SASKATOON – A judge has vindicated David Ahenakew in a case involving Anti-Semitic comments he made in 2002, but the former aboriginal leader says he’s not sure if he will rejoin the world of First Nations politics.
“I don’t know if I have the stomach for it anymore,” he said outside Saskatoon court following his acquittal Monday. “I’m not going to push one way or the other.”
Provincial court Judge Wilfred Tucker found Ahenakew not guilty of wilfully promoting hatred against Jews but chided him for the controversial comments.
Tucker said the remarks were “revolting, disgusting and untrue.” But he ruled Ahenakew, 75, didn’t intend to promote hate when he made them.
The former head of the Assembly of First Nations was charged after a controversial speech and subsequent interview with a reporter. In the interview, Ahenakew called Jews a “disease” and appeared to try to justify the Holocaust.
It was the second trial for Ahenakew on the charge. He was found guilty the first time and fined $1,000. But the conviction was overturned on appeal and a new trial was ordered.
Ahenakew hugged his daughter Janet after the verdict and smiled as he left the courthouse.
“Thank God it’s over,” he said. “It’s been awful.”
He wouldn’t discuss whether he’s still sorry he made the comments. He said the long legal battle hasn’t changed him.
“I’m still the same guy that was born, that served the world, that served the Army, that served the people. I’m still that same guy. And I’m too damn old now to change anyways.”
The controversial comments that first got him into trouble date back to December 2002, when he delivered a rambling and fiery speech during a health conference organized by the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations in Saskatoon.
During the speech, Ahenakew blamed Jews for causing the war. A newspaper reporter later asked him to clarify his comments.
“How do you get rid of a disease like that, that’s going to take over, that’s going to dominate?” Ahenakew responded. “The Jews damn near owned all of Germany prior to the war. That’s how Hitler came in. He was going to make damn sure that the Jews didn’t take over Germany or Europe.
“That’s why he fried six million of those guys, you know. Jews would have owned the God-damned world.”
Ahenakew offered a tearful public apology days later. But amid public outrage, he lost his position as a senator with the FSIN.
Following his initial conviction, he was also stripped of his Order of Canada.
Ahenakew made the news again last year when word spread the FSIN had quietly voted to reinstate him as a senator. Both federal and provincial governments loudly condemned the move.
Amid another backlash, Ahenakew declined the reinstatement.
FSIN Chief Lawrence Joseph said Monday the federal government placed restrictions on the group from hiring Ahenakew after his first conviction, and he’s not sure if that restriction will be lifted.
Joseph agreed Ahenakew’s remarks were disgusting.
“No one should say those things. We do, however, also agree he did nothing to wilfully promote hatred,” Joseph said in a news release.
“David Ahenakew has acknowledged his mistake. He made a public apology. He’s paid an enormous price in the court of public opinion.”
Ahenakew testified at his second trial that he doesn’t hate Jews but still believes they caused the Second World War.
“Everybody says I’m a Jew-hater,” he told court. “I don’t hate the Jews, but I hate what they do to people.”
The judge said he couldn’t ascribe an ill motive to Ahenakew because the man never intended to talk about his opinions of Jews with the reporter and at one point terminated the interview. Tucker also said he believed Ahenakew’s use of the Jews as an example in a larger, wider-ranging speech wasn’t premeditated.
The conference topic was about the federal government’s proposal for aboriginals to sign medical consent forms. Ahenakew argued in his speech that “immigrants” who had “stolen” aboriginal land could not be trusted and that anyone who was not aboriginal was dishonest and unreliable.
“I believe that the accused knew the primary theme that he wished to set forth in his speech, but I do not believe that he knew the precise words or examples he would use,” said Tucker.
Ahenakew’s defence lawyer Doug Christie said the Crown wasted time and hundreds of thousands of dollars on a case that never should have gone to trial in the first place.
“It’s better that we tolerate diverse and sometimes bad opinions than we take them to court and prosecute them,” he said. “People make mistakes when they speak.”
Christie had argued that Ahenakew got sucked into an argument with the reporter and did not intend for his spontaneous comments to be published.
The judge addressed that assertion by saying the reporter fully did his job and did not pressure Ahenakew in any way.
“As is often the case, people like the accused, who are happy to have media attention when it suits them, are quick to attack the media and its members when the media attention does not suit them,” said Tucker.
Crown prosecutor Sandeep Bains had argued at trial that Ahenakew knew what he was doing and clearly consented to the media interview.
The Crown will review the ruling and decide whether to appeal.
Representatives from Jewish groups said they were disappointed with the verdict but happy the judge denounced Ahenakew’s comments.
“It’s clear the judge and Canadians understand what he said was horrible, disgusting and anti-Semitic, and he’s lost the respect of Canadians because of that,” said Wendy Lampert of the Canadian Jewish Congress.
Frank Dimant of B’nai Brith Canada urged the federal government to review its hate crime legislation.
“That this case failed to meet the legal standard for a conviction throws into doubt the viability of Canada’s hate crimes legislation,” said Dimant.