David Ahenakew is the former head of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and of the Saskatchewan Federation of Indian Nations (FSIN). He’s on trial again for anti-semitic and racist statements that he made six years ago as a speaker during a public dinner in Saskatoon, and again in a follow-up interview for the Saskatoon Star Phoenix.
A Saskatchewan appeals judge overturned his conviction in 2005 and ordered a new trial on grounds that the trial judge may not have taken into account the circumstances during which Ahenakew uttered his comments and therefore may not have “willfully” promoted hatred.
The case had people wringing their hands (and still does) for all kinds of reasons. The one I find most difficult to comprehend is the one that implies that victims of racism somehow cannot possibly be racist. But I’m also confused by something else – the media’s insistence for a conviction in this particular case.
Why? Because there are so many other similar situations where people are not charged, do not face anything more than a bit of embarrassing news coverage (if the media bothers at all), are permitted to continue on, or are even promoted despite their despicable statements.
Let me make clear that I detest Ahenakew’s comments. I believe they came from a sick mind. I don’t care to try to understand the cause of that sickness. I am satisfied that they reflect the attitudes and beliefs of a racist and bigot. I don’t believe, as sick as those statements are, that Ahenakew should be tried for them under the Criminal Code of Canada.
It isn’t a question of “has he suffered enough?” His views have been judged for what they are. Ahenakew has been stripped of the Order of Canada and of his seat in the FSIN Senate. He is viewed by many the object of pity and even derision. But all of that has nothing to do with it. Or does it?
In the Regina Leader Post, columnist Murray Mandryk writes that it isn’t enough. Mandryk doesn’t suggest in his column (spread far and wide via the CanWest system) what Ahenakew’s punishment should be. For me, though, there is a clear line between someone who is a washed-up loud-mouth as opposed to someone who openly advocates or incites violence against another group in society. For the first, we (the media) should shine the light of publicity upon such words and the person behind them, and hope that society is sane enough to find them as despicable as we do. In the latter case, we need the Criminal Code. Ahenakew is the first instance, not the second. Ahenakew is a danger only to his own reputation.
But, as I noted earlier, Mandryk wants something more. Public humiliation? Time behind bars? He never comes right out with specifics, although he spends a lot of column space going over the possible defences (too much wine, diabetic reaction, fatigue, etc).
All this may constitute a legal defence during a trial, but it doesn’t suggest Ahenakew is remorseful or has truly taken responsibility for these hateful words.
To listen to testimony so far, it’s as if some people don’t understand that it’s actually Ahenakew and his words on trial, rather than the drive-by smear we heard in FSIN chief Lawrence Joseph’s testimony that he thought Parker to be an “arrogant, uncaring” reporter who “tripped over himself running” toward Ahenakew following the speech to get the interview.
Set aside the fact that Parker didn’t interview Ahenakew until an hour later, would any credible reporter not be eager to talk to someone after such a speech?
It’s more than a little disturbing that there are those who believe Ahenakew has been hard done by, or that he has suffered enough and now deserves a pass.
Perhaps a second trial is needed to underscore the consequences of such words.
I disagree. I think the appeals judge gave the Crown Attorneys prosecuting this case an excuse to condemn Ahenakew and his words, as is just and fair, but avoid a persecution. The Star Phoenix did a good job reporting the original incident by shining a light upon this individual’s racist attitudes. The public has been alerted and is now very much aware. We will never see Ahenakew the same way ever again. Job done.
Mandryk and others advocating more should consider their own backyards though. I can think of several bloggers, newspaper columnists and broadcast commentators who, judged by the same standards as Ahenakew, will never face the same amount of media attention and condemnation, nor similar charges under the hate provisions of the Criminal Code. Why? Because they are “us.” And Ahenakew is “them.”
If Ahenakew is found guilty and is punished, may I suggest the Canadian media conduct a similar compaign to root out similar miscreants within its own profession.