VICTORIA - A lawyer who forged his reputation by representing Canada's most reviled hatemongers will be revered by supporters for championing free speech and filling a vital role in the justice system, while his detractors say he was too closely aligned with the racist views of his clients.
Doug Christie died in hospital on Monday night at the age of 66.
His wife, Keltie Zubko, told The Canadian Press her husband, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2011, died of metastatic liver disease.
She said Christie was surrounded by his family.
"(We) were all with him and able to say all that was in our hearts to say before he let go of the pain and suffering to leave us with the immense gifts of his love for us and the lessons of his life," Zubko said in an email forwarded by one of his supporters.
Christie’s client list includes former Nazi prison guard Michael Seifert, Holocaust-denier Ernst Zundel and self-proclaimed Nazi-sympathizer Paul Fromm.
Zundel, who maintains the Holocaust never occurred, was convicted in 1985 for "spreading false news'" about Jewish people and was sentenced to 15 months in jail.
Seifert was convicted of war crimes and was eventually extradited to Italy, where he was to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Fromm described Christie as an immensely brave man who was motivated by a deep love of freedom and a suspicion of government and authority.
"The Doug I knew was a sensitive and proud man. He was a deeply moral man. He did not seek notoriety," Fromm said in an email, noting the two were friends for more than 30 years.
"He felt the rejections and condemnations deeply. Yet, Doug felt a higher imperative — individual freedom and liberty. "
Fromm is a former member of the Western Guard white supremacist group and self-styled director of the right-wing Canadian Association for Free Expression.
Christie also represented aboriginal leader David Ahenakew, who was stripped of his Order of Canada for comments he made about Jews.
The legal saga over Ahenakew’s comments ended in 2009 when Saskatchewan justice officials decided not to appeal his acquittal on a hate crime charge.
Christie later argued that Ahenakew should get back the Order of Canada.
Christie also defended Alberta teacher Jim Keegstra, who was initially convicted of promoting hatred against Jewish people, but his conviction was later thrown out by the Alberta appeal court.
Chris Schafer, executive director of the Canadian Constitution Foundation, said Christie served a necessary and important purpose in Canadian law and society.
"There seems to be ... a few number of people who are willing to stick their neck out and defend unpopular causes and people. He was one of them. Every society needs people like that," he said in an interview.
"Some of the people he defended are unsavoury types, but everyone deserves a defence."
Schafer, who heads a non-profit group composed of lawyers who defend cases involving constitutional freedoms, said Christie took on a very difficult task.
"(He) frankly probably paid a heavy emotional or psychological or maybe even health consequence for taking on these cases (for) often being identified as having or holding the same views of his client," he said, noting he did not know the man personally.
"Which I think really is an unfair characterization."
But lawyer Anita Bromberg, who represented the Jewish advocacy group B'Nai Brith in hearings related to Zundel in the mid-2000s, said she found herself an adversary to Christie in the courtroom.
"I can't agree with the tributes that say he was an amazing man who stood up for free speech. All too often what he stood up for was the right to spread hate and hate-related speech. To me he was on the wrong side of that coin," she said in an interview.
"Watching his career, I think he all too often shared (his clients') philosophies and sentiments."
Christie found himself in trouble with the B.C. Law Society in 2008 when he was accused of professional misconduct and slapped with a hefty fine.
In 2003, Christie had authorized three subpoenas that contained documents affixed with a forged court stamp. Although Christie was found not to be involved in the forged subpoenas, the law society said he did ask his untrained client to prepare the documents.
In its decision, the law society ordered Christie to pay two fines totalling $22,500 but noted it did not want to give him a fine he wasn't able to pay because it might force him out of practising law.
”The panel described Christie's work as a valuable contribution to our free society, often performed pro bono or for greatly reduced fees, and stated its desire that Christie be able to continue with that work,'' said a society bulletin.
Outside of his legal work, the man advocated for his political beliefs including founding and leading the Western Block Party. The Western separatist party espoused views that federalism doesn't work.
Christie ran under the banner during the 2006 federal election in the riding of Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca.
On his website, Christie, who attended law school at the University of B.C. from 1967 to 1979, described himself as "Canada's most prolific defender of free speech."
Christie also acknowledged that because of the clients he represented, he was seen as a right-wing extremist, a Nazi, or an anti-Semite — smear words he said were inaccurate and unfair.
He said he was an individualist who recognized every other person’s right to be so assessed.
"It was principles of freedom that caused me to step off the beaten path," wrote Christie.
"It is the love of freedom that keeps me off the path of slaves."
— With files from Tamsyn Burgmann in Vancouver
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