Two years ago, David Ahenakew, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, was charged with promoting hatred in a 2002 rant against Jews. His unprovoked denunciations, captured by a reporter during an interview on an unrelated topic, were so classically anti-Semitic, they could have emerged from the pages of Nazi Germany’s propaganda rag, Der Sturmer. Next month, he will find out if he is guilty of hate speech. In law, that is. Whatever. Courts are not the answer for the likes of Ahenakew.
The courts are fine arbiters for many crimes, but not this one. True freedom of speech demands a high tolerance for social cretins, including the bottom feeders who believe, along with Ahenakew, that Hitler was right to “fry” six million Jews. There are other ways to punish those who betray the social covenant.
What alternatives are there? Native communities frequently advocate community-based sentencing as a more effective and culturally appropriate corrective. Indeed, a post-trial native tribunal is planned for Ahenakew. But if he ends up in a sweat lodge smoking sweet grass, that would be too little, too late.
Because of their emphasis on group identity, native communities are uniquely well situated to impose the simple punishment Ahenakew truly deserves, namely social ostracism—or “shunning,” as it is known in its institutionalized form.
Shunning is a technique invoked by organized communities, usually religions, to compel penance and reform. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, apply it as a spiritual chastisement to those who deviate from their doctrinal path. Once engaged, rules forbid members to address, sit near, comfort or aid, or in any way acknowledge the presence of the “disfellowshipped” member.
When arbitrarily imposed by unaccountable religious elites with a vested interest in maintaining control, shunning is often an abusive practice with strong totalitarian overtones. By contrast, when it is a spontaneous reaction by social peers against a transgressor of community values, shunning can be a legitimate, non-violent expression of outrage (ask any smoker). In an era where the law is too often considered our only recourse for protection from unpleasantness, this non-legal technique is an under-utilized social corrective.
In the past, the bigotry of older people was laughed off by the young. But our obsession with tolerance is now so all-pervasive that Ahenakew and his kind can’t count on free passes. A generation ago, reporters would have ignored an anti-Semitic fusillade from a native elder. No longer.
Even more distressing in this case is Ahenakew’s membership in the Order of Canada. The Order is Canada’s “highest civilian honour for lifetime achievement,” reserved for “people who have made a difference to our country”—that is to say, Canada’s most accomplished, most public-spirited individuals.
Military awards are given out for past acts of service, which can never be nullified. The Order of Canada is a character award and linked to continuing civic role modeling. Thus, unlike those with military awards, Order members are obliged to wear their little pin at all times (I even see them, charmingly, on jogging suits). I had hoped some especially prestigious members might announce—not that they were resigning from the Order, I’m not looking for martyrs—that they would not wear their pin as long as Ahenakew had the right to wear his, a virtual shunning that would snowball into his voluntary or forced “disfellowship.”
The silence from the 3,000-strong Order’s living membership spoke volumes about our most illustrious citizens’ passive reliance on the criminal justice system, instead of their own initiative, to counter an associate’s assault on Canadian values.
The “system” did the opposite: In court Ahenakew was buoyed up by a rambunctious fan club rather than isolated and humbled. Their encouragement gave him confidence to recant a previous half-hearted apology and expand on his vile beliefs. If he is convicted, he will feel martyred. If he is exonerated, he will feel “innocent.” Of course he is neither. And if Ahenakew is stripped of his Order only after a legal verdict, it will be for the wrong reason, and of no moral significance.
Freedom to spew hate does not include freedom from its social consequences. Courts judge actions. Judgment of character is the domain and the obligation of kinsmen and civic peers. Be they native or white, whether Ahenakew is judged guilty or innocent, their cold shoulder is what this man deserves.