Saturday, 14 June 2014

Jim Keegstra: A class project forges a friendship

Jim Keegstra was fired from his job as a social studies
teacher in Eckville, Alberta for telling his students the Holocaust didn't happen.
It was the first time in my life I really thought about freedom of speech, what limits should be put on it, and what promoting hatred was. In the process I met my best friend.

This past week the death of Jim Keegstra brought a stream of memories cascading back from life in Grade 10, particularly Social 10 in second semester, spring of 1985.

Shattered trust
The story made national headlines. Jim Keegstra, a social studies teacher in Eckville, Alberta, had been fired for teaching his students the Holocaust never happened. Ultimately he was charged with wilfully promoting hatred against an identifiable group and convicted.

Meanwhile in Toronto, Ernst Zundel, was also in court for denying the Holocaust happened, after publishing a pamphlet questioning whether six million people died.

These cases were inextricably linked because Keegstra and Zundel were represented by the same man, lawyer Doug Christie.

I was in Grade 9 when all this stuff began to come out. Even back then I thought Keegstra had abused his power as a social teacher. We talked a lot about politics and current events in our house, but I knew not all families were like ours.

Pretty soon I would get a chance to learn more about all this, and put my views to the test.

Class project
I first met Chris Vining at the beginning of Grade 10, when our lockers were next to each other and we began to chat. When second semester came, we were actually in a few classes together.

One was Social Studies 10, with Miss Val Cooper. It covered a broad range of material, mostly about Canada. Throughout the year, we had to do two class projects. They were pretty involved, including a researched written report and, for the second one, an oral presentation.

Miss Cooper assigned partners alphabetically for the first one and, low and behold, Vining was assigned to me (I just laughed out loud because I realized I met my best friend because our names followed each other in the alphabet). Anyway, that first project was about Canadian foreign policy and the country’s role in the Strategic Defence Initiative, or Star Wars defence policy as it was called, being put forth by then U.S. President Ronald Reagan. We did a written report on that, primarily during class time, but also at lunch hours.

A few months later, we had another project and could choose any partner we liked. By then, Vining and I had been bench partners in Biology 10 for a few months (also assigned alphabetically), and began talking frequently on the phone.

So we chose each other, and were actually assigned the topic of Keegstra and Zundel by Miss Cooper. The next few weeks, as melodramatic as it sounds, changed the course of my life forever.

The report
Miss Cooper had some material, which we ran through pretty quickly, then we hit the school library. Mr. Dick Kanashiro, the school librarian, helped us find some more in newspapers, magazines, and what was called “the vertical file”. I also had a personal interest in the Holocaust, and the various concentration camps in particular.

We had tons of class time to do this, but we realized it would not be enough, and we would have to get together outside of school. The problem was it was not real easy for me to get to town. It was the story of my life.

Ultimately, we arranged for my dad to drop me off at Chris’ house after church on Sunday. It was the first time I had ever been to his house, and we worked quite a bit. We also procrastinated, talking about sports, and school.

Later that week, on a Wednesday night, I arranged to stay after school and we worked late. The report was done, but we still had the oral presentation to do. I was the better writer, and wrote a good chunk of the report, while Chris was already a much better public speaker than me, so he agreed to do the talking. I would be there to answer questions.

I remember my mom saying they would pick me up at like 9 p.m., and we were scrambling to get everything done. We were still writing when I saw my parents pull up to the house.

What I remember was a show I had stared watching, “Double Dare” starring Billy Dee Williams and Ken Wahl, was just starting when we left Vining’s house in Coaldale, and it aired Wednesday nights.

Oral presentation
The crux of our presentation was that Keegstra and Zundel were promoting hatred. There was undeniable evidence the Holocaust had happened, and what they were doing was an “abuse of our cultural mosaic”. Me and Vining were both pretty proud of that phrase. We were supposed to offer solutions as well, and one I recall was a random sampling of unaddressed junk mail to screen for hate literature.

After we were done, I remember one of our classmates named John, asking a simple question, “What if it’s true?”

I was trying to be funny, as insecure teenagers can be, and responded, “What the hell do you mean?”

The whole class laughed, while Miss Cooper covered her ears at the use of the word “hell”. That brought more laughter.

In retrospect, John hit at the heart of all these types of cases: truth is a defence for slander, libel, and defamation. At the time, I smiled and told him in this case there were millions of witnesses to the events of the Holocaust, and they all couldn’t be lying. Moreover, the stories from camps like Dachau and Buchenwald were too similar for survivors to make them out. It would have to have been a mass conspiracy for thousands and thousands of survivors to get their story straight if they had made it up.

It was an energetic and lively discussion, which is why it still sticks out in my mind.

And we got a killer mark in the end.

A year later, Chris and I were standing in the hall and a Grade 10er who Chris knew came up to him. He had been assigned the same topic and not only had the same materials we did, but a copy of our presentation. He said the teacher said it was one of the best, so he wanted some pointers. By then, both of us had moved on so far beyond that point, we had very little recollection of the whole project.

Parting thoughts
The benefit of time, age, and experience show Jim Keegstra was out of bounds in teaching his students the Holocaust never happened. Yet, doing that report was the first time I began to realize that freedom of speech was not a black and white issue, which I guess was the whole point Miss Cooper was trying to teach us.

What is a reasonable limit on that freedom? Given what I do for a living, I still contemplate that issue every day.

Along the way, I also met the best friend I would have in high school. We went on to be roommates in university, I would stand by him at his first wedding, and we shared countless experiences and memories.

What more could you ask for?

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