Speak No Evil
Last winter, David Ahenakew shocked the nation with his anti-Semitic comments. But some who know Ahenakew say he never made a secret of his intolerant views. The question is, how did he get away with it for so long?
BY Alex Roslin
Photography by Richard Marjan/CP/Saskatoon Star Phoenix
The comments were shocking. After addressing a conference on native health issues in Saskatoon in December 2002, David Ahenakew, the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, told a reporter that Jews are a “disease” that Hitler was just trying to “clean up.”
“The Jews damn near owned all of Germany prior to the war. That’s how Hitler came in. And 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 goddamned world,” Ahenakew told a Saskatoon Star Phoenix reporter, adding that Jews today control the banks and media. “Look at here in Canada, Asper. Izzy Asper. He controls the media. Well, what the hell does that tell you?”
The remarks caused bewilderment and outrage across the country, prompted an RCMP hate-crimes investigation and destroyed Ahenakew’s 36-year career in First Nations politics.
He was forced to resign as chairman of the senate of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations and was suspended from the board of the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, which he helped found in the 1970s. Calls came in to strip him of his Order of Canada medal. In June, he was charged with promoting hatred.
Once one of Canada’s most outspoken and prominent native politicians, Ahenakew dropped out of the public eye and retreated to the small Cree community in northern Saskatchewan where he was born.
But in the province where Ahenakew was a political kingpin for over three decades, some say the controversy is not a complete surprise. Some who know him say Ahenakew never made a secret of his bigoted views, not just toward Jews. The difference this time was that he made the comments to a reporter. The real question is: how did he get away with it for so long?
The village of 1,200 from which Ahenakew hails has a pretty name that conveys the beauty of the place. Ahtahkakoop means “Starblanket” in Cree and is nestled along the shores of Sandy Lake, surrounded by meadows, hills and lush parkland. This is the heart of what was once buffalo country, where the prairies rise up to meet the northern boreal forests.
When settlers decimated the great buffalo herds that sustained the Plains Crees, David Ahenakew’s semi-nomadic ancestors were forced to survive by farming often-inhospitable land. In 1877 they signed Treaty 6, giving up their vast hunting territory in exchange for a 67-square-mile reserve and $5 a year “per head.” Signing on behalf of the Crees was Ahenakew’s great-grand-uncle, the legendary Chief Ahtahkakoop, whose name the community adopted as its own.
The promised future of pastoral bliss never came. Crops failed; starvation and tuberculosis ravaged the community; Indian Affairs agents physically abused hungry Crees who asked for food.
Through the hardship, one of the constants was the Ahenakew clan and its dominance over the community. An Ahenakew has been chief for 85 of the past 90 years, and successive family members used the community as a launching pad to rise to prominence in the world beyond.
David Ahenakew’s older brother Gordon, a WWII veteran, was an eminent Anglican minister and aboriginal veterans’ leader. His sister-in-law Freda was appointed to the Order of Canada for her work as one of the world’s leading aboriginal scholars and linguists. David’s son Greg is first vice-chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations.
But the family’s best-known scion was David. Born on a Sandy Lake farm in 1933 at the height of the Depression, Ahenakew had 11 brothers and two sisters. At 17 he joined the Canadian Army, fought in Korea and later served in Germany and Egypt. He stayed 16 years, including seven as a non-commissioned officer barking at recruits. When he left the army as a sergeant in 1967 it was the height of flower power and Vietnam protests, but Ahenakew had a new mission: helping his people.
“I could see that what was happening to our people was the same kind of exploitation and degradation I had seen in Korea and Egypt,” he told the Saskatchewan Indian newspaper in 1974.
Ahenakew got a job at the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations and within a year, at age 35, was elected as the group’s youngest chief. He used his political savvy, ferocious drive and army-taught organizational skills to turn the tiny, unknown group into one of Canada’s most vibrant and powerful First Nations federations, cementing a power base that would serve and protect him in later years.
He was re-elected four times and served a record 10 years, helping to found the National Indian Brotherhood (forerunner of the Assembly of First Nations) and the ground-breaking Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, which awarded him an honourary doctorate. He was appointed to the Order of Canada in 1979 and elected as the first leader of the newly created Assembly of First Nations in 1982.
Ahenakew was known for his great charisma. “I’ve seen him walk into a room; he just walks in like a pro. He could go into a community and have everyone eating out of the palm of his hand,” says one long-time family friend who worked with Ahenakew for many years and spoke on condition of anonymity because charges in the RCMP hate crimes case were still pending.
Ahenakew rose to national prominence, but he never lost his army brush cut or his drill sergeant’s gruff, foul-mouthed way of talking. The friend believes that it was the army, not reservation life, that shaped Ahenakew’s opinions. Although he never heard Ahenakew defend the Holocaust before, the friend says he was known for making narrow-minded remarks. “He was more right-wing than some of the redneck right-wing crazies out there. He would crack off about East Indians or black people or ‘foreign-born bastards,’ as he called them. He was a bigot in his thinking,” he says.
But no one dared to call him on it. “People would sit back and titter,” the friend says. “He was a well-known vulgarian, no doubt about it. Anyone who spent a lot of time with him would know it’s true.”
In fact, Ahenakew’s views have created trouble for him before. In 1984, he angered aboriginal women’s groups when he vehemently opposed federal government plans to abolish rules that stripped women of their Indian status if they married non-Indians.
Lloyd Barber, a former president of the University of Regina, who befriended Ahenakew during a stint as federal Indian Claims Commissioner, describes Ahenakew’s Hitler remarks as “very out of character.” Barber chalks up Ahenakew’s earlier bigoted comments as “politically incorrect” joshing around.
“Anything he might have said was in the context of flip comments that only recently became politically incorrect. People make light of all sorts of things: ‘I’m not going there; it’s a gay bar.’ C’mon, this is a guy who fought for his country in Korea,” he says.
But others say Ahenakew was known for intolerant views. “I always figured he was a bit right-wing, less tolerant. There was a subtle undertone of the rhetoric there. Us-and-them kind of talk,” says John Lagimodiere, editor and publisher of Saskatchewan’s Eagle Feather News.
In an interview with CBC Radio’s The Current, Star Phoenix native affairs columnist Doug Cuthand said that it was well-known that Ahenakew held intolerant views. “I’ve heard him say this stuff before. He knew I was appalled by it, and I thought he was just trying to get a shock response. Over the years I’ve found that he really does believe it,” said Cuthand. In an interview with Canadian Press in December, Cuthand observed that Ahenakew’s “attitudes towards not just the Jews, but other races and women were fairly backward.”
A Cree lawyer who has known Ahenakew for many years says those who knew him were “kind of surprised [and] to a certain extent shocked” by his jokes about “niggers,” but were willing to overlook them because he was such a strong defender of Native people. “He got away with it because of his overwhelming knowledge and belief in values about protecting the Indian people. That was what I really respected him for,” the lawyer says.
Following the media outcry, Ahenakew apologized for his remarks in an emotional press conference, but some wondered how contrite he really was. In an interview with This Magazine, his first since the affair, Ahenakew expressed defiance and anger, particularly toward native leaders who criticized his Hitler remarks. He said he is now “gathering information” to prepare for a press conference he plans to hold this fall to discuss the affair. “It’s not finished by any means,” he said.
Ahenakew then launched into another tirade. “When a group of people, a race of people can control the world media, then there’s got to be something done about that,” he said, before hanging up.
In an interview shortly afterwards, Ahenakew expressed frustration that he has to defend his record and said the controversy has caused “emotional, gut-wrenching turmoil” for his family. “For me to keep defending myself in my own land is not going to happen,” he said. “The role of a leader in the Indian country is to defend and protect the people, their rights, their lands and so on. And that’s Indian leadership in my definition, and I’ve been there,” he said, hanging up again.
When asked to respond to Ahenakew’s latest remarks about a race controlling the media, Barber said, “It doesn’t make me happy. But that’s not a thought of his alone. I’ve heard other people in more prominent positions say the same thing. That’s not an uncommon sentiment, true or not.” Asked if that excuses Ahenakew, he said, “It doesn’t excuse anybody, whether it’s true or not.” Asked if he thinks it’s true, Barber said, “Look, that is a frequently seen quotation. Whether it’s true or not. I don’t know whether it’s false. I don’t know whether it’s true. I don’t know. I am ignorant.”
Despite his famously fast tongue, David Ahenakew has long commanded tremendous loyalty. When, in 1985, he was ousted as the AFN’s national chief amid a furor about financial improprieties and kickbacks, his prairie power base kicked in with unswerving support.
Ahenakew was accused of using AFN funds to finance his failed re-election bid. After a four-year probe, the RCMP laid 159 charges against Ahenakew and eight others for allegedly funneling kickbacks from federal grants and contracts to former Indian Affairs Minister John Munro for his failed 1984 Liberal leadership bid. The charges were later dropped.
Throughout the affair, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations backed Ahenakew all the way, pulling out of the AFN and threatening to create a rival national body. The federation later appointed Ahenakew to chair its senate.
Later, when the controversy broke over Ahenakew’s Hitler remarks, the federation condemned the remarks as an “embarrassment,” but the federation’s vice-chair Lawrence Joseph also attacked the media’s coverage as an “outrage.” He said it had obscured other issues that Ahenakew had raised in his speech at the federation’s conference.
“Yes, he made a little comment about the Second World War,” Joseph told a reporter. “All of that was said in private to a reporter who pursued it. It should not have even been pursued. We were there to talk about the criminal activities of the government in making Indians sign consent forms for [health] care, a very serious issue, but instead, it’s garbage that hits the news and the front pages.”
In February, the federation’s senate created more controversy when it voted near-unanimously to reinstate Ahenakew after he made an impassioned plea for his job. Federation chief Perry Bellegarde, put on the spot, declared the senate has only an advisory role and said that reinstatement isn’t likely.
But outside of Ahenakew’s entourage, other native people also have divided feelings about the affair. For some, the horror of Ahenakew’s remarks is mixed with frustration that racism against native people is so often ignored. They wonder why Canadians aren’t similarly outraged when genocide in the Americas is denied or defended, and why so little is said about present-day bigotry toward First Nations people.
“I feel bad that it was brought out the way it was because it gives people another excuse to lower our category,” says Sam Sinclair, a 76-year-old Cree WWII volunteer and former president of the Métis Association of Canada who sits on the board of the Aboriginal Veterans Scholarship Trust.
Lagimodiere says he, too, was shocked by Ahenakew’s remarks, but he also says the public outcry showed a double standard: “If we went wild like that every time someone said something derogatory about aboriginal people, we’d never stop. I think it was overblown.”
One member of Ahenakew’s family disagrees. “I don’t think it was overblown,” says cousin Willard Ahenakew, a consultant to the Ahtahkakoop First Nation. “The war was not so long ago. There are still people alive [in our community] who are veterans. I think [the remarks] just totally shocked people. It’s not a reflection, not even close, of our family or our community or people.”
The Ahenakew family friend sees a positive side to the controversy: it is leading to important self-reflection. “David Ahenakew was kind of protected, and as a result he developed some arrogance. We as a people have to confront those issues.”