James Keegstra is dead. Some might ask who was James Keegstra?
It was James Keegstra that defined for Canada the limits of our tolerance for intolerance. It was an epic battle that that began in a small Alberta town ending in the Supreme Court of Canada.
Keegstra was a high school social studies teacher in the small Alberta town of Eckville. Located at the mid-point between Calgary and Edmonton it's about 35KM west of Red Deer. A devout member of the Dutch Reform Church, Keegstra had another devotion, Jew hatred, which spilled out with venom in his teachings.
Keegstra's hatred of Jews was spawned by a religious fervour, his misreading of the bible and firm belief that by rejecting Jesus Christ, the Jews were simply evil. His Dutch Reform Church was unable to fulfil Keegstra's growing abhorrence of Judaism. He soon became attached to an extremist Gospel Congregation that fed his hatred and linked with like-minded antisemites such as Ron Gostick, John Ross Taylor and others. Keegstra also warmly embraced the doctrine of Social Credit and cozied up nicely to the part of Social Credit (the Douglasites) that was rabidly antisemitic.
In later years Keegstra made common cause with the likes of Paul Fromm,Ernst Zundel and the man who was to become his lawyer and friend of antisemitic causes, Doug Christie who passed away earlier this year.
Keegstra began to teach his antisemitic theories in the early 1970s. He also ran successfully for Mayor of Eckville and thus was well respected. No one raised an eyebrow that the children of Eckville were being schooled in the path of hatred and intolerance.
Robert Mason Lee in a stunning 1985 exposé of Keegstra's impact on his students, wrote of one student Gwen, whose notebook was filled with her teacher's lectures:
"Christ told the Jews, 'Your father is the devil, you are children of Satan.'"
Of Jews in general Gwen's written notes said:
Jewish-controlled Jacobins in the French Revolution devised the Feast of Reason: They carried aloft a number of prostitute. They would strip her and lay her on the alter. Then they killed an innocent girl, and poured blood on the hooker. Then they cooked the girl and ate her.
There was more, yet it wasn't until one parent, Susan Maddox, stood up to lodge a complaint that anything was done. Finally after ten years Keegstra was ordered by his school board to cease teaching his antisemitic conspiracy theories and stick to the curriculum. Keegstra continued and was consequently fired. A subsequent appeal by Keegstra to the Court of Queen's Bench was denied.
Nonetheless Keegstra was still a revered citizen of Eckville. Blame was cast on Susan Maddox and others who it was claimed put Eckville in a bad light by over-blowing Keegstra's work as a teacher.
In January 1984 James Keegstra was charged under Canada's anti-hate laws for knowingly and wilfully promoting hatred against an identifiable group, the Jews.
At the time the anti-hate law was sparsely used but the Keegstra case alongside that of anti-hate charges levelled against Ontario residents Don Andrews and Robert Smith became the quintessential cases by which law was made in Canada.
James Keegstra was brought before the Courts in Alberta. He was convicted but this was soon overturned by the Appeals Court in the province. According to the Alberta Court of Appeal Canada's anti-hate law was unconstitutional. In Ontario Andrews and Smith also had their conviction quashed by the Ontario Court of Appeal. This led to a filing to the Supreme Court of Canada. In a close decision the majority found that while there may be a violation of free expression it was justified under S1 of our Charter to fight the scourge of hate promotion.
During this time my colleague Manuel Prutschi, then National Director of Community Relations for Canadian Jewish Congress and Allan Shefman, then of B'nai Brith Canada both played instrumental roles in the lower Court trials, the appeals and the final decision by the Supreme Court.
Spending weeks at a time in Red Deer Alberta and later Edmonton where the Keegstra trials were held, Prutschi and Shefman by alternating weeks worked closely with the Alberta Crown, Bruce Fraser to assist on complex issues of Talmud, Jewish law and history.
The death of James Keegstra will probably be little recognized today. However in the end it was this case that became a victory for Canadian tolerance impacting the Jewish community and all vulnerable minorities in Canada.