Finding a common language

Candaian indigenous leaders seek dialogue in Jerusalem.

native america 88.298 (photo credit: )
native america 88.298
(photo credit: )
It has been six months since a Canadian First Nations chief was stripped of his Order of Canada - the country's highest civilian medal - for inciting hatred against Jews. Last week, in an effort to increase cultural awareness and build bridges between Jews and First Nations peoples of Canada, a group of 18 aboriginal leaders came to Israel for a six-day tour to learn about Jewish history and culture. "First Nations" is the term used in Canada for indigenous peoples. The tour, hosted by the Canadian Jewish Congress, was attended by Assembly of First Nations (AFN) national chief Phil Fontaine and 17 Canadian First Nations representatives from across Canada including a university professor, a businessman and the president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, as well as several chiefs. The group met with President Moshe Katsav and Canada's ambassador to Israel, Donald Sinclair. In Jerusalem, they toured the Western Wall, Yad Vashem, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. David Ahenakew, the tough-talking former chief of Canada's AFN, resigned in disgrace in December 2002 in response to a storm of protest following his profanity-laced speech delivered in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. In comments to a reporter after that speech, Ahenakew defended the Holocaust, saying it was an effort by the Nazis to "clean up the world," that Jewish people are a "disease" and that Adolf Hitler was right when he "fried'' six million Jews. Six months ago, he was also stripped of his Order of Canada. Last July, Ahenakew was convicted of willfully promoting hatred against Jews and was fined C$1,000. "If that [David Ahenakew's sentence] was a catalyst for our communities getting to know each other, then there's a silver lining," said Canadian Jewish Congress president Ed Morgan, a Toronto lawyer who accompanied the leaders on their trip. Morgan and Fontaine said their relationship predates Ahenakew's conviction, but plans for a series of cultural exchanges were stepped up when Fontaine became national chief after the incident. Chief Fontaine is now in his second term as national chief of the AFN, the Canadian group lobbying for the rights of the country's more than 630 aboriginal nations, or tribes. A member of Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba, near Winnipeg, he was raised speaking Ojibway, one of three aboriginal languages in Canada that is still spoken today. The other 52 are in various stages of extinction. "We're fascinated by the history here, the richness of it and the incredible resilience of the people," Fontaine said, citing the history of suffering prejudices and the struggle to maintain aboriginal languages as parallels between the First Nations experience and the Jewish experience. "Indigenous people in Canada have much in common with the people of Israel, including a respect of the land and their languages. This mission is an excellent opportunity for us to share our values and our traditional ways of life, in the hope of building greater understanding, awareness and respect for our similarities and differences, both at home and abroad." The group largely refrained from discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They were intrigued, however, by the plight of the Beduin. Like Canadian natives, traditionally nomadic peoples in Israel have struggled to maintain their way of life in the face of modern development. Both groups continue to endure poverty, poor housing conditions, disease and high rates of infant mortality. The AFN will reciprocate this summer by inviting members of the Canadian Jewish Congress to Yukon and to tour of some of Canada's reserves.