Tuesday, February 24, 2009

David Ahenakew's Seven Year Saga

Freedom of Beliefs and Opinion, or Incitement of Hatred?
The Sputnik - February 26th, 2009

After seven long years, two controversial trials and a hotly debated appeal, David Ahenakew finally received the verdict he feels he deserves. Provincial Court Judge Wilfrid Tucker handed a verdict of not guilty on Monday, clearing Ahenakew for the second time of the charges to wilfully incite hatred. Although Justice Tucker described Ahenakew’s statement against Jews in 2002 as ’revolting, disgusting and untrue’, he did not find that the crown managed to successfully prove that the statement was intentioned to incite hatred.

While Ahenakew heaved a sigh of relief over winning another legal battle - perhaps not the last as a result of his careless, bitter diatribe - a collective gasp of surprise echoed beyond the courtrooms where the verdict was handed down. Just as the disgraced, former senator’s statements were found to contravene article 319 in the Criminal Code of Canada in 2005, so did the verdict of not guilty contravene the public’s consensus on the matter. How was he found not guilty?

Article 219 stipulates that to be found guilty of the crime, a person must : 1) communicate statements, 2) in a public place, 3) incite hatred against an identifiable group, and 4) in such a way that there will likely be a breach of the peace. Now, consider the context within which the alleged crime was committed by Mr. Ahenakew; The controversial statements - among others, Ahenakew’s famous labelling of the Jews as ‘diseases’ that Hitler was trying to clean up during the Holocaust - were made during a recorded interview with a reporter following a public assembly. Prior to the interview, Ahenakew had just given an expletive-laden speech concerning public health of the First Nations People. He was supposedly fired up and was further provoked by reporter James Parker’s questions. The backdrop of the story alone provides several issues that are so pervasive they are almost unnoticeable to Ahenakew.

Ahenakew’s main defence was that the statements were made during a private conversation. To begin with, Ahenakew was fully aware that he was speaking to a reporter. Throughout the media’s coverage of the case, it was not mentioned anywhere that Ahenakew had insisted on going off the record. Seen in this light, it seems almost foolish for Ahenakew to plead innocence of Parker’s intentions and ignorance of how his obviously explosive statements might be transpired by the reporter.

The next pertinent point to consider is the venue of the alleged crime; The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations health conference where Ahenake gave his equally bitter speech was a public gathering. Members of the media were in fact invited to come as observers. If Ahenakew were to plead innocence by invoking the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms - particularly the right to freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression - I might have been partial towards his case, albeit with a few bones to pick. Any individual is afforded his or her own opinion and belief, and rightly so. But for someone in a highly esteemed and public official position such as Ahenakew’s to harbour such hateful sentiments - not to mention freely expressing them during past occasions - is nothing short of flirting with danger.

Like dirty secrets, such sentiments are bound to make themselves known sooner or later through our communicative faculties. The flaw, I would say, that brought about his downfall was Ahenakew’s lack of subtlety in expressing or concealing his sentiments. I do not for an instance support anti-Semitism. I am, however, an ardent supporter of article 2(b) of the Charter. It was Ahenakew’s personal right to hold such beliefs as he did, but I truly feel that it was wrong of him to transmit those beliefs either intentionally or unintentionally, if that is at all possible. Given the context, it is inevitable that his views would be made public. To issue such statements in such a context and later plead innocence, I think, implies a certain degree of malicious intent to incite hatred.

Among the many manoeuvres made by Ahenakew’s legal defence team - one of them being a claim that his anger was possibly caused by his insulin imbalance - one proved intriguing to me as student of journalism. Doug Kristie, Ahenakew’s lawyer, initially demanded that similar charges were brought upon the reporter, James Parker. Assuming that Ahenakew was in fact guilty of inciting hatred, Parker - by reporting and making the statements public - played a part in that incitement. Logically, if Parker had not reported on it, Ahenakew’s now famous statements would not have reached a wider audience than those present during the conversation. Technically, I think that argument may hold water. However, although Parker may have transgressed some ethical boundaries in his reporting, several points stand in his favour.

In the case of a recorded conversation, prior consent is required of only one party involved in order for the contents of the recording to be usable. This does not mean that the recording may be broadcasted. However, Parker did broadcast the interview and Ahenakew claimed that he did not consent to being recorded. This is perhaps where Parker may done himself a disfavour and put his ethical practices as a journalist in a harsher light.

Technicalities aside, let’s assume that Parker reported on the interview only in print. His report would still reflect Ahenakew’s anti-Semitic view which could eventually find their way towards a welcoming audience somewhere. What if Parker had taken this into consideration and refrained from reporting on Ahenakew. Would such sentiments done less harm if they were left unnoticed, ignored, unchecked? I would argue that it will do even more harm once they are disseminated into the public after years of festering in secret.

While his methods were questionable, I think Parker’s reporting on the controversial issue did a big favour to the Canadian public - while it stirred controversy - and one liable to continue for several more years - we were made aware of the presence of such malice in an influential figure in our society. The ensuing public outcry and Ahenakew’s subsequent removal from office was a result of that report. I think Parker deserves a collective pat on the back, at least, for having the guts to break the rules for the greater good.

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