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Serge Kujawa became a local hero in Regina as the prosecutor in the case of Colin Thatcher, who was found guilty of the first-degree murder of his ex-wife, JoAnn Wilson, in 1984.

the canadian press

On Nov. 6, 1984, the city of Regina reverberated with the dramatic news that a guilty verdict had been rendered in a murder case that garnered headlines across the country.

On that fateful Tuesday, Colin Thatcher was found guilty of the first-degree murder of his ex-wife, JoAnn Wilson. Gossipy Reginans were so keen to spread the news about this high-profile former provincial cabinet minister that the local phone network, overburdened with calls, failed.

Serge Kujawa, Queen's Counsel, was the prosecutor who convicted Mr. Thatcher in Saskatchewan's most notorious domestic homicide. Thirty years after his spectacular victory, Mr. Kujawa died at 89 in Regina on Sept. 22, 2014.

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Mr. Kujawa, the immigrant farm boy from St. Walburg, Sask., was an intense competitor. He was also a fierce advocate of fairness and justice. Since he knew the stakes were high in this high-profile case, he pushed his investigators to find irrefutable evidence of Mr. Thatcher's guilt before he agreed to prosecute.

The Thatcher conviction turned Mr. Kujawa into a local hero. Many Saskatchewanians had feared Mr. Thatcher would get away with murder when media reports circulated of his ex-wife's violent death in January, 1983.

Colin Thatcher, the only son of Saskatchewan Liberal premier W. Ross Thatcher, was dubbed the "J.R. Ewing of Saskatchewan," and became known for his personal troubles, which attracted public and national media attention. He defected from the Liberals to the more popular Progressive Conservative Party in 1977, became the provincial energy and mines minister in Grant Devine's government in 1982 and resigned from his cabinet post four days before JoAnn Wilson's murder, early the following year.

Regina Leader-Post journalist Murray Mandryk was 24 when he covered the sensational trial alongside reporters from news outlets across the country. Three people were there to write books on the riveting story, including Garrett Wilson, a lawyer.

Mr. Kujawa was ensconced in the presidential suite of Saskatoon's Ramada Inn while he prepared his murder case against Mr. Thatcher. Mr. Wilson, Mr. Kujawa's confidant, slept in the guestroom so he could chronicle the iconic case. Mr. Wilson and his daughter, Lesley, later co-wrote Deny, Deny, Deny: The Rise and Fall of Colin Thatcher.

Mr. Kujawa's strength resided in his even use of the power of his office. He knew all too well the personal impact of abuse of power. Mr. Wilson said Mr. Kujawa's childhood experience, when he witnessed his father's persecution by militiamen in Russian-occupied Poland, made a lasting impact on him.

"Serge was also unpretentious," Mr. Wilson says. "When he went to Ottawa to the Supreme Court on Thatcher case business, he arrived dressed in a ball cap and parka."

In 1991, Mr. Kujawa was elected to the Saskatchewan legislature for the Regina riding of Albert South. He served one term until 1995 under the NDP Roy Romanow government and then retired from politics. "Serge was naive as hell when it came to politics," Mr. Wilson says. "He was upset when he heard from Lorne Calvert that his primary duty as an MLA was to ensure the party's re-election." There was also a hurtful snub from then-attorney-general Bob Mitchell, who ignored the new MLA instead of conferring with him on legal matters.

The last leg of Mr. Kujawa's career was fraught with stress, Mr. Wilson says. The reopening of the David Milgaard case (Mr. Kujawa was director of public prosecutions when Mr. Milgaard was wrongly convicted of murder) was a painful chapter for the litigator, who prided himself on his solid track record. Mr. Kujawa didn't like to fail at anything, whether it was in the courtroom or on the baseball diamond.

Mr. Kujawa remained a fierce competitor in the realm of athletics, journalist Murray Mandryk recalls. "When we squared off in the MLA vs. press gallery baseball games, Serge insisted on pitching. Even at his age. I remember the first time he pitched when I was at bat and he buzzed me back."

"But I was smart enough never to play poker with Serge," Mr. Mandryk says. Mr. Kujawa played to win and even financed his law-school education at the University of Saskatchewan with poker winnings and pool-hall gaming.

Mr. Kujawa was a spectacular success in the legal community, Mr. Mandryk says. "He was a Ukrainian immigrant who beat the odds." Serge was the son of Jacob and Vera Kujawa. Jacob was born in 1888 in the town of Rozyszcze, in a region formerly controlled by Poland or Russia and now part of Ukraine. During the grim era when Jacob was born, the territory was occupied by a repressive Russian regime under Czar Alexander III. It was a time, according to Mr. Kujawa's 2010 memoir, Serge K., when "willfulness was sinfulness. Compliance, conformity and acceptance of abuse were the price to be paid for receiving Russian bread."

Like most sons, Mr. Kujawa looked up to the man who "spent his nights singing Russian folk songs and reading to his children about love and war, freedom and revolution from the pages of Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky." This cultured, rural man also performed chin-ups with a single hand, broke horses the "size of houses" and pulled "a line-up of brawny neighbours into the mud at push-and-pull contests."

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Serge Kujawa inherited his father's brawn, his athleticism and his appetite for competition. Jacob served eight years in the Russian Army as a feldsher, or field medic, before and during the First World War. Feldshers were rural practitioners who saw themselves as "physicians of the common people."

The Kujawa family (Jacob, Vera and children Kate, Mary, Nick and three-year-old Serge) landed at the newly opened Halifax Pier 21 in 1928. They embarked on a train pointed west until they arrived in the predominantly German settlement of St. Walburg, Sask. Jacob purchased a partly cleared parcel of 40 acres that featured a granary, a log barn and a drafty, one-room cabin.

Serge enrolled in the local school, where he learned English. After high school, he attended Normal School in Saskatoon and taught high school in Timberlost, Sask., for a year before joining the army. The Second World War ended before Mr. Kujawa could be shipped overseas.

Post-war jobs included panning for gold, playing poker and pool for profit and a brief stint at a lumber mill in Vernon, B.C. Mr. Kujawa's mill boss also valued his pitching arm and insisted he play on the Vernon team, where he excelled. The pitcher returned home to help his brother, Nick, with seeding. The appeal of farming and St. Walburg lured Serge back to the fold but fate had other plans for the farm boy-athlete.

After a farm accident maimed Serge's left hand, Jacob's lessons in respect, fairness and tolerance would serve Serge well while he made the leap from farm labourer to law student. During a demanding stint as a Ukrainian translator for a St. Walburg lawyer, Mr. Kujawa was convinced he had the temperament for law. "I had not only discovered, but revelled in my ability to listen, question, interpret, reason and express. I suspected that these were my gifts, and that if I could not be a farmer, I was destined to use them in the interest of justice," he writes in Serge K.

Upon graduation, Mr. Kujawa articled at Davidson, Davidson and Blakeney in Regina. However, the neophyte lawyer encountered racist opposition when he applied to the bar. Eric M. Miller, Secretary of the Law Society of Saskatchewan, challenged Mr. Kujawa's qualifications and character references.

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"I suspect it was the intensity of Miller's hatred – and that of dozens of other racists over the years – that drove me to the prosecution side of criminal law. From a young age I had been made painfully aware of the price of injustice and was tired of always having to defend my right to occupy a spot on this Earth. I looked to the law as a way to right those kind of wrongs," Mr. Kujawa writes in his memoir.

The crown prosecutor brought skill, experience and expertise to his caseload, Mr. Wilson says. Mr. Kujawa became associated with the difficult cases in the office, such as the Shell Lake Massacre trial in 1968 and the case of axe murderer Frederick Moses McCallum in 1969. In the spirit of social justice, he also prosecuted a Montmartre, Sask., beer parlour owner who segregated aboriginal patrons.

"Serge had a soft and tender side," Mr. Mandryk says. "He loved to go to bat for the little guy." As president of the Uniform Law Conference of Canada, Mr. Kujawa lobbied for an end to including rape victims' sexual history during cross-examination.

Like many men of his generation, the ambitious lawyer conceded that his personal life took a back seat to his career. Mr. Kujawa met his first wife, Betty Bridges, while he was still a student, but the couple later divorced. They had six children: Ivy, Judy, Kim, Mandi and twins Melodi and Melissa. "While Betty hunched over a kitchen appliance or washtub or calculating how she could cook dinner, iron clothes and deliver kids to their school, sports and music lessons, I'd be slouching around a smoke-filled pool hall scouting for worthy opponents, or scheming my next move at a card table at some buddy's house on a Sunday night," he wrote in his memoir.

The prosecutor was married to his second wife, Darlene Ware-Kujawa, for 26 happy years. As Mr. Kujawa aged, his razor-sharp mind succumbed to vascular dementia and Ms. Ware-Kujawa cared for him at home up until the last six days of his life. "Serge enjoyed travelling with me and walking in the neighbourhood every day," she recalled from the couple's home in south Regina.

Serge Kujawa's enormous contribution to Saskatchewan's legal history is indisputable. The St. Walburg farm boy left a huge legacy in his adopted country and he did it with grace, outspokenness and compassion. The son of the Feldsher brought a healing sensibility to the law. Kujawa will be best remembered as an idealist who brought humanity and fairness to his office.

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In his 2010 memoir, Mr. Kujawa summed up his pragmatic approach to the law with trademark eloquence: "It mattered not whether I was a lawyer crowded into a sweat box over a five-and-dime battling it out over wills and mortgages, or if I was a prosecutor building a case for murder in a wood-panelled office overlooking the Regina city skyline. I came across the same broad cross-section of people labouring under the same elemental emotions, looking for retribution, justice and sometimes forgiveness."

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