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Prince Albert Daily Herald, Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Ahenakew affair: a bad law, an opportunity missed

by Marjaleena Repo

The David Ahenakew Affair, after five years in the courts, has sprung back with full force after the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) voted to reinstate him as one its senators. The media has reacted with vehement disapproval as have Jewish organizations. The provincial and federal governments — the latter long overdue in its own apology and restitution to Aboriginal people for a variety of oppressive policies over the last century — are in high dudgeon, threatening censure and sanctions against the FSIN. (Mr. Ahenakew, with the storm gathering, declined the offer of reinstatement.)

Mr. Ahenakew's brutish comments were made at an emergency meeting December 12, '02, in Saskatoon, organized to oppose yet another detrimental policy imposed on First Nation's people. He was angry and agitated — reportedly to the point of being incoherent in his speech — but his most offensive remarks came after the speech, in an encounter with a reporter (described by the reporter as an interview and by Ahenakew as an aggressive ambush). The reporter taped Ahenakew blaming the Jews for creating World War II and calling them "a disease."

Five days later Ahenakew, in a press conference, apologized profusely for his offensive and hurtful language, stating that his comments were made in anger and frustration over the plight of native people in Canada, but that this did not excuse them. He asked to reach out to the Jewish community.

This was the moment when history could have been made, by a new level of communication and trust-building between Ahenakew, his own constituency whom he had hurt and the Jewish community, victim of his ignorant and deeply offensive comments. If Jewish organizations had accepted the apology, one can imagine only positive outcomes: a deeper understanding of how wrong his words were and what the actual experience of German Jews was, from their relentless ostracism to the "final solution" in concentration camps. With David Ahenakew leading, prepared to be a changed man, his own people, from young to old, could have entered a rich experience of empathetic learning with many connections to their own suffering under brutal colonial rule. A sign of forgiveness (and compassion) about one man's human failing would have brought Jews and Aboriginals together, in the spirit of good will, resulting in deepening connections and new friendships. Both peoples, Aboriginals and Jews, have a history of resilience and survival, and when given a chance are capable of transcending and recovering from the worst of circumstances, as well as forgiving those who have hurt them and genuinely repent it.

This opportunity for transformation and restorative justice by building on the strengths of the people involved was missed when the Jewish leadership rejected, out of hand, Mr. Ahenakew's apology. It wasn't good enough. They wanted "more," opting to pursue the proverbial pound of flesh. Canada's highly problematic anti-hate law, Section 319 of the Criminal Code, was invoked. Ahenakew was charged with "inciting hatred," and cornered, forced to try to defend himself against criminal charges. With apology and amends rejected, the case proceeded to a conviction in 2005 — overturned on appeal June 2006 on the grounds that a crucial element, "willfulness," was missing as the remarks were made in confrontation with a reporter rather than before an audience. Saskatchewan is retrying Ahenakew.

The 40-year old anti-hate law was flawed from the beginning, because it pursues thought-crimes: dissenting opinions, prejudices, stupidity and ignorance among them. One of the first charged were young Canadian nationalists in Toronto, demonstrating against a Shriners parade with a "Yankee Go Home!" leaflet, supposedly hateful towards all Americans!

Age has not improved this unnecessary law. It now has its off-spring in Human Rights Commissions, where a couple of well-known journalists of the right, Ezra Levant and Mark Steyn, have lately had to defend themselves against charges of "encouraging hatred" in their writings. But, significantly, in their case, they are being defended to the hilt by editorials and columnists across the country, on the grounds of freedom of expression, no matter how distasteful — and wrong— their opinions are to people whose beliefs and ethnicity they offend.

The explanation might be that Levant and Steyn are attacking an increasingly marginalized group of Canadians — Muslims and Arabs. David Ahenakew, on the other hand, part of a powerless and long-suffering group of original Canadians, having offended a powerful ethnic and religious group, has no such support for his right to be ignorant and wrong, and ends up sharing his guilt with all Aboriginals, to boot. (Contrast this with MP Tom Lukowski who, having grossly attacked homosexuals, was upon his mea culpa instantaneously forgiven by the Conservative government.)

Offensive ideas and concepts, of course, need to and will be challenged, and expressing them will have consequences. But these consequences ought to be social and political — allowing for apologies and regrets — not criminal, with catastrophic consequences for those caught by a law, which to quote Charles Dickens, "is an ass."


Marjaleena Repo is a freelance writer who lives in Saskatoon. She can be reached at mrepo@sasktel.net


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