[Given the new trial of David Ahenakew for hate speech, I thought some readers might be interested in an article that my late partner and I put together over three years ago. It still, at least to me, holds up. --DD]
What possessed David Ahenakew, decorated war veteran, respected First Nations elder, member of the Order of Canada, to say what he said back in 2002? Has anyone bothered to enquire? Amid the chorus of condemnation, from First Nations leaders, politicians, the Canadian Jewish Congress and B'nai Brith, not a solitary attempt at an explanation appears to have been made.
I'm not referring to wine and anti-diabetic meds, Ahenakew's own excuse. All these did was release something already present. The form it took on release was classic anti-Semitic discourse, a blather of deeply wounding remarks. Once it was all caught on tape, of course, it was game over: an entire lifetime of achievement was wiped out in one day, as though it had never existed.
On the day in question, Ahenakew was addressing a group of members of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, and somehow the subject of Israel came up. He opined that the US and Israel were likely to cause the next world war, a view that, in far more nuanced terms, is a commonplace among critics of American foreign policy in the Middle East and of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. We talk of "destabilizing," but Ahenakew was never one to mince words.
Confronted by a reporter afterwards, Ahenakew threw all caution to the winds, as we know, and consequently he attracted an avalanche of opprobrium that has finally buried him. And no one seems to care why he did it.
A little background, courtesy of This Magazine's Alex Roslin. Ahenakew's Cree forebears signed Treaty 6 back in 1877, giving up their vast hunting territory for a small reserve and $5 per person. Farming didn’t work out for them, and starvation and TB soon made their appearance. Indian agents physically abused those who asked for food. In other words, this was just another drearily familiar instance of the slow genocide that Indians, in South and in North America, have suffered for centuries.
Ahenakew was born in the midst of the Great Depression, one of fourteen children. Like many young men without tremendous prospects in a predominantly white society, he joined the military and fought in Korea. He stayed on in the forces, leaving as a sergeant in 1967.
That was a turning-point for him: "I could see that what was happening to our people was the same kind of exploitation and degradation I had seen in Korea and Egypt," he said in 1974. A career in First Nations politics began. Within a year of getting a job at the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, he became its youngest chief ever, and was re-elected four times. Along the way he picked up an honorary doctorate from a college he helped to found, and an Order of Canada membership, and he became the founding leader of the Assembly of First Nations in 1982.
But Ahenakew, as a former military man of long standing, held the blunt and reactionary views of so many of the brush-cut set. "He was a bigot in his thinking," a friend said. John Lagimodiere, a First Nations newspaper editor and publisher in Saskatchewan, referred to his "us-and-them kind of talk." The Saskatchewan Star Phoenix’s native affairs columnist, Doug Cuthand, said that Ahenakew's "attitudes towards not just the Jews, but other races and women were fairly backward." Indeed, he had angered First Nations women’s groups in the past by supporting discriminatory Indian Act provisions that stripped women of their status for marrying whites, while native men who married white women kept their status.
Like a Greek tragedy, events seemed to move inexorably to their climax. Ahenakew's view of the world was shaped by both his heritage and his extensive time in the military, neither of which were likely to teach subtlety or agreeable opinions. His life was fuelled by a passionate commitment to the cause of First Nations people, and an unquenchable anger that is entirely understandable. Put a microphone in front of such a person, and you might not like what you hear. In fact, you almost certainly won’t.
For some reason we expect minority leaders to be saintly, with broad, inclusive views--Gandhis, Martin Luther Kings, Cesar Chavezes, Chico Gomezes. We see them as representing their people, which they do, but exemplifying all that we hold true and dear, which they very often don't. We like to identify with charismatic leaders struggling against injustice, but we insist on conflating their lives with our own traditions of saints and martyrs, and we expect them to act accordingly.
We feel betrayed when such public figures are revealed to be merely human. We are angered by any trace of vulgarity, of close-minded thinking and speaking, of bad behaviour, of violent confrontation. We will have our saints, damn it, and heaven help any of their spokespeople who fail to conform. Martin Luther King was our kind of leader; but, folks, Malcolm X was their kind of leader.
We don't get to choose here. We have to take Ahenakew warts and all. Of course First Nations leaders were appalled by his remarks. So was I. Of course there would be consequences. And so there were. But are we not seeing just a hint of a double standard in all this?
John Lagomodiere put the case clearly to Roslin: "If we went wild like that every time someone said something derogatory about aboriginal people, we’d never stop. I think it was overblown." Media coverage was an "outrage," said the vice-chair of the FSIN, Lawrence Joseph. "All of that was said in private to a reporter who pursued it. It should not have even been pursued. We were there to talk about the criminal activities of the government in making Indians sign consent forms for [health] care, a very serious issue, but instead, it’s garbage that hits the news and the front pages." "I feel bad that it was brought out the way it was because it gives people another excuse to lower our category," said Sam Sinclair, a former president of the Metis Association of Canada.
What coverage do First Nations receive in Canada? Perhaps we need to take a lingering look at that question. This is a country where the Lubicon have been battling for a land settlement for decades, betrayed by successive Liberal governments, while their ancestral lands have been ravaged and polluted by multinationals, and tuberculosis has infected one-third--yes, you read that right--of the community.
This is a country where the rights of the Nisg'aa in BC were put to a vote. This is a country where Dudley George was slaughtered by a police officer during a non-violent occupation by native people of their own lands in Ipperwash, and where it took years even to get a public inquiry. This is the country where "starlight tours" took place in Ahenakew's home province. This is the country that deported Leonard Peltier to the USA, where he remains America's perhaps best-known political prisoner.
But what grabs the headlines? Compare the coverage of these and countless other outrages against First Nations peoples to the attention paid to stupid, anti-Semitic remarks by one First Nations leader. Could this simply be a way of collectively excusing ourselves for our centuries of neglect and ill-treatment? Putting a sharp focus on one bigot, instead of writing the eminently newsworthy stories that need to be written about the daily lives of native people in Canada today?
And could it be--could it just be--that the mind of David Ahenakew has been warped, twisted and bent out of shape over the years by the very forces that now triumphantly announce his downfall?