David Ahenakew, politician, first elected chief of the Assembly of First Nations (born 29 July 1933 at the Sandy Lake Indian Reserve [now the Ahtahkakoop First Nation] in central Saskatchewan; died 12 March 2010 in Shellbrook, SK). He served in the Canadian military for 16 years, and was an active defender of Aboriginal rights and education. In 2002, the Crown tried Ahenakew for making anti-Semitic comments publicly and therefore violating hate legislation. He was convicted in 2002, but was later acquitted of the charges in 2009.
Ahenakew was born and raised on the Sandy Lake Indian Reserve (now the Ahtahkakoop First Nation) in central Saskatchewan. Ahenakew was Cree and proudly defended Aboriginal rights and education. In 1951, he married Sheila Grace Ahenakew, with whom he had three sons and two daughters.
Shortly after his marriage, Ahenakew left Saskatchewan to serve with the Canadian armed forces during the Korean War. He also served with NATO forces in Germany and in peacekeeping missions along the Suez Canal (see Suez Crisis).Ahenakew achieved the rank of sergeant, and was decorated for distinguished service and good conduct in 1964. After he retired from the military in 1967, Ahenakew returned to Saskatchewan.
Band Council Politics
After his military career, Ahenakew became involved in band council politics. He accepted a position with the Saskatchewan government as a placement and training officer, and helped to establish the Indian Special Constable Program, a First Nation contingent of the RCMP.
In 1968, he worked as a communications agent for the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians (now the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, FSIN). He was elected the first chief of the FSIN that same year.
Ahenakew was also active in the development of the National Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of First Nations, AFN). He was the AFN’s first leader (from 1982 to 1985). After his term, Ahenakew continued his work with the FSIN as their senate chair for 17 years.
Ahenakew was also a great supporter of First Nations education; he participated in a number of governmental education committees, and was involved in a 1972 report on First Nation education in Saskatchewan. Ahenakew also helped to establish the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural College in 1972 and the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (now First Nations University of Canada) in 1976. He served on the executive of both organizations for many years.
For his work, Ahenakew received an honorary LLD (law degree) from the University of Regina in 1976 and became the first recipient of the John Stratychuk Memorial Award from the Saskatchewan Human Rights Association in 1978.
Although Ahenakew was lauded for his work regarding Aboriginal rights and education, his life career was not without controversy. His position regarding women and the Indian Act outraged some Aboriginal women, while his reference to Jewish people as a “disease” shocked many and led to his trial for hate propaganda and the revocation of his Order of Canada.
Women and the Indian Act
In 1984, Ahenakew argued against the federal government’s plans to abolish a provision of the Indian Act that stripped women of their Indian status if they married someone who was non- Aboriginal. His comments outraged some Aboriginal women, who felt that Ahenakew was challenging, rather than defending, their civil rights and liberties. Despite criticism, Ahenakew maintained that only Aboriginal peoples — not the federal government — should determine their own membership.
In 2002, Ahenakew made anti-Semitic comments during a FSIN conference and to Saskatoon StarPhoenix reporter James Parker on 13 December of that year. Ahenakew called the Jewish people a “disease” and blamed them for starting the Second World War. The Crown accused Ahenakew of violating Canada’s hate legislation (see Hate Propaganda).
At his first trial, he was convicted of wilfully promoting hatred and fined $1,000. As a result of his conviction, the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College suspended Ahenakew from serving on its board. Governor General Adrienne Clarkson also signed a revocation ordinance, which stripped Ahenakew of his membership in the Order of Canada in 2005.
Chief Matthew Coon Come of the Assembly of First Nations spoke out against Ahenakew’s comments in 2003, stating, “I unconditionally reject these hateful, ignorant and unacceptable remarks made by Dr. Ahenakew. These comments are damaging 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.”
Ahenakew appealed the conviction and, in 2006, the Court of Queen’s Bench ordered a new trial. In February 2009, provincial court judge Wilfrid Tucker ruled that while Ahenakew’s comments were “revolting, disgusting and untrue,” the Crown did not prove Ahenakew had the intent necessary for a conviction.
In his final years, Ahenakew became best known for his anti-Semitic comments; however, during his early career, Ahenakew was commended for his work in Aboriginal communities, including his dedication to Aboriginal rights and education. In 2010, the FSIN and its leader, Guy Lonechild, posthumously honoured Ahenakew, stating “We just want to remember the positive contributions Mr. Ahenakew made […] They are significant and many.”