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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

December 23, 2002

L’affaire Ahenakew: the silver lining

On Friday, December 13, 2002, the Canadian Native-Indian leader, David Ahenakew made the overtly anti-Semitic remarks that have been broadcast throughout the world and that have already been posted on IsraPundit. The prime object of this article is to highlight and document a few aspects that have not received sufficient attention, in addition to documenting the basic facts of this incident.

The news about Ahenakew’s remarks broke on Saturday, December 14, with a story by from Saskatchewan:
A respected Saskatchewan Indian leader said Friday Hitler did the right thing when he "fried" six million Jews during the Second World War.
"The Jews damn near owned all of Germany prior to the war," Ahenakew said in an interview.

"That's how Hitler came in. He was going to make damn sure that the Jews didn't take over Germany or Europe.

"That's why he fried six million of those guys, you know. Jews would have owned the goddamned world. And look what they're doing. They're killing people in Arab countries."

The 68-year-old Ahenakew made his remarks after giving a 45-minute, profanity-laced address to delegates attending an FSIN conference on a new Health Canada policy requiring Indians to sign a consent form before receiving certain health services.

During his wide-ranging speech, in which he complained about bigotry in Canadian society, accused the media of creating racial conflict and continually referred to non-Indian Canadians as "immigrants", Ahenakew said he lived in Germany during the late 1950s when he was with the Canadian Army.

He said Germans told him the Jews started the Second World War.

He said Israel and the United States are about to start a third world war, a reference to the current troubles in the Middle East.

Approached afterwards to clarify his comments on Jews and the Second World War, Ahenakew said he agreed with his German friends. When asked how he could justify the Holocaust, Ahenakew said: "How do you get rid of a disease like that, that's going to take over, that's going to dominate?"
... and on and on.

[This story may also be found at the CTV web site.]

At first, other Native leaders tried to sweep the incident under the carpet, as the foregoing story reported:

FSIN vice-chief Lawrence Joseph sat at the conference's head table while Ahenahew gave his speech.

After hearing a tape recording of the interview, Joseph said the conference was about government oppression, not about the war or the Jews.

"Whatever he says personally is an opinion as a war veteran. He has that right. Similar to (Saskatoon MP) Jim Pankiw (who has sent out controversial pamphlets on Indian issues), he's entitled to an opinion, negative or otherwise."

Joseph said Ahenakew is an unelected official who does not speak for the FSIN. All former FSIN chiefs are eligible to become lifetime senators.

Up to this point, one has a story of one standard anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli, gratuitous outburst, plus one standard attempt to minimize the damage. But what transpired next justifies granting Canada a badge of honour.

The denunciation of Ahenakew and his statements came loud and clear from virtually all segments of Canadian society. Newspaper editorials, letters to the editor, civic leaders’ statements - all condemned Ahenakew’s statements unequivocally. Here, for example, is a statement made by the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), as reported by Canada Newswire on December 16, 2002:

CAW President Buzz Hargrove today sent the following letter to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien expressing shock and dismay about the recent comments attributed to David Ahenakew:

The Right Honourable Jean Chrétien
Prime Minister
House of Commons
Ottawa, ON

Dear Prime Minister,

It was with shock and dismay that I read the recent comments attributed to David Ahenakew, a senator in the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN). The Canadian Auto Workers union joins with the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Assembly of First Nations in strongly condemning these statements. Our Union of 260,000 members places great emphasis on human rights for all world citizens and denounces, in the strongest possible terms, this unwarranted attack on the Jewish people.

We support the RCMP's investigation into the comments of Mr. Ahenakew and would urge that Canada's laws against hate crimes be vigorously enforced. I have written to Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson asking that she refer this matter to the Advisory Council of the Order of Canada for an immediate investigation into the statements attributed to Mr. Ahenakew and if the news reports are correct, we urge the government and the Advisory Council of the Order of Canada to withdraw Mr. Ahenakew's prestigious Order of Canada.

Your cooperation is appreciated.

Yours truly,

Basil 'Buzz' Hargrove
Note in particular that this statement by the CAW came from “the left”. Also note that the letter endorses the two major steps that are being taken in connection with Ahenakew’s comments: an RCMP investigation under Canada’s Hate Crime laws (at the request of the Saskatchewan government), and withdrawal of Ahenakew’s Order of Canada.

From the Canadian Alliance, to quote another example of denunciateion, came this statement by the leader, Steven Harper, as reported in the Ottawa Citizen on December 16, 2002:
Canadian Alliance leader Stephen Harper said yesterday the disciplinary action should be taken by police in the form of a hate crimes investigation.

"I would not rule that out at all," Mr. Harper told the Citizen yesterday. "Not knowing all of the facts -- just what I have seen reported -- assuming that it's true, this requires the authorities to look into it."

Mr. Harper stressed he was basing his concerns on media reports. It was Mr. Harper who raised the issue of a possible hate crimes investigation under the Criminal Code.
Condemnation also came from Native leaders such as Matthew Coon Come, as reported by the Globe and Mail on December 16, 2002:
Assembly Of First Nations National Chief Matthew Coon Come said Monday that Mr. Ahenakew should apologize as soon as possible.

"The statements by Mr. David Ahenakew as reported Dec. 15 are utterly unacceptable and clearly do not reflect the views or position of the Assembly of First Nations," he said in a statement. "The AFN is dedicated to fostering a positive and constructive dialogue between First Nations and all Canadians. These comments are damaging to these efforts and they are morally offensive. We regret these insulting comments directed at our Jewish brothers and sisters who have in fact supported First Nations in many of our struggles."
These developments were applauded by the Globe and Mail in an article the paper ran on December 17 under the heading, To repair the damage Ahenakew has done:

Fortunately, the reaction has been swift. Matthew Coon Come, chief of the Assembly of First Nations, called the comments unacceptable and "morally offensive." Perry Bellegarde, chief of the Saskatchewan federation, said he would recommend today that Mr. Ahenakew be removed as chairman of the senate. Good. We would hope that, in the process, Mr. Ahenakew would offer a full and absolute apology.

The Saskatchewan government has asked the RCMP to see whether there are grounds to prosecute him under the Criminal Code for a hate crime. This newspaper has long disagreed on principle with the prosecution of people for thought crimes or for speech, except when they incite violence or advocate genocide, a distance we believe Mr. Ahenakew stopped short of going.

However, as a society expressing abhorrence for what he has expressed, Canada can start by stripping him of his membership in this country's highest order. The terms of the Order of Canada say that members whose actions "bring disrepute to the order" may have their honours revoked by the Governor-General, on the recommendation of an advisory council.
On the very same day, the Globe and Mail also ran a story under the heading, Storm grows over Nazi diatribe which reported, inter alia:

The power and influence of David Ahenakew is crumbling as the former leader of Canada's natives faces a criminal investigation and the loss of his political post after suggesting the Nazis were justified in perpetrating the Holocaust.

Denunciations came from across Canada after Mr. Ahenakew, former chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said Adolf Hitler "fried six million Jews" to ensure they didn't take over Europe.

Mr. Ahenakew was suspended as a board member of the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College. Native leaders meet today to discuss terminating him as chairman of the senate that advises Saskatchewan's native federation. And suggestions have been made that he lose his investiture as a member of the Order of Canada.
In the face of the storm of denunciations, Ahenakeew’s contrition came in short order, as the following story from the Toronto Star, December 18, 2002, reports:
A former leader of the Assembly of First Nations choked back tears yesterday as he apologized for saying the Nazis were justified in trying to rid the world of Jews.

"I am ashamed and truly sorry for my conduct," David Ahenakew told a news conference.

"I want to extend my most sincere apologies to the members of the Jewish community and to the Holocaust survivors and your families."

Ahenakew, chairman of the senate of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, said he is resigning from all his positions with the group. His move came amid a chorus of calls for him to step down from any and all positions in the group and countrywide condemnation of his words.
On Saturday, December 21, another leader of Canada’s Native people spoke at a synagogue in Montreal, as reported on the following Sunday by the Toronto Star:
The grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations tried to mend some bridges between aboriginals and Jews by attending the Sabbath service at Montreal's Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, the oldest Jewish congregation in Canada.

Matthew Coon Come spoke during the service yesterday and immediately addressed the anti-Semitic remarks of David Ahenakew, a former chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations and the Assembly of First Nations.

"Over the last week, First Nations leaders and people right across Canada spoke out clearly and unequivocally in denouncing a terrible expression of hatred and injustice against the Jewish people," Coon Come told the congregation.
With these apologies, attention turned to the fundamental question: where did the anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli views come from? On December 21, 2002, the Globe and Mail ran an article on this very topic, with the question 'Where did it come from?' in the headline. A similar article was published on December 22, 2002, in the Toronto Star. Both papers point to plain-old anti-Semitism as the root, but fail to propose any remedial action. No suggestion was made to teach the Canadian youth what actually transpired during WW II, or to educate the people as a whole about anti-Semitism.

In summary, I would suggest that the Canadian society reacted correctly to Ahenakew’s comments - that is the silver lining; but for the long run, an educational opportunity has been missed - and that is the cloud.

Contributed by Joseph Alexander Norland. This piece is cross-posted on IsraPundit and Dawson Speaks.