Saturday, March 23, 2013

Groan and Wail: Free-speech 'zealot' Doug Christie


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


His supporters called him the Battling Barrister, while his opponents suspect that he shared his clients' controversial views

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.

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."

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.


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