LAW

A courtroom saga of racial accusations

Andrew Nikiforuk June 17 1985
LAW

A courtroom saga of racial accusations

Andrew Nikiforuk June 17 1985

A courtroom saga of racial accusations

LAW

Andrew Nikiforuk

James Keegstra has not taught school for three years, but for the past two weeks the 51-year-old auto mechanic has presented his testimony at his trial in Red Deer, Alta., as an educational exercise, outlining his unorthodox view of the world with a genial frankness. Keegstra repeatedly told the 10man, two-woman jury that a diabolical group of international financiers and “atheistical Jews” is conspiring to control the world and destroy Christianity, which he called “the greatest civilization the world has ever known.” He outlined what he characterized as the conspirators’ evil machinations throughout history in the wars and revolutions he claims it has financed, citing obscure racist texts and even a 1919 article in Maclean's to support his often bizarre arguments. Asked Keegstra: “How come we can be against anything, but when it comes to being anti-Jewish, it is a heinous crime? If I disagree with someone, that does not mean I hate him.”

A Christian fundamentalist of Dutch descent whom the local Lacombe County school board fired in 1982 because of parents’ complaints, Keegstra is charged with wilfully promoting hatred against Jews while teaching social studies from 1968 to 1982 in a high school in Eckville, a small farming community in central Alberta. His turn in the witness box followed almost seven weeks of testimony from 23 former students, whose readings from classroom notes and essays often revealed interpretations of world events that departed significantly from accepted views. Concluded ex-pupil Richard Denis in a typical paper that Keegstra awarded an above-average mark: “We must get rid of every Jew in existence so we may live in peace and freedom.”

Throughout the past two weeks Keegstra has steadfastly maintained that he had only tried to instil truth and knowledge in his students. He added that he followed the 1981 provincial social studies curriculum, which he described as “a broad and nebulous” guide that “did not give you any idea about what kind of facts you should be using.” As a result, Keegstra drew his facts from such texts as Fourth Reich of the Rich by Des Griffin and World Revolutions, a 1924 publication by an obscure British author named Nesta Webster. Directed slowly by defence lawyer Douglas Christie through those texts and student

notebooks, Keegstra has disclosed a singular vision of history. He maintains that Jews have no right to a homeland in Palestine because they are not true Semites but descendants of Khazars, an obscure Central Asian group that converted to Judaism in 740 AD. He taught that the French Revolution was “imported” by a secret Jewish sect called the Illuminati. And in Keegstra’s view the Nazis used gas chambers in their concentration camps only for delousing,

and the Nuremberg war crimes trials were a miscarriage of justice because they were dominated by a “retributive and revengeful” Jewish ideology.

The trial, held in a modern courtroom decorated in soft beige and mauve colors, has frequently taken on the air of a surreal theatre. Mr. Justice John MacKenzie, a soft-spoken man, often acts as a referee between Crown prosecutor

Bruce Fraser and defence lawyer Christie, who can barely hide their apparent dislike for each other. (Christie, a flamboyant Victoria lawyer, recently defended Ernst Zundel, the Toronto publisher convicted of knowingly publishing false information likely to cause harm to racial or social tolerance.) Members of the jury, armed with orange binders which hold a mountain of evidence, carefully take notes like attentive high school students.

Watching the proceedings is an increasingly restless media corps and a diehard group of Keegstra supporters, many of whom reverently thumb Bibles, wear buttons that read “Freedom of Speech” and “Stop the witch hunt. Help Keegstra” and respond to Keegstra’s frequent expressions of piety by repeating “Praise the Lord.” Said one 61-yearold regular observer who would identify himself only as a Canadian citizen and veteran of the Second World War: “What Keegstra represents I fought for—the protection of our democratic freedoms.”

Keegstra’s detailed and often tedious testimony threatens to make the already lengthy trial a legal marathon. Indeed, last week MacKenzie told jurors that the trial will probably not end until July. As well, it is clear that arriving at a verdict will be a difficult task. In the past 14 years not one of five previous Canadian prosecutions for wilfully promoting hatred has ended in a conviction. Although the defence is arguing that Keegstra honestly held his beliefs on reasonable grounds, the Crown has to attack both the honesty and reasonableness of his statements to obtain a conviction. Noted University of Alberta law professor Bruce Elman, who is writing a book on the trial’s legal implications: “It is difficult to convict under this section of the Criminal Code because it was intentionally made difficult to convict—to allow for the fullest scope of freedom of speech.”

Although members of the jury are already showing signs of fatigue, Keegstra is expected to testify for another two weeks. And MacKenzie has told them not to let their minds stray from the complicated web of information that the former teacher has spun out. Said the judge: “There is much to be considered before you can even start thinking about what the proper verdict is.” Clearly, that web will become even more complicated when Crown prosecutor Fraser begins his cross-examination in two weeks.