Thursday, March 28, 2013

An Easter to remember

This is a nice time of year in Copan Ruinas. Semana Santa - the week leading into Easter - is a crazy-big holiday in Honduras, with hundreds of thousands of local travellers on the move. But Copan gets just enough of that scene to make the town feel energized without crossing into insanity.
Tonight, the main street will be full of volunteers building the two-block-long alfombras made from coloured sawdust. Using giant stencils to create beautiful sawdust art in a rainbow of colours, the volunteers will work into the wee hours tonight making a street mural that celebrates Jesus and tells the story of these very special holy days for Christians. 
All day tomorrow, people will make their way carefully past the stretch of sawdust paintings, and perhaps climb a big ladder at one end of the street that lets you take in all of that creativity at once. In cities like Comayagua, where they're marking 50 years of alfombras, the art works just keep getting more intricate and amazing.
The beautiful sight isn't meant to last, which is perhaps what makes the alfombras seem so special. Mere hours after their creation, they are destroyed underfoot as a Catholic procession walks down them on their way to the main church. Last year, reverent locals followed behind the procession, gathering up small containers of the coloured sawdust as a keepsake of the moment. 
The weather has been cooler than usual this week, which I'm sure will be a relief to those who participate in the reenactment of the Stations of the Cross. It's quite a trek for the crowd, which numbered in the thousands last year. 
The main Catholic church is in the little valley where the town centre is, but the procession makes its way up and down some of the town's steep little hills leading out of the centre. Some people in the procession are carrying almost life-size statues of Jesus and Mary the whole time so they can reenact the last time Mary kissed her son before his death. Last year, the heat was relentless on the poor sods sweating under their
heavy cargo. 
Today, the street where jewellery sellers set up their stalls was strewn with pine needles, a fragrant carpet that  is a tradition here anytime someone throws a celebration. Birthday parties, special days, religious holidays - all are a reason to break out the pine needles.
 The jewellry street in Copan tends to look a little half-baked for much of the year, but the pine needles and the tents that some of the vendors put up this week have it looking like a happening place. I saw all kinds of new faces making their way down the street today, and the vendors looked happy to be busy. 
A lot of stores closed today and will stay that way through Sunday. My office takes the whole week off, as do many organizations and government bodies. Everybody's on the move, travelling here and there to spend the holiday with their families. More than 150,000 people a day will pass through San Pedro Sula's big bus terminal this week. 
So we have made it a point to stay put these past two Semana Santas. We travel in place, watching this little town change and be changed by the influx of Honduran tourists who are on the move at this time of year. The tilapia seller was set up on the sidewalk yesterday with her giant garbage cans full of gasping fish for sale, and I expect the budgie seller (five lempiras apiece) and the coloured-chick vendors will be showing up soon. There's probably three or four times as many food vendors on the streets as is the norm, and the entire downtown smells rather lusciously of  meat skewers grilling over charcoal.
Whatever your religious beliefs, may this weekend bring you peace and pleasant times with friends and family. At this time of year in a predominantly Catholic country, you feel how special the week is regardless of whether you believe.
Lord, give me the grace to celebrate this occasion. Palm Sunday did not last - what does? But while we dance together, it is a foretaste of heaven. - Philippines 2:6-11.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

So much farmland, so little food

Photo: Rainforest Rescue 
I came home from our recent trip to the Moskitia feeling unsettled by the vast, eerie mono-cultures of African palm trees that dominate the coastal landscape of Honduras as you move east toward the Nicaraguan border. A Google search on the phenomenon provided me with this 2013 quote about the plantations from a web site that tracks Central American business trends:
Investments of $35 million allowed an increase in planted areas of 17,000 hectares, which are added to the 135,000 already cultivated with oil palm," notes the Business to Business site. "Crude palm oil has been increasing steadily, influenced by an increase in prices in response to increased global demand for the oil from the bio-diesel industry.”
We're all familiar by now with the global dream to create a sustainable plant-based fuel that might end our dependency on dwindling fossil fuels. Honduras even has a law around bio-fuel production, which allows the country's big palm-oil producers to enjoy tax holidays, special treatment and all kinds of international financial support to encourage them in their work.
Ah, but palm oil is more like snake oil when you dig into just how much of the crop in Honduras is actually being used for bio-fuel. Efforts to use Honduras's massive palm plantations for that purpose have stalled out. Companies simply make a lot more money selling palm oil for use in snack foods and cosmetics than they do producing bio-fuel.
Five of Honduras's 11 palm oil-processing plants have the ability to convert the oil into bio-fuel, and could be producing 66,100 gallons of it every day.
However, the plants are currently not producing bio-fuel,” notes the United States Department of Agriculture in a 2012 report. “The cost of bio-fuel production in Honduras is affected by a higher international price obtained with the sale of African palm oil. The main obstacle for the industry is deciding what is more profitable: to sell the oil for food and other types of processing, or to make bio-fuel``
Not that there's anything wrong with companies opting to sell their goods into whatever market looks the most promising. That's what companies do.
But African palm plantations are now spread out over almost 152,000 hectares of prime growing land along the Caribbean coast of Honduras, with plans to increase that to 200,000. It's time to get honest about what those palm trees are being used for. “Bio-fuel” has the ring of something that's saving the planet, but the global growth in African palm oil is in fact just more evidence of the developed world's insatiable appetite for processed food.
Palm oil is an ingredient in a long, long list of foods and cosmetics ranging from power bars and instant noodles to mouth wash, soap and anti-ageing cream. I'll leave it to others to posit on the health hazards of palm-oil consumption, which is high in saturated fats. What bothered me as we drove through a massive plantation east of Tocoa was just seeing all those palms stretching out as far as the eye could see, producing non-essential ingredient for the developed world without adding so much as a bean to poor Hondurans' plates.
Well, that's an exaggeration – a hectare of African palms creates one direct job and two indirect ones, says the USDA. The country needs those jobs, even if they don't pay well. (Pickers account for the bulk of the 152,000 direct jobs and earn about $7 a day during harvest.)
But even so, we're still talking about good land in a country where the malnutrition rate is above 50 per cent in some regions - land being put to use to produce something unnecessary for overfed people in the lands of plenty. There's just something wrong about that.
The only way to get from Tocoa into the Moskitia by land is to stuff yourself into a private truck crammed with people and goods, fork over $25, and tough it out for four or five long, crazy hours. It was during one such trip earlier this month that our driver took a detour through a big palm plantation, giving me my first glimpse from within of these silent, unnatural forests. (The bloody Bajo Aguan land conflict is also taking place on these lands.)
The land was once used to grow bananas. But the money is in palm oil now. Honduras produces almost 400,000 metric tonnes of it a year. And unlike the country's coffee industry, which remains largely in the hands of small producers, palm oil belongs to the big guys – the ones with plenty of money for acquiring huge tracts of land.
You'd think that any forest would be visually appealing, because green is green. But somehow, the big palm plantations feel devoid of life. I was puzzled by the number of dying trees we saw, their big palm fronds a sickly grey and their shrivelled trunks drooping from the top. I later learned that the trees are poisoned by the companies when they get too tall for easy harvest. You could almost feel the sorrow in those woods.
As noted, there's good and bad to all of it. The industry produces jobs, and it could produce significant tax revenue as well for the country if it wasn't getting quite so many breaks. If the oil really was being used for bio-fuel, that would take the discussion to a whole other level.
But it's not. There's no saving of the planet going on in those big plantations. Don’t bother to cue the angel choir for these spooky forests, because the only thing you hear amid the palms is the sound of money being made. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The other Honduras: Garifuna culture on the coast

Mirna Ruiz cooks a yucca torta.

It’s crazy-hot in the little casita where the Garifuna woman is cooking. It’s even hotter over by the wood cooking stove, where she’s grilling ground yucca into the giant wafer-like tortas that are a mainstay of the Garifuna diet.
Mirna Ruiz is chief cook and president of the Binadu Uwenedu women’s cooperative in Ciriboya, Colon. The little co-op produces 2,000 of the crisp wafers every month, most to be packaged for sale in the cities of Honduras to Garifuna people far away from their home communities on the Caribbean coast.
In Honduras, Garifuna coastal communities run from Puerto Cortes in the north to the sleepy little village of Plaplaya, in the Moskitia region not far from the Nicaraguan border. We spent a week travelling through coastal Colon and the Moskitia earlier this month; where our first up-close glimpse of Garifuna culture was one of the many pleasures of the trip.
The Garifuna are descendants of Caribs, indigenous Arawaks from South America, and West Africans initially brought to North America in the 17th century as slaves. They have their own language, their own religious beliefs (Catholicism with a twist), a collective sense of how their communities should function and a laid-back way of living that gets the job done without expending unnecessary energy.
And they’ve got yucca, which they call kasabe. Yucca grows easily and well in the sandy coastal soils that generations of Garifuna have called home in Honduras and in other Central American countries. Tear a chunk of yucca root straight out of your garden and it’s all set to add to the garden of a neighbour ensuring that no one ever runs out of yucca.
The Garifuna cook the potato-like tuber in various ways: Fried; grilled; stewed; used in soup. But they also like yucca when it’s ground, dried and grilled into thin, crispy wafers, which are as popular an accompaniment to a Garifuna meal as corn tortillas are elsewhere in Honduras.
Grinding goes faster for Digna Bernardez
and other members now that the co-op
has a motorized grinder. 
The women’s cooperative in Ciriboya got its start 12 years ago, first to sell tortas in the neighbourhood and eventually developing into a small export business aimed at Garifuna who have left their coastal communities but don't want to give up a favourite food. Some 15 women now belong to the co-op, and all participate directly in some aspect of the torta-making process.
The grinding stage is fast now that the group has a motorized grinder, acquired a couple years ago as part of an internationally funded project to help the co-op develop. The machine grinds in 10 minutes the same quantity of yucca that it used to take the women 14 hours to do back when the work had to be done by hand. The pulped yucca is then put into a press to squeeze out excess moisture, and ends up as a kind of coarse flour ready for grilling.
That’s the job of Mirna Ruiz, who spends her work days grilling the big tortas for the co-op over a wood fire. They burn easily, so it’s a process of constantly whisking the bits of flour around to make an even wafer, smoothing the edges into a perfect circle, and then flipping the whole thing over at just the right time. Mirna's tortas are straight-up yucca and nothing more, but one of my co-workers later tells us that some people add flavouring to the yucca before it’s cooked – cocoa, garlic, butter, other spices.
It’d be a stretch to suggest that the mere act of grilling kasabe over a hot wood fire means Garifuna culture is unchanged. Cell phones, propane stoves, fashion-conscious clothes, beer and even shiny Nissan 4x4 trucks (in a community with no road access) were all in evidence in our brief travels through communities in the Moskitia.
But the fundamentals of the culture – the language, the way the community functions, the lifestyle, the food – continue as they have for centuries. The men fish, the women do the rest of the household functions. The communities are still matriarchies. Children, chickens and dogs of the village roam free.
Not that life is easy, mind you. It’s difficult and expensive in the Moskitia to travel to the nearest urban centre – Tocoa – for goods. And it’s hard to buy goods unless you have money, which is also in short supply in the isolated communities. Jobs are hard to come by, and it’s not easy to resist the temptations of the lucrative cocaine industry in the area (the waters of the Moskitia are the first landing point for cocaine coming out of Colombia).
But all the things that make the region difficult have perhaps also made it a little harder for traditional cultures to fade away. Step into a Garifuna village in the Moskitia and you know immediately that you’re somewhere else – mere kilometres away from a neighbouring town with a more traditional Honduras feel, perhaps, yet so very different.
Stack of freshly cooked tortas ready for
packaging (or eating).
Those differences are one of the reasons the Ciriboya women’s co-op believes there’s a lot of market potential for their tortas. The home-grown yucca, the grinding, the specially designed wood stoves for cooking the yucca tortas – well, they just don’t have all of that elsewhere in the world. What better way to reconnect with migrant Garifunas in other cities and countries than to provide them with a taste of home?
They’ve got a distributor in La Ceiba now, and the country’s Pizza Huts have begun buying the tortas to use in the chain’s salad bar. But the co-op is currently producing more tortas than there is market, and they need more buyers. They’re also in competition with four other Garifuna women’s co-ops in the same region, all counting on new markets outside of Honduras.
Mirna pulls a fresh torta off the wood stove and breaks it apart for us to try. It reminds me of a rice cake, or maybe those big discs of “hard tack” that the family of a Finnish high-school friend of mine always had around.
I feel my own West Coast cultural conditioning kicking in, and imagine the fresh yucca wafer with a nice bit of smoked salmon on top. Perfect.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Few chances to fly, but they bounce

My boss was telling me on the long drive back from San Pedro Sula yesterday that there was some funding coming available soon out of Europe for projects targeted at building resilience.
I got a (quiet) chuckle out of that, because Hondurans could write the book on resilience. Like the song says: They get knocked down, but they get up again.
Resilience has been a popular topic among socially aware types for many years. I think it's a fascinating subject, and applaud all efforts to understand the intangible things that permit one person to hang in despite horrible life circumstance while another in a similar situation is totally destroyed.
But a lack of resilience is not the problem in Honduras. Life is incredibly hard here for the majority of people,  and it's true that poverty and violence are worsening in Honduras even while neighbouring countries are seeing improvements. Almost 70 per cent of the country lives in poverty, and some 40 per cent live in extreme poverty.
 None of that is because they're lacking in resilience, however.
 In fact, they bounce back like you can't believe - from hurricanes, floods, terrible crop years, crippling accidents, illness, a chronic lack of money, death in the family. Many don't live well but they do live sustainably, feeding their families on corn and beans grown on the craziest of slopes and getting by with virtually no money.
And I've yet to see any of them wringing their hands about their tough lot in life. They just carry on.
So no, Hondurans aren't poor because they're missing what it takes to thrive. They're poor because they live in a country with a negligent and ineffective government, zero social supports, a lack of employment, impossibly low pay scales, and a broken, dysfunctional education system that offers no hope for better jobs and brighter futures for young Hondurans.
In theory, Hondurans are "free" to pursue their dreams. This ain't no Cuba, those who lean to the right are quick to point out. This is a country that has embraced capitalism, and the kind of libertarian freedoms that make the Wild West look tame.
 But in reality, the only dream that's got much money attached to it is the long, hard slog north to try to sneak illegally into the United States. Unless you're a high-status, rich Honduran (and there are a surprising number of those, who really ought to be more worried for the future of their country), the only way you're going to find money for things like a decent house, basic health care or better schooling for your kids is if you work illegally in the States for a few years or get into the cocaine business.
But resilience? Oh, they've got plenty of that. Just to make that incredibly difficult journey into the U.S. takes more resilience than I hope I ever have to summon, and yet an estimated 100,000 Hondurans do it every year.
Those in the struggling "middle class" - my co-workers, for instance, who make $6,000 annually - frequently have to make wrenching decisions to leave their families behind to take jobs in distant towns. They've got the same dreams as any parent does of a better world for their children, but all they see when they look into the future is more of the same. They love their country, but they hate where it's going.
I'm sure my boss will come up with a clever project around resilience, of course. A Honduran non-profit would be crazy not to jump at any opportunity for funding. Maybe some people will get a free cow out of it, or a new vegetable garden.
But let's not go blaming this troubled country on the scrappy, resourceful people living poor in Honduras. They bounce, and it's a lucky thing.

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."