Doug Christie, from Victoria, B.C., died Monday night after battling prostate cancer and metastatic liver disease.
His clients included holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, former Nazi guard Michael Seifert, fascist John Ross Taylor and white supremacist Paul Fromm.
Christie saw it as his duty to ensure those with unpopular views had the right to a fair trial.
He wrote on his web site: “It is only the defense counsel who has the potential to make the presumption of innocence a reality and restore the possibility of a fair fight to what would otherwise be nothing but a lynch mob.”
Christie studied law at the University of British Columbia, where he said he never fit in, and rose to prominence in the mid-1980s with the James Keegstra case.
Keegstra was 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. On appeal, this was reduced to a one-year suspended sentence, one year of probation and 200 hours of community service.
Christie also campaigned to remove s.13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, which deals with hate crime. Parliament last year voted to repeal s.13, though this still needs to be passed by the senate.
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.
When journalist Gary Bannerman labelled him a “perverted monster” in 1985, he tried to sue — unsuccessfully.
Conservative commentator Ezra Levant described Christie in warmer terms, telling Legal Feeds: “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.”
He adds: “Unlike the ACLU in the United States, Canada lacks a robust legal culture of defending free speech for odious people. Down in the U.S., it's commonplace to see a Jewish or black ACLU lawyer defending an anti-Semite or a Klansman, just to prove the point that freedom of speech only means something if it applies to speech we dislike.
“Almost alone in Canada, Doug Christie knew that it's better to defend free speech in the first ditch — when the censors come for unlikeable people — than to defend it in the last ditch, when those emboldened censors come for the rest of us.”
Christie stood for election in the 1980s and 1990s for the Western Canada Concept party, which aimed to secede British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba from the rest of Canada.
Later he formed the Western Block Party, which also called for reduced immigration and lower taxes.