Canadian Press – March 31, 2008
REGINA – The decision by a First Nations group to reinstate a controversial aboriginal leader accused of promoting hatred drew swift criticism Monday from politicians and Jewish organizations.
The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations quietly reinstated David Ahenakew as a senator Friday by a vote of 43-3. But B’nai Brith Canada called the move a big mistake.
“David Ahenakew is on record for having made vile, hate-filled, anti-Semitic remarks,” B’nai Brith’s Frank Dimant said Monday from Toronto. “We urge the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations to reconsider.
“The onus is on the federation to distance itself from Ahenakew’s bigotry and not to reward him by welcoming him back with open arms.”
Ahenakew was kicked out of the federation in 2002 before he was convicted of wilfully promoting hatred for comments he made to a reporter about Jews. Court heard how the former chief of the Assembly of First Nations referred to Jews as a “disease” when he was approached by a reporter after a speech in Saskatoon.
Ahenakew appealed and his conviction was overturned in 2006.
The Crown then took the case to the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal. Earlier this year, the court dismissed the Crown’s case and ruled that while Ahenakew’s remarks were “brutal,” he was not wilfully promoting hatred toward Jews.
The Crown has decided to proceed with a second trial expected to begin in November.
Chief Marcel Head of the Shoal Lake First Nation was one of the three chiefs who voted against Ahenakew’s reinstatement. He suggested the move could divide the federation.
“The way he portrays himself hasn’t given me anything to see that he has changed at all,” Head said.
“To me, I just fear that in the future he’ll say things that might affect the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations … that’s my worry.”
Head said the wording on the reinstatement motion talked about Ahenakew’s defence of treaty rights. Ahenakew supporters, including Chief Irvin Starblanket, have argued that Ahenakew has a lot of knowledge that the federation can use.
But that doesn’t ease Head’s worries.
“David Ahenakew hasn’t given me any comfort level in regards to his attitude, his behaviour,” said Head.
While the federation is an independent body, its decision to reinstate Ahenakew echoed loudly through the provincial legislature. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall soundly criticized the move.
“The decision that has been taken is disappointing to say the least given the extreme nature of the comments that were made,” said Wall.
“It’s not particularly helpful. We want to build a relationship … so we can deal with issues that First Nations are facing and this will be the elephant in the room, this particular decision they’ve taken with respect to Mr. Ahenakew.”
Wall said he wants to hear what federation Chief Lawrence Joseph has to say on the matter before deciding what, if any, consequences will follow. Joseph has scheduled a news conference for Tuesday morning.
“Hopefully they’re reconsidering this decision,” said Wall.
The outburst also led to Ahenakew being stripped of the Order of Canada. Ahenakew’s lawyer, Doug Christie, said Monday that it’s time for people to leave his client alone.
Christie noted that Ahenakew does not stand convicted and it is time to forgive and forget.
“If we really believe in tolerance we should practise it, not preach it. We should forgive those who apologize, and that is what he did,” Christie said from Victoria.
“I don’t see why he should continue to be persecuted for what he said in an indiscreet moment.”