Holocaust denier Jim Keegstra, who lost a 12-year court battle that pitted his freedom of expression against Canada’s hate law, has died in Red Deer. He was 80 years old.
Keegstra was a former teacher and mayor of Eckville who came to national attention in the summer of 1983 when Canadians learned the public high school social studies instructor had for years been teaching his students about a Jewish conspiracy. Keegstra had taught that “treacherous” and “subversive” Jews were to blame for historic calamities, were trying to rule the world and destroy the Christian way of life. He claimed Jews created the Holocaust to “gain sympathy.”
But these hateful views were largely ignored by the school principal until the outraged parents of an Eckville student took the issue to the school board and the Advocate reported on it.
Keegstra was dismissed from his job and had his teaching certificate revoked after disregarding warnings to stop teaching students anti-Semitic content.
Political pressure began building to have him charged under national hate laws after a rookie rural member of Alberta’s legislature was also quoted in the media as doubting the Holocaust. On Jan. 11, 1984, Alberta’s Attorney General charged Keegstra for criminally promoting hatred against an identifiable group, although no successful prosecution had ever been made before under Canada’s 1970 hate law.
Keegstra argued this charge unreasonably infringed on his Charter of Rights guarantee of free expression, as well as his presumption of innocence. After two long trials, three hearings in the Supreme Court of Canada, and six trials and appeals in Alberta, which cost taxpayers about $1 million, Keegstra finally lost all legal avenues.
He was sentenced in 1996 to what many people saw as a slap on the wrist. After his lawyer argued that Keegstra had, otherwise, led a blameless life, always supported his family and community, was now impoverished and “vilified,” he received a one-year suspended sentence, one year of probation and 200 hours of community service.
One of his trial judges concluded that Keegstra could not be rehabilitated, and that the loss of his teaching licence was a more serious punishment than anything the court could impose.
With his classroom career over, Keegstra, who was born in 1934 in Vulcan, worked as a mechanic, then farmed with his twin brother John in the Rimbey area for some years.
He grew up as the son of Dutch immigrants who came to Alberta in 1928 and worked in various communities as hired farm hands.
Keegstra married in 1956 and apprenticed as a mechanic before going to university to become a teacher.
He taught in Cremona, Red Deer and Medicine Hat before moving to Eckville, were he was also a town councillor and mayor from 1974 to 1983 — when his notoriety cost him a re-election.
After giving up farming, he retired to a low-key life in Red Deer, where he was a custodian and handyman at Convent Park Apartments.
Keegstra died on June 2, and is survived by his four children.