‘It’s the end of everything’: Defender of hatemongers, free speech fighting terminal liver cancer
“If the doctors are right, it’s the end of everything,” Mr. Christie said yesterday from his bed at home in Victoria, B.C.
The illness marks the close of a remarkable legal career that has seen Mr. Christie stand up for freedom of speech, even in defense of the most vile propaganda and often illegal racist incitement, everywhere from human rights tribunals to the Supreme Court of Canada. As such, it leaves a gaping hole in Canada’s legal scene.
“I don’t know anybody that’s willing to take these on with the type of commitment I think is necessary, because it certainly is a costly process, in time, in effort, and in reputation,” he said, and compared himself to Father Damien, a sainted 19th century Belgian priest who cared for people with leprosy in Hawaii.
You become associated with your clients and, as Father Damien found, eventually you become a leper
“You become associated with your clients and, as Father Damien found, eventually you become a leper,” he said.
Mr. Christie’s clients make up a rogues’ gallery of racism in Canada and their cases mark the limits of Canada’s uniquely compromising approach to the regulation of hate. They include John Ross Taylor, whose failed defense by Mr. Christie at the Supreme Court in 1990 remains the precedent on which hate speech cases are still argued, and Ernst Zundel, the Holocaust denier whose case saw the criminal law against “false news” struck down as unconstitutional.
As head of his Canadian Free Speech League, Mr. Christie also played an important intervenor role in the hate tribunal of FreedomSite webmaster Marc Lemire, in which the internet hate-speech section of the Canadian Human Rights Act was also judged to run afoul of the Charter right to free speech.
His first big hate case was against Jim Keegstra, a teacher and former mayor of Eckville, Alberta, who was charged in 1984 with promoting hatred by spreading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to high school students. The Alberta Court of Appeal overturned the conviction because pursuing a defense of truth placed too high a burden on the accused, but it was reinstated by the Supreme Court, in a 1990 analysis that remains the legal benchmark.
“At that time, it was a novel proposition to prosecute people for what they said,” Mr. Christie said. Criminal hate laws had been on the books since the 1960s, but were effectively dormant, and Keegstra “was the first case in which the state felt it was entitled to criminalize persons on the basis of what they sincerely believed.”
Since then, Mr. Christie has been spoiled for choice. He represented Michael Seifert, a Nazi SS guard whom Canada extradited to Italy in 2008 for gruesome concentration camp murders, and Imre Finta, acquitted in 1990 in Canada’s first war crimes prosecution.
He saw disgraced native leader David Ahenakew through to an acquittal for his anti-Semitic comments, which was a cause of embarrassment for the Saskatchewan Crown. “It’s quite a mixed bag when you charge a visible minority person with a hate crime, because the only people who are supposed to be haters are white people,” Mr. Christie said.
The roster also includes some quirks, such as the Ontario gentleman who does not believe the constitution permits the government to collect taxes from him.
Perhaps inevitably, Mr. Christie has been accused of being a fellow traveller with racists, and defending them because he shares their beliefs. As such, he stands as an extreme case study in whether it is fair to judge a lawyer by his clients.
In 1993, the Law Society of Ontario dropped misconduct charges over his defense of Zundel and Finta, but the chair of its discipline panel nevertheless issued a report saying Mr. Christie “made common cause with a small, lunatic, anti-Semitic fringe element in our society.”
He also sued a B.C. broadcaster, Gary Bannerman, in 1990 for saying that he has “aligned himself so many times with these perverted monsters that he has to be viewed as one himself.” Mr. Christie lost on grounds of fair comment, at both trial and appeal. Another libel suit was successful, to the tune of $30,000 in 1984, against a journalist who described Mr. Christie’s failed separatist political venture, the Western Canada Concept, as an “Alberta version of the Ku Klux Klan.”
“Anybody who knows me knows that I treat all people fairly and I don’t discriminate against individuals on the basis of any race, religion, etc.,” Mr. Christie said in the interview. “But to the vast majority who have only heard about me, they would definitely get that impression.”
In 2006, the Law Society of British Columbia found he committed professional misconduct by counseling a client to prepare subpoenas on his own, but the penalty was a modest fine and $20,000 in legal costs, as he had acted out of “stress and excessive zeal to help his client, rather than from desire for personal gain.”
Zeal has always been a mark of the Christie approach to hate defense.
He was literally the loudest person in the room on a fateful day in Ottawa in 2008 when revelations about investigatory practices at the Canadian Human Rights Commission blew the Section 13 hate speech debate wide open, and set the stage for its eventual repeal. Forced to deal with minor objections, Mr. Christie hollered that he had flown all the way from Victoria and he was not going to abide the CHRC’s “obstruction” of his cross-examination.
Otherwise, he has a soft and measured demeanour, eloquent to the point of verbosity on legal issues, and known for rhetorical flourishes. But for the trademark cowboy hat, he can seem almost professorial.
He pins much of the blame for Canada’s legal unease over hatred on multiculturalism, which forced judges into awkward balancing acts at the expense of fundamental values.
“I think it boils down to the fact that judges desire, in large measure, to be seen as tolerant and relatively popular, and the opinions of people like Mr. Zundel and Mr. Taylor are seen as intolerant and unpopular,” he said. “Therefore it becomes a difficult matter for a judge to hold in favour of someone who is publicly so perceived.”
Mr. Christie is married to Keltie Zubko and has two children, a son in law school and a daughter in engineering.