Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Farewell to one of Victoria's most controversial citizens

The death of Victoria lawyer Doug Christie last night prompted me to dig out a feature I did on him for the Times Colonist way back in 2002. Everybody's got a strong, strong opinion on the man, and plenty of people just plain hate him. But like most people, he was a complex character.

An uneasy peace: At 56, controversial lawyer Douglas Christie now worries for his children

Victoria Times Colonist, Monitor section
Sun Mar 3 2002



They're dying off, the men who Douglas Christie loved the most. His heroes are dead men and the list is growing every day.
It hasn't been easy being the lawyer to the stars of Canada's white-supremacist movement these last two decades, but at least there used to be a few more people who he looked up to, some friends who didn't think he was such a bad guy. Now, they're either dead or gone.
Dead: Paul Arsens, the Victoria businessman who first rented Christie this funny little box of an office 23 years ago on the parking lot beside the Royal Theatre.
Barney Russ, the "wonderful man" who let Christie finish out his articling with him after Christie got ditched by another law firm. E. Davie Fulton, former Tory justice minister. John Diefenbaker, still mourned by Christie as a great loss.
He's sitting here talking about his life and suddenly realizing that they're all dead.
Even his infamous clients are fading away. Anti-Semitic columnist Doug Collins has died. So has white supremacist John Ross Taylor and accused war criminal Imre Finta. Jim Keegstra stays off the public radar as much as possible.
Ernst Zundel, whose anti-Semitic Web site was found in violation last month of federal human-rights laws, has moved to Tennessee and married the woman who runs the site for him. And hate-rock musician George Burdi isn't even in the movement any more.
Christie's no youngster himself, 56 now and surprised to find himself enjoying fatherhood. His children are nine and 11, and a key factor in how he ended up president of the Saanich Water Polo Club. He's had a long, hard run at this life of his, and nearly 20 years of being publicly denounced for some of the company he has kept. It's got Christie wondering if it's time for a change.
He hadn't expected to have children. But now that he does, it makes a difference.
"I worry for the kids," Christie says. "I remember coming down to my office a few years back with my son, then age four, and finding the window smashed in. He couldn't understand why someone would do that to his Daddy."
Christie is top villain among those who fight against hate propaganda in Canada; his skill as a lawyer has helped a number of his controversial clients win their fights before courts and human rights tribunals.
He differentiates himself from his racist clients -- he's merely a libertarian and an ardent proponent of free speech, he contends. But there are many who don't believe him.
"Doug Christie has aligned himself so many times with these perverted monsters that he has to be viewed as one himself," Vancouver radio talk-show host Gary Bannerman said back in 1985. Christie sued him and lost. The judge ruled it was fair comment.
Three years ago, Christie became the first lawyer in Canadian history to be banned from Ottawa's parliamentary precinct because the government didn't like his client, Zundel.
And when the Law Society of Upper Canada went looking for evidence in 1993 that Christie was aligning himself too closely with his clients' causes, it ruled only grudgingly that he was off the hook.
"He has made common cause with a small, lunatic anti-Semitic fringe element in our society," wrote Windsor lawyer Harvey Strosberg. "[But] suffering Mr. Christie's words and opinions is part of the price one pays for upholding and cherishing freedom of speech in a free and democratic society."
Even the politicians run from him. While his politics certainly lean to the right, the Canadian Alliance nearly tied itself in knots trying to distance itself from Christie when he joined the party two years ago.
It's all a bit much, says Christie.
"I'm in a debate with myself whether there's anything to salvage in Canada," he says. "There's definitely no hope in Ottawa. All I can see is slow decline."
Christie was born in Winnipeg, the oldest child of a federal tax collector and a homemaker. He has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a law degree from UBC, having put himself through school with jobs in the oil fields, as a lifeguard and making sandwiches in his university dorm to sell to other students.
He remembers the conversation with his father that led to him choosing law.
"I liked working outside, but I also liked reading through documents and that sort of thing," Christie recalls. "My dad said, 'Well, you could be a farmer or a lawyer.' I figured I could be a lawyer AND a farmer, but not the other way around."
Christie became fascinated with religion during university, and converted to Catholicism when he was 21. It came as something of a surprise to his Presbyterian family. In his early days as a Catholic in Victoria, Christie founded St. Andrew's Refugee Association to aid newly arrived Vietnamese refugees.
His faith remains an important part of his life. The only two images hanging on the walls of his Courtney Street office are Jesus and Civil War leader Robert E. Lee.
Christie's first venture into the public eye was as a Western separatist, a concept that gained him a bit of an audience in the late 1970s and early '80s.
It was at one of those rallies that he met the woman he would eventually marry, Keltie Zubko, on-line publisher of the Freedom Papers and a kindred spirit. Zundel called her "an unsung fighter of freedom of speech in Canada" in one of his Internet "Z-grams" last year. She and Christie celebrated their 20th anniversary on Valentine's Day.
Christie's Western Canada Concept is still a registered political party, although he won only 62 votes when he last ran as the WCC candidate for Saanich South in the 1996 provincial election. And its founder remains committed to his belief that the West should separate, arguing that every new party and attempt at political reform rises out of the West, only to be crushed by the East.
The vision for the West under the WCC is of an English-speaking "genuine national culture true to our existing European heritage and values." Aboriginals would take individual cash settlements and be done with it. Abortions would be restricted, as would immigration. "Capacity to voluntarily assimilate is a prerequisite to all new immigration," notes the party's Web site.
They're not the most popular views to hold, nor were they when the party started. So perhaps it's not surprising that Christie felt the urge in 1984 to call up the Alberta teacher he'd been reading about who held some pretty controversial views as well.
Jim Keegstra was mayor of Eckville, Alta., and a teacher at the local high school. He'd been warned six years earlier to tone it down in the classroom with his criticism of Catholics, but this time he'd been talking about the Jews in Germany. His students lined up to testify that Keegstra's teaching had left them hating Jews and doubting the Holocaust, and he had been fired and charged with promoting hatred.
"I felt sympathy for the guy," says Christie. "I'd been kind of big news for a while in Alberta, and I felt that the media tends to pick on people sometimes. So I phoned him up. I just wanted to say 'Hey, don't be down-hearted.' Keegstra recognized Christie's name from his Western Canada Concept connections and asked if Christie would represent him. "I said OK very slowly, because I knew this would change my life forever."
It did. Keegstra's views on the Holocaust and Jews were so outrageous that many people suspected that no one but a fellow believer would take on such a case.
The Ernst Zundel case was that same year. As Canadian distributor of an ugly little pamphlet out of Britain titled Did Six Million Really Die?, Zundel had been charged with spreading false news. Christie set up his Canadian Free Speech League around that time as a defence fund for Zundel and Keegstra.
There have been many others since Christie was launched down this path. Some have belonged to the Ku Klux Klan or the white-supremacist Church of the Creator. Some were accused of recording hateful phone messages or writing hateful essays, still others with running Internet and telephone hotlines deemed racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic or hateful by human rights tribunals and courts across the country.
"Except for Joan of Arc, it's rarely the case that the people a lawyer defends are seen as savoury by others," says Christie about his client list. "I think their views are interesting, that's all, and important because they're different."
As for his own views, Christie considers himself "authentic" for standing up for what he believes in, which for the most part has not yet aligned him with his clients but has certainly placed him close to the pack. He says he's not anti-Semitic.
"I don't mind Jews and they don't usually mind me," contends Christie (although he does recall a long-ago morning in the Y change room when he stood stunned in his three-piece pinstripe suit as local businessman Howie Siegel, Jewish and stark naked, tore a strip off him for taking on the Keegstra case). "I get along well with people in general. I treat them like individuals."
It was around the time of Keegstra, the spring of 1985, that Red Deer College English professor Gary Botting stumbled into Christie's life.
Botting was a Jehovah's Witness, a religion whose followers went through a period in the 1950s of being criminally prosecuted for spreading false news. As a result, he felt strongly about protecting freedom of expression.
So when he heard about an Alberta library banning a Holocaust-denial book, Botting spoke out. Christie was on the phone soon after, and Botting soon found himself bundled onto a plane to Toronto to be an "expert witness" at Zundel's trial.
Botting seems quite baffled today at how it all happened, and how completely his relationship with Christie subsequently unravelled a few years later. He was a friend and fellow traveller -- even articling with Christie during Botting's transition into a lawyer after the two men met.
Botting, now living in Bowser and no longer practising law, says the friendship deteriorated as he grew more worried about the people he found himself keeping company with. When Botting received the debut George Orwell free speech award in 1986, a Christie invention, he was horrified to see the TV news juxtapose his image with that of an ex-Klansman standing beside a burning cross.
The moment that ultimately severed the relationship was at a party 11 years ago at Zundel's Toronto home, says Botting. He'd wandered into Zundel's basement and come upon "a large-screen TV with half a dozen really elderly Nazi types weeping away as Hitler rallied the masses for the 1936 Berlin Games." He began to question whether freedom of expression was the issue at hand.
"I'm all in favour of a free marketplace of ideas," Botting says now. "But Christie always seemed to go that one step farther."
In 1996, humiliated by reports that Zundel was still pointing to Botting's trial testimony as support, Botting wrote a letter to Christie saying his free speech league was in fact a front for an "anti-Semitic agenda." He renounced all ties with Christie and returned his Orwell award.
Does Christie share the views of his clients? He will say only that his clients' opinions are "interesting," and shouldn't be silenced just because people don't want to hear what they have to say.
He has been quoted in the past questioning theories about the Holocaust, telling reporters in 1985, "I can say I've come to have some grave doubts about the exterminationist side." He definitely rubbed federal Citizenship Minister Elinor Caplan the wrong way a couple of months ago with a comment about her "Jewish animosity" toward one of his clients.
Botting recalls driving with Christie while he sang along gustily in German to a tape of war-era German marching music, played at deafening volume for the benefit of an alarmed hitchhiker in the back seat.
"I think the shock appeal is part of it," says Botting. "But there's something very distasteful about using Nazism for its shock value."
George Burdi, the reformed founder of a white-power music distribution company (he now describes himself as "a born-again liberal" and plays in a multi-race band), says it's simplistic to think that there's a single viewpoint shared by everyone on the extreme right.
"It's a bit like Christianity inside the movement in that you hardly find two with the same view," says Burdi, who spent two weeks with Christie in adjoining hotel rooms during a hate trial three years ago.
"You'd be surprised. I remember hearing Ernst Zundel arguing for more immigration from Asia.
"But what's important to understand is that none of them are Dr. Evil, wringing their hands and planning to destroy people. They believe what they're saying."
Christie was Burdi's lawyer in 1999 when the Toronto musician pleaded guilty to spreading racial hatred, having been caught in a sting selling racist CDs to police. Burdi remembers Christie urging him to let the matter proceed to trial, even offering to take the case for free rather than see Burdi plead guilty.
"He was ready to give up three months of his time away from home, and do it pro bono," says Burdi. "I have to call that honour. I think it's a real shame a man like that has spent his life trapped in this bitter battle."
Christie remembers the time when he was sitting in his car outside his office and a truck drove into the side of the building. Had he been inside, the truck would have hit him while he sat at his desk. He doubts it was an accident.
He's since boarded up his office windows in the old Broughton Street jewelry kiosk he leases from the city, the better to avoid the hassle of cleaning up broken glass.
He hesitated for two weeks before agreeing to be interviewed, fearful of another wave of media-generated hassles.
"I'm starting to think I'm running out of friends," he says jokingly.
His name alone is trouble enough. A Toronto lawyer with the same name suffered through 11 death threats in the 1990s before he finally took out a newspaper ad noting that he wasn't that Doug Christie. Life hasn't been any smoother for Victoria's Doug Christie.
"Ultimately, you have to be what you are," he says. "There's never been an easy time to say these things. When people really take time to live authentic lives, it far exceeds in value the compromises made for short-term gains."
Christie has chosen to fight back by suing people, a practice that has raised eyebrows among those who find it strange behaviour for a man who considers himself a champion of free speech. He has sued newspapers, politicians and various individuals over the years, with varying degrees of success.
Financially, Christie says he's done all right for himself, although no one would know it by the look of his office. The carpet is worn, the furniture minimalist and tatty. The lighting is dim. The walls are nearly bare but for Jesus, Robert E. Lee and a handmade poster declaring "Justice is My Hope." Christie says he likes to save on overhead.
There have been lower-profile clients over the years supplementing his freedom-of-expression cases: A Victoria grandmother fighting to have her granddaughter come visit her at her escort agency; the local film festival battling to show a documentary about porn star John Holmes inside St. Ann's Academy; marine engineer Bob Ward in his libel lawsuit against former premier Glen Clark.
But it's never long before the next controversial case emerges. And they invariably have something to do with contentious opinions around Nazis and the Holocaust. The most recent in that long line is the case of Michael Seifert, the convicted war criminal from Vancouver who Ottawa is trying to strip of Canadian citizenship and deport.
The issues Christie has raised around free speech don't sit comfortably with many. It's difficult to support Christie's wide-open version of freedom of expression without appearing to endorse the appalling views of some of his clients.
One who handled the challenge well was Conrad Black. Exhorted by former employee Doug Collins to support his fight to overturn a B.C. Human Rights ruling that found his writing hateful, the newspaper baron replied: "Some of your editorial reflections are such that, while we don't contest your right to your opinions, we are not prepared to publish or underwrite them ourselves."
Warren Kinsella, a Toronto lawyer whose 1994 book Web of Hate includes a chapter on Christie, says Christie is a good lawyer, routinely underestimated by those who come up against him. He is also in demand as a public speaker, travelling around the world at the request of those who like what he has to say. He'll be in Borneo this month on one such engagement, and is popular in Australia.
"He's very dogged, very determined to represent these people," says Kinsella of Christie's standard clientele. "It's just a shame that many of them possess such loathsome opinions."
Burdi says the white-power movement in Canada that Christie has figured so prominently in is "moribund" these days. The old guard has moved on, and the new wave of young and vicious white supremacists that Burdi was briefly part of is languishing.
He figures it was the Internet that did in the movement, the opposite of what everyone predicted. Hate literature is now so readily available that it has lost its thrill.
As for Christie, he isn't likely to abandon his cause, or run out of clients. It's been more than half a century since the Holocaust, but there seems to be no shortage of people still eager to argue over it.
"If you and I disagree, why should one of us have to be silent?" asks Christie. "Every group should be open to criticism if criticism is true, and the way that's determined is through public debate and analysis."
But he's tired these days, and troubled by a bout of asthma that landed him in the hospital recently. He's thinking about new directions, musing over how nice it would be to work in a plant nursery.
"Thirty years. There've been some stressful times in there," says Christie. "I've got to think about slowing down. I think I'll just try to do what I can with whatever is left to me."

2 comments:

Ian Lidster said...

You just reminded me of how much I miss your regular column. Beautifully expressed, Jody. He was not a man I liked particularly but, to lapse into cliche, I would defend to the death his right to do what he did and to defend some of the jerks he did. Tis called democracy. Something we conveniently forget too quickly. I think the TC should do a reprint of this as some sort of commemorative.

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