TORONTO — A prominent leader of Canada’s aboriginal community has been found guilty of “willfully promoting hatred,” after he publicly called Jews a “disease” and defended Adolf Hitler for having “fried 6 million of those guys” to stop them from “owning the world.”
Last week, a trial judge in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, found David Ahenakew, 71, guilty of promoting hatred against an identifiable group and fined him $800.
Ahenakew made the remarks to a reporter following a conference in December 2002.
“To suggest that any human being or group of human beings is a disease is to invite extremists to take action against them,” said Saskatchewan provincial court judge Marty Irwin.
Since the verdict, Canada’s head of state has stripped Ahenakew, a former chief of the country’s 800,000-member aboriginal community, of the Order of Canada, the national honor that he was awarded in 1979 for his contribution to native life.
Ahenakew apologized to the Jewish community after making his original remarks. But during his four-day trial in April, he said that he stood by the comments.
After being convicted July 8, he told the court that his free-speech rights had been violated. Later he declared at a news conference that he would appeal the verdict.
The native leader also contended that pressure from a “powerful lobby” had set in motion the withdrawal of his Order of Canada. He claimed he was the victim of anti-aboriginal prejudice that had led to the “cultural genocide” of native people and made it impossible for him to receive a fair trial.
Frank Dimant, executive vice president of B’nai Brith Canada, praised the conviction. “It will send a message loud and clear that hate speech will not be tolerated, that there are consequences,” Dimant said. “The loss of the Order of Canada is another very strong message to Canadians. Both are very important.”
At the same time, Dimant expressed regret that Ahenakew was not given a “harsher sentence.” But, Dimant added, “sensitivities — because he is an aboriginal leader and tried to hide behind that fact — made it more difficult” for prosecutors to seek a tough sentence. The prosecution had recommended a fine of $1,600.
Dimant also faulted Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson, Canada’s ceremonial head of state, for not evicting Ahenakew from the Order immediately after he first made his anti-Jewish remarks. “She could have made a difference, and she chose not to,” Dimant said. “There was never any question about what he had said. That was not the issue, and it was not going to impact on a fair trial, which was one of the poor excuses advanced in the beginning” for not immediately revoking the honor.
Clarkson acted only after a vigorous advocacy campaign by Jewish groups and calls for action from some Jewish and non-Jewish Order of Canada recipients.
Some Jewish liberals have opposed the anti-hate provision of the Criminal Code on the ground that it abridges freedom of speech, but even liberals appeared pleased with Ahenakew’s conviction.
“Whether or not this law should be on the books in Canada is another question,” said Derek Penslar, director of the University of Toronto’s Jewish Studies Program. “But my sense is that what he said did meet the legal standard for hate speech. It’s completely unjustified for him to attribute the verdict to some sort of endemic prejudice against native Canadians or that this is a sign the Canadian legal system cannot provide justice for natives.”
At times during the trial, observers from the native and Jewish communities who packed the tiny courtroom engaged in heated exchanges. But Dimant dismissed the notion that Ahenakew’s disgrace has damaged Jewish-aboriginal relations. “He is not reflective of the aboriginal people of Canada at all,” Dimant said. “He is an abomination to them. I don’t believe there are any substantive aboriginal leaders in Canada who regard him as a martyr.”
Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Canada’s umbrella native organization, condemned Ahenakew’s remarks but had no opinion on revocation of the Order of Canada. Another prominent aboriginal, Ted Moses, the grand chief of the Grand Chief Council of the Crees of Quebec, said Ahenakew deserved to be stripped of the order.
Alphonse Bird, chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, another group that Ahenakew once headed, was more ambivalent about the question. “While the comments about Jews were racist and unacceptable,” he said, “we also need to look at some of the achievements that… happened during his tenure.”
For their part, Jewish organizations are busy courting native chiefs, who represent an important political constituency in the country. Last week, Canadian Jewish Congress National President Ed Morgan traveled to northern Canada to address the annual meeting of the Assembly of First Nations. Meanwhile, B’nai Brith is planning a trip to Israel with Fontaine, the assembly’s chief.