It’s not every day that the death of an elderly Norwegian hits like a thunderbolt in Canada and around the world. But the death of Nils Christie on May 27, 2015 is such a day. A global leader in criminology, and one of the most compassionate people ever to walk with us.
Born in February 1928, Nils worked as a journalist for a time after the Second World War, and then began his lifelong devotion to matters of crime and justice. He completed his doctorate in 1960 with the thesis topic ”œYoung Norwegian Offenders”, and in 1966 became Norway’s first professor of criminology at the University of Oslo.
Nils went on to author 15 books (translated into over 20 languages), and scores of articles. One of his earliest works, ”œCrime Control as Industry – Towards Gulags Western Style?” solidified his role as intellectual and moral guide to corrections and criminal law reform worldwide. First published in 1993, in 1994 in the second edition Nils deleted the question mark, as his fear of Western-style prison gulags had already begun to materialize.
Nils’ friendship with Canada began early and was supported in part by Danish criminologist Ole Ingstrup’s tenure in Canada. His intellectual influence on Canadians over the decades cannot be over-stated. Justice David Cole of Ontario first heard Nils speak when His Honour was a law student at Osgoode Hall in the early 1970s. ”œI don’t think I ever heard a more stimulating (and provocative) lecture in all my university years”, he wrote on hearing of Nils’ death. And Nils did not shy away from difficult or controversial topics. A piece he wrote in later years that explored the idea of concentration camp guards as victims caused a stir in mainstream victims orthodoxy, but such was Nils’ willingness to tackle hard issues. And it perfectly demonstrated Nils’ ability to see all people as humans, regardless of any label attached to them.
For not only was Nils an outstanding scholar and practitioner of fair and humane corrections, he was an extraordinarily warm, gracious, caring, and yes, humorous, man. He made friends among Canadians from coast to coast, including in Ottawa at a restorative justice event as recently as 2011. One of my fondest memories of Nils was at a criminal justice conference in Saskatoon years ago. Nils never travelled without his bicycle helmet, and Ottawa human rights advocate Shereen Benzvy Miller never travelled without a sense of adventure. So there were the two of them perched on rented bicycles racing off down some winding trail, with Shereen praying that she wouldn’t lose a Scandinavian dignitary into the South Saskatchewan River.
Nils showed several generations of us how to think, and how to ”œdo corrections” in a gentle, humane, thoughtful and effective way. He listened to others, he discussed, he debated, he stood firm to his underlying values. What a treasure. He will be so missed. RIP, friend.