Would we rather know, or not know, that a leading citizen of Canada holds abhorrent racist views and expresses them with unthinking vehemence? The question has bothered me since December, when David Ahenakew, the retired national leader of the Assembly of First Nations, declared at a conference in Saskatoon that Hitler was right to kill millions of Jews, because they "damn near owned all of Germany" and would, unchecked, "have owned the God damned world."
That kind of ugliness is usually kept hidden, and in truth hypocrisy has its virtues. Racists shamed into silence by public opinion are better than racists, like Ernst Zundel, who make it their business to generate hatred. Moreover, few of us were delighted to learn that a man in Ahenakew's position thinks as he does.
On reflection, though, I'm grateful that he revealed his opinions. When his private self spilled unexpectedly into the public realm, all of us learned about something evil that was festering in secret. A politician nearing the age of 70, he has obviously been one of Hitler's admirers for many years, and no doubt has spent time with people who agree with him.
His outburst had a beneficial effect. Inadvertently, Ahenakew helped the national community to define and reassert a common view of racism. Anti-Semitism, all agree, has been rising in the last few years, but the response to Ahenakew reminded us that decent citizens find it profoundly unacceptable. He was universally condemned, and quickly stripped of his positions in native politics. The issue did not require debate: It was agreed that anyone infected by such poison did not deserve power or influence. This process may have been painful, but it was also encouraging. Jews and other minorities were reassured that Canada does not accept intolerance on that level.
This having been established, was the Saskatchewan government wise when it brought a charge against Ahenakew under the hate-speech section of the Criminal Code this week? Even those who support that section may find this a dubious application of it. Parliament, in passing the section three decades ago, emphasized that its power should be used with great care. Prosecutions can go forward not on local initiative but only with the explicit approval of the provincial attorney-general. More important, the law applies to anyone who "wilfully promotes hatred against any identifiable group." The Supreme Court says "wilful" means having a conscious purpose. It says "promotes" means active instigation.
That sounds like a campaign or, more likely, the creation of an organization, with members and an agenda to promote. It sounds, in fact, like Zundel selling books and running a Web site; or, on a lower level, James Keegstra methodically turning high-school students into anti-Semites. It doesn't obviously apply to Ahenakew's case, which seems to make the prospects for a successful prosecution slim.
From the beginning, the hate-speech provision (which carries a potential jail term of two years) has led more often to irresponsible harassment than to convictions. Predictably, its first use was an attempt by the Toronto police in the early 1970s to prosecute some zealous young nationalists (two of whom now have high international status in their profession) for distributing America-Go-Home leaflets in a protest against the Vietnam war. Wiser heads prevailed and the prosecution was stayed, but the freedom of those individuals was briefly curtailed. Since then the section has several times served as a threat against people the authorities find bothersome.
To prosecute Ahenakew implies that public opinion and his own organizations have not done the job of marginalizing him and his ideas. In fact, the job has been done well, for the most part. Unfortunately, the Order of Canada (which made Ahenakew a member in 1978), has decided to await the outcome of the Saskatchewan criminal case before deciding whether to ask for his resignation.
This bizarre decision seems to imply that the Order is, first of all, an assembly of the unconvicted, which is not how it presents itself. After all, its motto, Desiderantes meliorem patriam, means "they desire a better country." Ahenakew, it's fair to say, has placed himself outside that category. The Order's decision should have been made months ago. It seems unlikely that it could do anything to Ahenakew's reputation that blistering national criticism has not done already. The Order need not feel inhibited by the fear of affecting his chances at trial.
We should by now have dismissed Ahenakew from our minds. Metaphorically, we have already locked him up and thrown away the key, so far as his public role is concerned; he'll wear the brand of bigotry so long as he lives, and the speech made in December, 2002 will certainly be the main item in his obituary, obscuring whatever good he accomplished. That surely is punishment enough.
But if Saskatchewan's prosecution continues, and even succeeds, he will remain the focus of national attention for years. Is that desirable? Instead of being prosecuted, he should be relegated (as Alan Borovoy of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association put it the other day) to the obscurity he so richly deserves.