Thursday, July 07, 2005

Antisemitic native leader must forfeit honour

This is a sad story. It concerns a native leader who received one of Canada's highest honours, but has now has fallen into disgrace for making brazenly antisemitic comments.

(I should briefly comment on the awkward problem of politically correct terminology. In the USA, the term "Indian" is still in common use. In Canada, the preferred term is "First Nation" but "Indian" is still the correct designation in legal contexts. News media typically use "native".)

The Assembly of First Nations summarizes the achievements of David Ahenakew:
He served in the Canadian Armed forces for 16 years prior to entering First Nations politics. Mr. Ahenakew was leader of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations for 10 years. He served as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations from 1982 to 1985.
(The Assembly of First Nations is a national organization with considerable political clout.)

Mr. Ahenakew received one of Canada's highest honours in 1978, when he was made a Member of the Order of Canada. His troubles began on December 13, 2002, when he told a newspaper reporter
that the Jews were a "disease" and Hitler was trying to "clean up the world" when he "fried" six million of the "guys" during the Second World War.
Mr. Ahenakew was charged with willfully promoting hatred against an identifiable group. Three years later, during his trial, he was given an opportunity to show how much he had learned in the interim. The answer turned out to be, not much:
"So you still believe today, in 2005, that the Jewish people started the Second World War?" Crown prosecutor Brent Klause asked Ahenakew.

"Yes," he responded.
The Government of Canada has notified Mr. Ahenakew that he must forfeit his membership in the Order of Canada. According to Wednesday's Globe and Mail:

David Ahenakew will be stripped of his membership in the Order of Canada if he doesn't take the option to resign first, CBC's The National reported Wednesday. …

The order's advisory council sent the 71-year-old Mr. Akenakew a letter last week informing him it had begun the process of revoking his membership and offering him the option of resigning first, CBC reported.

The council has contemplated revoking Mr. Ahenakew's membership since 2003, when it issued a statement saying there would be no final decision on the status until after the conclusion of the legal case against him.

The case is expected to wrap up on Friday with a verdict from Saskatoon provincial court Judge Marty Irwin. Mr. Ahenakew faces a maximum of six months in jail or a $2,000 fine.

Doug Christie, Mr. Akenakew's lawyer, would not confirm the report.

"I can only say that Mr. Ahenakew will be speaking at a press conference on Friday about anything and everything. I have no business talking about it until then," he said Wednesday.

During his trial, Mr. Ahenakew blamed his inflammatory remarks on a recent doubling of medication for diabetes, being tired, and having two glasses of wine.

One would expect more sophistication from an individual who had served as a national First Nations leader for several years. Presumably David Ahenakew knows, first hand, what it is like to suffer racism. He should be able to recognize it wherever it appears, not only when his own people are targeted.

I'm not naive enough to be shocked by this case, but it is certainly sad and disappointing.

UPDATE, posted Friday at 4:30 p.m.

From today's Globe and Mail:

Aboriginal leader guilty of hate crime

Saskatoon — A defiant David Ahenakew lashed out at the Jewish community, the courts and the media Friday shortly after being convicted and fined for promoting hatred.

Mr. Ahenakew said he is convinced authorities decided to strip him of the Order of Canada before the court reached its verdict.

"This, of course, was the direct result of the pressure put on the (Governor General's) advisory committee by some of the Jewish community, including a letter-writing campaign and the lobbying by the Canadian Jewish Congress," he said at a news conference.

"If I'm forced to choose between freedom of speech and the Order of Canada, I chose free speech."

Mr. Ahenakew, 71, is currently a member of the Order of Canada, but on Thursday the Governor General's office confirmed it has begun the process of stripping him of that honour.

The former First Nations leader was found guilty of wilfully promoting hatred when he referred to Jews as "a disease" and justified the Holocaust in December 2002, a judge ruled earlier Friday.

Provincial court Judge Marty Irwin handed down his decision in a tiny courtroom packed with Ahenakew's supporters, members of the Jewish community and reporters.

He then imposed a $1,000 fine on Mr. Ahenakew.

"To suggest that any human being or group of human beings is a disease is to invite extremists to take action against them," the judge said.

Mr. Ahenakew addressed the court before he was sentenced.

"I am, of course, disappointed and at the same time very confused at what is justice and freedom in this country," he said. "I didn't mean to hurt people's feelings."

Later, during his news conference, Mr. Ahenakew, who was decorated for military service in the Second World War, said he wondered if the government would revoke those awards as well.

He also said Canada's aboriginal people have been victims of a foreign and hostile justice system.

"First Nations people have never received a fair trial in Canada's judicial system," he said.

He said he believes he is innocent, but will not appeal the verdict.

"The jails of our country are full of our people. My case was as much about racism against First Nations as it was about alleged racism against the Jewish community."

Mr. Ahenakew also attacked the media for its coverage of aboriginal Canadians.

I'd like to contrast Mr. Ahenakew's attitude with the response of Jewish bloggers to the bombings in London.

I've just read today's post at Kerckhoff Coffeehouse, by Dr. Bean. I am struck by the last sentence, "You [residents of London] make us proud. We grieve with you. We will not forget this."

More than any other group, the Jews have been victims of terrorism. The Londoners are not Jewish, but that's irrelevant to Dr. Bean. He expresses solidarity with their suffering. He abhors what was done to them. He admires their courage in the face of a cowardly but terrifying attack.

This is how Mr. Ahenakew should respond to antisemitism. He knows what racism looks like; he knows what it feels like to be a victim. But instead of expressing solidarity with the victims of antisemitism, he has turned on them in a racist attack of his own. Now, after his conviction, he is hiding behind the misfortunes of First Nations individuals to try to garner sympathy.

I agree with Jack's comment (posted before the update): "every group has its own share of fools." In other words, Mr. Ahenakew is not representative of his people — not with respect to his antisemitism.

So maybe I've devoted too much space to this story. But it presents an opportunity to make a serious point, and I needn't hesitate to make an example of Mr. Ahenakew.

He plainly deserves the criticism he is receiving.


At 12:44 PM, July 08, 2005, Blogger Jack's Shack said...

There are far too many stories like this. The one thing that I know for certain is that every group has its own share of fools.

At 4:14 PM, July 08, 2005, Blogger Mary P. said...

Fool is right. Even amongst anti-Semites, surely those who claim that "Jews started the war" are the lunatic fringe? What would you call the lunatic fringe of a racist element?

At 5:09 PM, July 08, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

You'll note that I've quoted your comment in my update.

Mary P.:
Mr. Ahenakew may be on the lunatic fringe, but unfortunately he's not alone in his views.

At 3:00 AM, July 11, 2005, Blogger Jack's Shack said...

Hi Q,

Yes, I noticed that. I hope that we will find a happier story to quote me on. :)


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