This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on December 30, 2002
Native Leader Makes Anti-Semitic Remarks
SOMETIMES "I'M SORRY" doesn't quite cut it. Suggesting that it was a good and necessary thing that Adolph Hitler "fried" six million Jews in the Holocaust is one of those occasions. David Ahenakew, the former head of the Assembly of First Nations and a senior statesman among Saskatchewan natives, has since tearfully apologized for his comments. But he still faces the prospect of criminal charges for inciting hatred, and the very real possibility that he will be stripped of his Order of Canada, his honorary university degree, and other tributes he collected during his decades of service to his community. No one need feel sympathy for him. When a respected public figure, or anyone else for that matter, equates an ethnic or religious group to a "disease that's going to take over, that's going to dominate," and advocates its eradication, he deserves every sanction and humiliation society can bring to bear.
What we really need to question is how someone in Canada, on the cusp of the year 2003, felt comfortable enough to not only make such hurtful comments at a public gathering, but then repeat and expound upon them for a reporter. Ahenakew obviously believed his remarks would be sympathetically received by a wider audience. Why? Because the 69-year-old had been saying the same sort of thing all his adult life and no one had ever called him on it before.
Doug Cuthand, an Aboriginal filmmaker and newspaper columnist in Saskatoon, has known and worked with Ahenakew for more than 30 years. He describes the Cree chief as a blunt, outspoken tough guy who never hid his personal biases and enmities. "I didn't know him to say much about the Jews, but he was known to say disparaging things about East Indians and blacks," Cuthand says. In the 1970s, a number of the Indian Affairs bureaucrats that Ahenakew and other native leaders dealt with were themselves members of different visible minority groups, and relations were frosty. "I always thought David was saying these things to shock or entertain," says Cuthand. People in the community chose to overlook those sentiments - or in some instances perhaps even agreed with them. "It was sort of a solidarity thing that crept in. We were battling bigots of our own, and the feeling was, 'he may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch,'" Cuthand says. "I guess after what happened this week, there's going to be a lot of soul-searching."
It's not that the native community in Canada is any more or less prejudiced than other parts of North American society. The apologies and outrage voiced by people like Matthew Coon Come, the current head of the AFN, are heartfelt and tinged with the hurt of a people that has all too often known the pain of racism. "It's so damaging," says Ted Moses, grand chief of the Quebec Cree. "It has taken us so long to strive for recognition, to get good things happening, and it just takes a few moments to destroy." And while Ahenakew's comments are remarkable for their unvarnished nastiness, there are plenty of examples of other public figures who have been willing to give voice to sentiments that should be unspeakable.
In the summer of 2001, Mel Lastman, the mayor of Toronto, said he was afraid to visit Kenya because he could imagine himself "in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me." He apologized 18 times in a single news conference and kept his job, mostly because Torontonians have grown to expect him to say stupid things. In 1984, Jesse Jackson, the noted civil rights activist, saw his bid for the Democratic party presidential nomination derailed when it was revealed he referred to New York City as "Hymietown" because of its sizable Jewish population. Last Friday, Trent Lott stepped down as leader of the Republicans in the U.S. Senate following weeks of controversy over his praise for retiring Senator Strom Thurmond, who once ran for president on a segregationist ticket. Lott, a Mississippi politician who has a long history of retrograde positions on racial issues - he voted against Martin Luther King Day - suggested "we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years" if more people had voted for Thurmond.
The thing that these three examples have in common is that all these remarks were made in the presence of the media, but initially, none of the slurs were considered newsworthy. It took the Toronto Star weeks before it finally published Lastman's inflammatory opinions deep in its sports pages. The Washington Post sat on Jackson's intemperate views for almost a month. There were at least a dozen journalists present when Lott feted Thurmond on Dec. 5 - only one organization, ABC, reported his remarks, albeit on a 4:30 a.m. newscast. Obviously, it's not just the general public that has difficulty confronting people about their discriminatory utterances.
Karen Mock, the executive director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, says progress has been made over the last couple of decades, but there remains a core group of Canadians - surveys suggest between 12 and 16 per cent - who harbour what can only be considered racist views. The type of vitriol that Ahenakew spewed rarely surfaces in public discourse, she said, but so-called "slips of the tongue" can be just as revealing. "The reality is that when your inhibitions are down, the truth of what you're thinking comes out," says Mock. People have to be held accountable for what they say because the effects of hateful speech are so pernicious. "Even when it's denounced and there are apologies, the damage is done," says Mock. Educational programs and dialogue can help break down walls, but biases run deep, she adds. People tend to recognize and reject stereotypes applied to their own ethnic community, but not misconceptions they hold about other groups.
The fact is that ethnicity and religion are an issue in our politics. South of the border, Republicans have long played the race card by appealing to white fears of black crime, and, like Lott, through more winking references to Southern heritage and pride. In Canada, during the 1997 federal election, the Reform party was pilloried for running a "no more Quebec politicians" ad campaign, but still managed to win 60 seats - all of them west of Ontario. And all parties in this country consider the ethnic makeup of ridings when they pick their candidates.
Paul Krause, a University of British Columbia professor who specializes in African-American history, says the public memory is remarkably and conveniently short when it comes to matters of race relations. The horrors of the Second World War or the hard-fought battles of the civil rights movement were not that long ago. "It's surprising how North Americans tend to forget their uncomfortable past when it comes to issues like this," he says. Lott was simply repeating the same sort of remarks that he has made all through his career, and sounds like many other Southern politicians. Republicans have prospered in the South since the mid-1960s by shedding their image as "the party of Lincoln," says Krause. And while Canadians might be outwardly more civil about race, that doesn't mean we don't have our own serious problems, he adds. "There's an awful tension that exists here too," Krause says. Aboriginals, blacks, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, and many other immigrant communities have suffered racial discrimination in this country. Our collective North American prosperity has been built on a series of injustices, from land grabs and slavery to cheap immigrant labour, Krause notes.
Perspective is useful, but it doesn't mean much to the people who are targets of racism and hate. David Matas, senior legal counsel for B'nai Brith Canada, says the Jewish community is increasingly fearful. "There has been an upswing of intimidation, threats, graffiti and violence," he says, citing events like the firebombing of synagogues in Toronto and Saskatoon last winter. "What we see is an across-the-board rise in ANTI-SEMITISM." Many in the community believe remarks like Ahenakew's are now all too common, rather than aberrant, and ask why more Canadians aren't standing up and denouncing hate. "I see a pattern of denial," says Matas. "This is the kind of incitement that can tear Canada apart. We have to take it seriously."
He's right. Everyone should know that attacks, verbal or otherwise, on ethnic and religious minorities can't be tolerated, no matter who delivers them, no matter what their excuse. David Ahenakew will continue to pay an enormous price for the hateful things he said. What Canadians need to be concerned about now is all the people, in public and private, we let off the hook.
Maclean's December 30, 2002