“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
The above quote is often attributed to French philosopher Voltaire, but it is most likely a paraphrase by another writer of something Voltaire may have said. Nonetheless, it should be the heart of the matter where defenders of free speech are concerned. And last month, Canada lost one of its most controversial defenders of free speech when British Columbia lawyer Doug Christie died of cancer.
Christie, often called The Battling Barrister or Counsel for the Damned, became notorious for his defence of some of the most reviled hatemongers in the country. His clients included holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, former Nazi guard Michael Seifert, fascist John Ross Taylor, and white supremacist Paul Fromm. Christie studied law at the University of British Columbia and rose to prominence in the mid-1980s defending James Keegstra, a schoolteacher fined $5,000 for willfully promoting hatred against Jews by teaching his students the Holocaust never happened and that a Jewish conspiracy controlled world affairs.
Christie was strongly criticized by anti-racists, had rocks thrown at him, and his office windows were smashed so many times he had to board them up. Once, someone drove a truck through his office. He was a polarizing figure, there’s no doubt. Christie, along with Ottawa lawyer Richard Warman, were the subjects of Canadian Lawyer’s March 2009 cover story “War of the Words,” which looked at the battle between the free speech advocate and the push for laws outlawing hate. Warman would not consent to have his photograph taken with Christie, going as far as insisting we note in the article that the two men had been photographed separately.
Many of his critics insisted Christie held the same repugnant beliefs of those he defended in the courts but other than his desire to separate the Western provinces from the rest of Canada, his personal beliefs were never really out there on display. Until the end, Christie insisted he was defending those who others wouldn’t. In one of the last interviews he gave before passing away, he told Canadian Lawyer writer Jean Sorensen, “I take cases on principal – I don’t care how long they take or if it costs me.”
He told the National Post just before he died: “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,” comparing 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.” And as Conservative commentator Ezra Levant told our Legal Feeds blog: “For a generation, Doug Christie was Canada’s leading free speech advocate. In fact, he was often Canada’s only free speech advocate, which should be an embarrassment to Canada’s legal establishment.”
Even the professional regulator saw that Christie was willing to do what most other lawyers weren’t. When the B.C. lawyer got into trouble with the Law Society of British Columbia over some questionable subpoenas, his contribution to society was recognized. Christie was found guilty of professional misconduct but in assessing costs, the hearing panel tried to keep them as low as possible so it didn’t affect Christie’s ability to practise. “The Panel recognizes the Respondent’s valuable contribution to our free society and wants to enable him to continue with his work, which he has often done pro bono or for greatly reduced fees.”
Whether you agreed with Christie or not, he played a pivotal role in the free speech debate in Canada. There have to be lawyers who are willing and able to fight for those no one wants to fight for. It’s the essence of a free and tolerant society. Who, now, will rise up to take his place and defend those people, even if it means possibly being on the wrong end of a thrown rock?