Times Colonist, Christie Doug

An Uneasy Peace:
At 56, controversial lawyer Douglas Christie now worries for his children

Times Colonist (Victoria) Sunday, March 3, 2002 Monitor D1 / FRONT
Jody Paterson

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 hehad 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?,
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

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 ofexpression 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.”

[email protected]