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Douglas Christie challenged laws limiting the expression of views most people found reprehensible. (KEVIN FRAYER/The Canadian Press)
Douglas Christie challenged laws limiting the expression of views most people found reprehensible. (KEVIN FRAYER/The Canadian Press)

Obituary

Free-speech zealot Doug Christie defended anti-Semites, white supremacists Add to ...

With his black, Stetson-like hat, long dark coat, black cowboy boots and stern, steely gaze, lawyer Doug Christie would not have been out of place as a feared gunslinger in a Hollywood western.

But for most of Mr. Christie’s lengthy, controversial career, his main targets were not bad guys, but what he considered bad laws, in particular laws that restricted the expression of views most Canadians consider reprehensible.

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His list of clients included high school teacher James Keegstra, who taught students that Jews were an evil force in society; Holocaust denier and Nazi sympathizer Ernst Zundel; white supremacist Paul Fromm; and Saskatchewan native leader David Ahenakew, convicted then cleared of promoting hatred by denouncing Jews, plus many more who ran afoul of the law and authorities for similar, extremist opinions.

Mr. Christie, who died March 11 from liver cancer at 66, took on these cases with relish, winning some, losing many, and leaving behind a fierce divide of detractors and admirers.

Those he defended called him the Battling Barrister. “He was one of the best defenders of human rights and best lawyers I could have had,” Mr. Keegstra said. In an online tribute, Mr. Fromm hailed Mr. Christie as a towering presence in defence of freedom, while another fan, right-wing TV host Ezra Levant, opined that Doug Christie “kept the flame of free speech burning for all of us.”

Others, however, saw Mr. Christie as someone who not only defended his clients’ right to free speech but shared some of their views, often appearing at support rallies and badgering witnesses with offensive questions.

Bernie Farber, who clashed repeatedly with Mr. Christie and his clients during his long tenure as head of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said he could never forgive the lawyer for his relentless cross-examination of Holocaust survivors.

“He was not a nice man,” said Mr. Farber. “I acknowledge that he was a zealous defender of his clients, but there was no doubt in my mind that he was also in sympathy with them.”

Yet few would deny that the reviled clients and notorious cases Mr. Christie embraced left their mark on Canadian jurisprudence, setting benchmarks for free speech and the application of hate laws. By 1997, he had already made nine appearances before the Supreme Court of Canada.

“Given our system, it is very important that even the most unpopular of figures and causes have their legal representatives doing the best job they possibly can for them,” said Robin Elliot, a constitutional law expert at the University of B.C. “These were hugely important cases, so one can say that Doug Christie did his part.”

Nonetheless, Prof. Elliot echoed the widespread concern that Mr. Christie did not choose his clients simply because they needed a lawyer.

“There is that suspicion he picked his unpopular cases very carefully, that he was actually trying to further the cause of the hate propagandists and the Holocaust deniers.”

Mr. Christie was not a man of the mainstream. Though mindful in public to skirt the issue of whether he shared his clients’ beliefs, he never distanced himself from them. He was also on the fringe politically, as a passionate Western separatist. He remained true to this cause to the end, even as a movement that once packed meetings across the west during the height of opposition to the National Energy Plan dwindled to a mere handful of hardcore supporters.

When he last sought elected office in 2006, running under the banner of the Western Block Party in Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, Mr. Christie attracted a paltry 272 votes. “Western independence was … his big dream. It was one of those areas where he felt he had failed so much,” said his partner, Keltie Zubko.

Douglas Hewson Christie was born in Winnipeg on April 24, 1946, to Norma Christie and his namesake father. The family of six was not wealthy.

His resolve was tested early, when, at 16, during his first solo flight as an air cadet, those on the ground noticed a problem with the landing wheels. Over the radio, he was told to keep flying until fuel ran out, then land. The young cadet coolly crash-landed the plane, with no serious damage, except for a broken propeller. Part of the busted blade is still mounted in a clock on the wall of Mr. Christie’s living room.

Mr. Christie earned his law degree from UBC, where he became famous for peddling sandwiches to his more well-off classmates to help meet the costs of law school.

He opted to practise in Victoria. There, his small, shed-like law office near the courthouse was a familiar sight, its windows smashed many times by anonymous foes, until he finally boarded them over. Mr. Christie met Ms. Zubko, his life partner, on a snowy night at an overflow rally for western independence in Edmonton in 1980. The couple had two children, but never married, despite Mr. Christie’s strong Roman Catholic faith.

“We both felt we would make our commitment every day. We weren’t going to do it for church and state, or anything like that,” said Ms. Zubko.

A month before he died, Mr. Christie found a heart-shaped stone on their rural property outside Victoria. Using red nail polish, he inscribed it with the words: “To Keltie, my rock for 31 years”.

Mr. Christie began his long run in the public eye in 1983 when he agreed to defend James Keegstra on a charge of promoting hatred by espousing anti-Semitism in the classroom. After canvassing his client’s views in meticulous detail on the witness stand, Mr. Christie argued they were a matter of free expression, and Canada’s hate law was unconstitutional. In a landmark ruling that split the court, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the law and convicted Mr. Keegstra.

That case prompted Ernst Zundel, the hard-hatted Toronto neo-Nazi, to hire Mr. Christie to fight a charge of spreading “false news,” arising from his pamphlet intimating the Holocaust was a hoax.

This time, Mr. Christie had the charge quashed, but not before emerging as a national figure of controversy himself, with his fierce defence of Mr. Zundel and the regular sharing of sauerkraut and sausages at his client’s home, where he stayed.

In an interview with the Globe and Mail’s Kirk Makin, Mr. Christie said the case suited his personality because of his fervent belief in freedom of speech. But he added that the more he learned of the revisionist view of the Holocaust, the more sense it made. “I’ve come to have some grave doubts about the exterminationist side,” he told Mr. Makin.

Later, the Law Society of Upper Canada issued a written tongue-lashing of Mr. Christie over his defence of Imre Finta, charged under war crimes legislation for allegedly assisting in the deportation of thousands of Jews from Hungary during the Second World War.

Mr. Christie’s remarks during the trial “clearly disclose he has crossed the line separating counsel from client,” said the Society’s discipline chair, Harvey Strosberg. “He has made common cause with a small, lunatic, anti-Semitic fringe element in our society.” Mr. Strosberg declined to issue a complaint against the lawyer, however, contending his behaviour was part of the price of a free society.

Despite his string of highly publicized battles on behalf of anti-Semites and other outsiders, Mr. Christie also maintained a more routine law practice in tranquil Victoria. The legal community there knew a different Doug Christie.

“I had a lot of non-high-profile cases with him, the kind of day-to-day trials you find in any courthouse, and I always considered him a formidable opponent,” said Nils Jensen, a Crown prosecutor for 15 years. “He was always well-prepared and tenacious in defence of his clients.”

One time, he was perhaps a little too tenacious. According to news reports, a skeptical Mr. Christie wondered how his client, while handcuffed and seated on the floor, could possibly kick a policeman in the groin. He demanded the cop re-enact the kick. The policeman did so, hit the mark, and Mr. Christie doubled over in pain.

Lawyer Barclay Johnson shared space with Mr. Christie in his cramped office. He, too, knew a different Doug Christie. “I was very surprised to find out how civil he was. He threw himself into all his cases. He took on anything that involved state power.”

Mr. Johnson also noted the courage Mr. Christie displayed by making a final appearance in court to address the jury on behalf of a client, while racked with pain, a mere 2 1/2weeks before he died. “His frame of mind was that he’d just as soon die in the saddle.”

Much to his surprise, Mr. Farber found himself writing a remarkable e-mail of comfort to Mr. Christie when he learned of his fatal illness. “I felt I might come under some criticism, but in our tradition, you don’t kick your enemy when he is down.”

Mr. Farber told Mr. Christie that he would probably be shocked to hear from him, considering their past hostility. But cancer had touched his own family, and he said: “I hope to see you in court, where we will one day raise our swords again in battle.”

According to Mr. Farber, Mr. Christie wrote back, saying he was touched by his adversary’s remarks. “But I will never raise my sword in battle again.”

Mr. Christie leaves his father, Douglas, sisters Jane Christie and Myna Cryderman, brother Neil, his partner Keltie Zubko, son Cadeyrn and daughter Kalonica.

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