Saturday, August 22, 2009

Stockwell Day: Fire, Brimstone and Neo-Nazis

There is a book written in 2001, about the life of Stockwell Day, a man I have long despised, called 'REQUIEM FOR A LIGHTWEIGHT, Stockwell Day and Image Politics' by Trevor W. Harrison, that goes into a bit of detail about Day's rise to the top.

How did someone with such little education, and absolutely narrow minded views, get to the position he has? He was almost Prime Minster of Canada, and while I filmy believe that Stephen Harper is the worst PM we've ever had, I think Day would have finished us off sooner than Harper is now trying to do.

The first chapter of Mr. Harrison's book is available online and can be read here. (Title page here) I've ordered it and look forward to reading the rest.

In the first chapter the author mentions the ties between Stockwell Day and James Keegstra, the man fired from his teaching position for suggesting that the holocaust was a hoax. Both were living in Bentley, Alberta; a town that would later become infamous as a haven for hate mongers.

"Sometime around 1983, after his dismissal from teaching, Keegstra moved to Bentley where he opened a garage. There, various other prominent members of the extreme right, such as Terry Long, leader of the Church of Aryan Nations, and Doug Christie, head of Western Canada Concept and a lawyer famous for defending individuals accused of hate crimes, are said sometimes to have visited Keegstra.

Day met Keegstra during this period and took his car to the garage for servicing on at least one occasion. However, according to Calgary lawyer Gerald Chipeur, hired by Day in the spring of 2000 when stories linking him to Keegstra resurfaced, Day never returned after the mechanic began a "hate-filled diatribe." (Mr. Keegstra tells it a little differently)

I've mentioned Doug Christie in a couple of posts, and while I don't agree with some of what he has to say, he also makes a lot of sense. Certainly not a burner of crosses. He is just a firm believer in the absolute freedom of speech, while I feel that hate mongering is a very dangerous thing, and that those who incite hatred should be punished.

But for Stockwell Day, his relationship to Doug Christie goes back a bit further. From Wikipedia:

His father, Stockwell Day, Sr., was long associated with the Social Credit Party of Canada. In the 1972 federal election he was the Social Credit candidate running against New Democratic Party leader Tommy Douglas in the riding of Nanaimo—Cowichan—The Islands. Day, Sr., supported Doug Christie and was a member of the Western Canada Concept.

From 1978 to 1985, Day (Junior) was assistant pastor and school administrator at the Bentley Christian Centre in Bentley, Alberta. His school taught the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum, which caused some controversy for its alleged anti-semitism.

Apparently Mr. Christie and several others actually joined the Alliance to support Stockwell Day's leadership bid, because they believed that they had finally found a voice for their neo-conservative view points. He would later be kicked out when the publicity became unfavourable, but this was the political environment where Stockwell cut his teeth.

There was an interesting article about Day's fundamentalism and links to neo-Nazi groups, that appeared in July of 2000. A decade earlier, the Reform Party was also being linked to some of the same people that Doug Christie was defending.

That's the trouble with a political party voicing extremist views. It attracts all sorts.

But back to Stockwell Day, fundamentalism and the neo-Nazis.

Bentley, Alberta: Hellfire, Neo-Nazis and Stockwell Day
A two-part look inside the little town that nurtured a would-be prime minister - and some of the most notorious hate-mongers in Canada

Part 1: Day's roots in the religious right
By: Gordon Laird

On the surface, Bentley looks a little like a set from an old western movie: a single main street rolls through the centre of town alongside old storefronts and residences. An old beer parlour and hotel sits downtown, and you can't turn a corner without finding a house of worship. It's a picturesque slice of central Alberta and the place where Stockwell Day, who made his name as leader of a renegade evangelical church, went from pastor to politician.

Until recently the treasurer of Alberta, Day is now a candidate for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance party. But despite the bucolic setting, back when Day was becoming a public figure Bentley and nearby Red Deer and Eckville percolated with Christian fundamentalism - and a virulent, faith-driven brand of anti-Semitism. This ideological weave of old Social Credit conspiracy doctrines, religion and far-right politics explains why to this day, despite Day's prominence in Alberta's cabinet, there are still neo-Nazi sympathizers from back home who claim to be his friends.

Day made headlines for defending fundamentalist school curricula that a government commission later found to hold "a degree of insensitivity towards blacks, Jews and natives."

When anti-Semitic teacher Jim Keegstra got tossed from his classroom in Red Deer in the early 80s for teaching about the "Jewish conspiracy," he certainly didn't stop profligating his message. Rather, he headed to Bentley, where he set up the Christian Defence Fund (CDL) and ran a mechanic's garage. The garage was popular, despite Keegstra's public denial of the holocaust. Even Stockwell Day - the man who would be prime minister some day - took his car to get serviced there. Eventually, Keegstra - who calls Day by his nickname, "Stock," as does everyone in town, attracted a bevy of notorious characters.

Visiting him in the garage or at his Eckville home were Aryan Nation leader Terry Long, Douglas Christie, lawyer for almost every major Canadian holocaust denier who's ever ran foul of the law, neo-Nazi Ernst Zundel and various white supremacists from south of the border - all of whom lent their passions to the the already combustible area.

Indeed politics and religion in this central Alberta region have always been intense. It is Reform country and before that Social Credit country. The party ruled Alberta from 1935 to 72 and continually struggled with anti-Semitism within the party. In the Day family, Stock's father, Stockwell Day Sr., ran for the federal Socreds against the NDP's Tommy Douglas in Vancouver in 1972. Later, he hooked up with the separatist Western Concept Party, also dedicated to preserving "our" Christian and European heritage and founded by lawyer Doug Christie. ("Doug, it is time for you, the captain, to call "all aboard," wrote Stock Sr. in the organization's newsletter in 1996.)

Following the Socred tradition, Day found his political calling while at the controversial Bentley Christian Centre. From 1978 to 85, Day was assistant pastor and school administrator. And in 1984 he made headlines for defending fundamentalist school curricula that a government commission later found to hold "a degree of insensitivity towards blacks, Jews and natives."

The ACE material that Day defended included a reading lesson which asked junior high students: "The Jewish leaders were children of their father, the devil - true or false?"

Alberta senator Ron Ghitter headed the 18-month commission on schooling in the wake of the Keegstra affair. His report raised serious questions about the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE), a curriculum imported by the Centre from the Texas-based School of Tomorrow and a rigid set of prescriptions for fundamentalist teaching on scripture and creation science.

"ACE schools were schools of dogma," says Ghitter, a former cabinet minister. "They didn't follow official curriculum and the kids who came out had sort of a twisted Christianity with anti-Semitic overtones." Ghitter recalls one telling incident in a Red Deer Christian school where he discovered an ACE book that argued "all kinds of Buddhists and Muslims are evil." He took the book to the principal, who promptly denied knowing anything about the literature, saying that it was an old book. Ghitter checked the cover: it was new.

"It's repulsive that people would be teaching this material," he explains. "But in certain pockets of central Alberta - Eckville, Bentley, Red Deer - they're good people but they sometimes take the position that their religion is right and others are inferior." At the time Day fervently defended the material - and the right of his school to teach whatever it wanted - saying he was willing to "go to jail, if need be."

"God's law is clear," said an angry Day to the Alberta Report in 1984. "Standards of education are not set by government, but by God, the Bible, the home and the school."

But there was more to the ACE material than just Bible teaching. Social studies lessons warned students that democratic governments "represent the ultimate deification of man, which is the very essence of humanism and totally alien to God's word." Science lessons taught pure creationism, noting that all evolutionists were guilty of "depravity and sinfulness." In other words, the ACE material that Day so passionately defended sometimes took an extreme and dismissive view on secular society - a position that was radical even for religious private schooling.

Religion was so high-strung that kids from the Bentley Christian Centre weren't allowed to play sports with children from outside the parish.

Moreover, there was the Jewish question. Paula Simons of the Edmonton Journal, who interviewed Day at the time, recently reported that the ACE materials were peppered with some disturbing Keegstra-esque statements. In one reading lesson, junior high students were asked: "The Jewish leaders were children of their father, the devil - true or false?" Day was quick to insist that the teachings at the Bentley Christian Centre were never anti-Semitic or intolerant. "That is totally inaccurate and slanderous," he told a reporter in 1985. "We refer to the Jews as the chosen people - the materials are against anti-Semitism."

What Day has to say about this today cannot be known by NOW readers as the former treasurer did not respond to five calls over six days and a set of e-mail questions. Ghitter himself is careful about accusing the former pastor of being anti-Semitic.

"I would never make that allegation against Stockwell," says the senator who himself is Jewish. "But built in that (religious) ideology is the roots of anti-Semitism. It's there in the roots of Social Credit - and it is in today's Alliance, though not necessarily in the leaders."

The current pastor at Day's church, doesn't spare much sympathy for the former Alberta treasurer. Gregory Rathjen says that when Day left in 1985 to pursue a political career, the assistant pastor left behind a community that was deeply divided.

Rathjen arrived in 1986 to a disaster: a demoralized congregation had shrunk almost by half, allegations of fraud were afoot, and the church owed $12,000 to creditors. Factions were warring. It was a dark time in Bentley. "The church leaders had risen to unquestioned authority," explains Rathjen. "They had moved away from the congregational government with the assumption "You're here to serve and not ask questions."

Rathjen reports that, before its collapse, the former Bentley Christian Centre was a renegade Pentecostal church that instituted a divine mandate to replace grassroots congregational representation. Throughout this period, Stockwell Day was assistant pastor and school administrator.

"They changed their by-laws so that the people would have no say - leaders to be appointed by other leader, as determined by scripture," explains Rathjen. "It was a haughty, arrogant, pride-filled success story that led to disaster."

Fuelled by American-style revivalism, the church emphasized radical gospel practices - such as speaking-in-tongues - that whipped worshippers into a frenzy. "They have emotional experiences and then try to build a doctrine around it," explains Rathjen. The intensity of the church and constant stream of visiting American pastors gave Bentley an international profile within fundamentalist circles. But the church eventually succumbed to its own extremes.

"I would say that it was as close to a cult as you can get," says pastor Rathjen. "They were still holding on to the Christian teaching - but with manipulation and control. Very few people knew. It's not acceptable," says the pastor who outright rejected Stockwell Day's old ACE curriculum after a trip down to ACE's Texas headquarters. And Stockwell Day? "Stock wrote me a letter saying he had nothing to do with it - but he lived off of it and enjoyed it," says Rathjen, frankly. "That's what this church was - a bully. They bullied people and won."
Bentley locals tell stories about Stockwell Day's church group going out to "push down" the Bentley beer parlour with prayer one evening: a group laid their hands on the building and prayed for it to fall like Babylon.

"They prayed by the Hotel, put their hands on the beer parlour to collapse it for being sinful," recalls one resident. "It was this charismatic preacher there - Stockwell had charisma, but followed this minister blindly."

It is impossible to avoid religion in Bentley. On a per capita basis, Alberta's self-described "model community" has more places of worship than most towns - six churches for 900 residents. Day's church comprised one-third of Bentley's population, with nearly 300 people. And just to keep things interesting, Bentley reportedly had a practicing witch - and a coven - for a number of years.

The intense religious dynamic sometimes exploded. Local doctor Bill McKendrich claims he was driven out of Bentley in 1978 by the Bentley Christian Centre because church leaders wanted their own doctor. "When I was there in Bentley, there was a very strong fundamentalist group trying to take over the village," he says. "If you don't belong to the church, you don't belong to the community." "People are helpful here," says longtime resident Doris Bargholz, "but when there's a controversy, people aren't afraid to take sides: the coffee shop, the barber shop, these are places where conflicts are resolved. People feel strongly."

(Gordon Laird is an award-winning journalist and author of Slumming it at the Rodeo: the Cultural Roots of Canada's Right-wing Revolution, Douglas and McIntyre. This feature originally appeared in Toronto's NOW magazine)

To Part Two

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