in the statement. “The Chancellery is committed to working with Canadians to ensure our honours system is reflective of Canadian values.  

“Historical appointments to the Order of Canada reflect a specific moment in time and would have been based on limited information sources available at that time.”

The Governor General had previously condemned the Hunka scandal as “a shock and an embarrassment.”

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