David Ahenakew

On April 4, 2005, Canada's controversial hate speech law went on trial. David Ahenakew, former Assembly of First Nations leader, was put on trial for statements that allegedly excuse, justify, explain or perhaps praise Hitler's acts during the Shoah or Holocaust.

The quote most cited was made to journalists after a conference regarding the status of First Nations in the national and global economy, during which Ahenakew asserted that "Jews" were in control of Canada in much the same way as "they" were in control of Germany prior to Hitler's rise:

  • "That's why he fried six million of those guys."


Criminal Code of Canada cases like this hinge on intent: whether Ahenakew meant to spread hate by speaking in this way.

While the tone and metaphor employed are truly inexcusable, it is unclear whether Ahenakew meant to imply that this was merely Hitler's historically accepted rationale for his evil acts (which it is), or something else. For instance, an acceptable modern political rationale for an extremely violent (indeed genocidal) response to any such alleged takeover in Canada. Ahenakew asserted in the same conversation that a "takeover" is also going on in North America but did not explicitly advocate any action similar to Hitler's. The case may turn on this ambiguity, or on Ahenakew's intent, or on uneven application of the law, which has never been tested in this particular context:

not denial

For instance, he seems to accurately report the events of the past - he does not in any sense deny Hitler's motives or his actions, as the so-called "Holocaust deniers" do. Rather than spreading a view that is in defiance of historical fact in living memory, he is agreeing with it: that Hitler perceived something, and did something about it. This is not the same as advocating it in the present, but, Ahenakew's other words could be inferred that way:

not unaware

As a person with a political role in the past, it would be hard for him to claim ignorance of the consequences of talking to journalists or in this fashion.


All First Nations groups immediately disavowed themselves of Ahenakew and his views and statements. Major efforts have been made since to reconcile Jewish and First Nations groups, notably on the issue of their shared experiences of genocide and cultural genocide under European rule.


However, pursuing Ahenakew was by no means uncontroversial. The prosecution of this case, urged by the Canadian Jewish Congress, has been extremely controversial, as are all such hate speech cases. To summarize the major issues that make the case of great legal interest:

  • The extremely uneven application of the law to First Nations, against whom racist and hateful statements are extremely common, but never in the history of law prosecuted; According to the Charter, an unevenly or selectively applied law is unconstitutional by definition
  • Whether free speech as defined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is restricted by hate speech laws in a reasonable way. That is, whether it is inhibiting Ahenakew from making a political statement about a potential cause or rationale of past events, simply in order to prevent him from speaking his mind on current events, i.e. not being prosecuted for his statements about the past, but rather, for his statements about the present, which are unusual and racist but not likely to be found to be "hate".

political fallout

And more issues of political interest:
  • The effect on relations between Canada's aboriginal and Jewish groups which are likely to be polarized by this case and use of this law
  • The application of such laws to Muslim or other immigrant groups which have historically had hostilities or resentments towards Jewish people or the state of Israel, should the prosecution be successful - for instance its use against Al Jazeera which is now available in Canada