CANADA

Guilty as charged

James Keegstra reaches the end of the legal line

PEETER KOPVILLEM March 11 1996
CANADA

Guilty as charged

James Keegstra reaches the end of the legal line

PEETER KOPVILLEM March 11 1996

Guilty as charged

James Keegstra reaches the end of the legal line

Moles only come out in the

dark when no one is watching. Jews only do their deeds when no one is

watching. A mole when mad, will strike back and have no mercy when disturbed. Jews strike at any time and have NO mercy.” That excerpt from an examination answer penned by an Eckville, Alta., high-school student in 1982 is just one example of the lessons

taught by former social studies teacher James Keegstra—lessons that launched a long and convoluted series of trials and appeals that finally ended in Ottawa last week. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld Keegstra’s 1992 conviction in Alberta—his second—on charges of wilfully inciting hatred against an identifiable group. “It ends a very ugly chapter in Alberta’s history,” said Hal Joffe, spokesman for the Canadian Jewish Congress. “All groups in our multicultural society will rest easy tonight.”

The Keegstra case began in the fall of 1982 when one Eckville parent, dismayed by what she had discovered in her son’s social studies notebook, complained about the teacher to the local school board. In December of that year, Keegstra lost his teaching job; in January, 1984, he was charged with hate-mongering. After a 70day trial, he was convicted on July 20, 1985—but three years later the Alberta Court of Appeal overturned that ruling after Keegstra’s lawyer, Doug Christie, argued that Canada’s so-called hate law was uncon-

stitutional because it denies freedom of expression. Not according to the Supreme Court, which subsequently upheld the law’s constitutionality and sent the case back to the provincial appeals court, which ordered a new trial. On July 10, 1992, Keegstra was again found guilty, a decision that he successfully appealed two years later on the grounds that the jury received inappropriate direction from the trial judge.

That decision set the stage for last week’s Supreme Court ruling, which also reaffirmed the high court’s previous decision that Canada’s anti-hate law is constitutional. Relying largely on written submissions filed before the hearing, the nine justices listened to arguments by Christie before saying that they would not need to hear from the Crown. They recessed briefly and then returned to deliver their ruling—ending more than a decade of legal wrangling. Keegstra’s case now returns to the Alberta Court of Appeal, which will hear sentencing arguments: Keegstra is appealing his $3,000 fine in his 1992 conviction, while the Crown may ask for a stiffer sentence.

Keegstra, who now works as an automobile mechanic, remains unrepentant. Described in 1985 by the judge presiding over his original trial as “akin to a drug addict pushing drugs,” he declared last week that he is “disappointed, because we were dealing with truths and now they’ve made me a criminal for telling the truth.” And while some Eckville residents expressed relief that the case was finally over, it is clear that certain aspects of Keegstra’s ugly brand of “truth” continue to resonate. Before the initial complaint against him, he spread his anti-Semitic message among Eckville students for more than a decade. Last week, one of them told reporters that at least some of his teachings fell on fertile ground. “He was so strong about it that I believed what he believed,” said the former student, who asked to remain anonymous. “You basically accepted what you were being taught.” While Keegstra’s legal odyssey may have ended—he could face up to two years in jail—his troubling legacy remains.

PEETER KOPVILLEM