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Human Rights in Postwar Canada

By: Brendan Campisi

Brendan Campisi

Brendan Campisi is a student, researcher, and occasional writer living on Anishinaabe and Lenni Lenape land in London, Ontario. He has a BA in History from the University of Guelph and is currently studying at Huron University College. He is interested in the histories of labour and left-wing politics in Canada and internationally, and in understanding Canadian history as part of the histories of the British Empire and settler colonialism globally.

Canadians today commonly regard the recognition, promotion, and protection of universal human rights as a shared value, even a central component of our national identity. This has been the case especially since the 1982 proclamation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a domestic codification of these principles which has become integral to Canadian law and politics. It would be tempting to believe that this embrace of human rights took place during the years immediately following the Second World War, when the idea gained a new (or, by some historical accounts, revived) importance in global discourse, represented most prominently by the United Nations’ adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But the reality is much more complex and less flattering. The Canadian government and much of the political elite were indifferent or hostile to the new framework of universal human rights, which they saw as a threat to the racially discriminatory and politically repressive policies they wished to maintain, as well as to the country’s political traditions in a broad sense. Only small groups–civil libertarians, labour organizers, and antiracist activists from Canada’s oppressed communities–responded positively to the new message and sought to use it to press their appeals for equality and the protection of basic freedoms.

In order to understand these responses, it is necessary to recall how poorly protected many of what we now regard as basic rights and freedoms were in Canada in the first half of the twentieth century. The best way to do this is to examine how these rights and freedoms were protected–or weren’t–for groups outside the mainstream in various ways. During the First World War, Canada interned “enemy aliens,” many of whom were conveniently also labour organizers or political dissidents opposed to the war. In response to the upsurge of the labour movement culminating in the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, the government gave itself the power with Section 98 of the Criminal Code to deport British subjects and to prosecute a series of vaguely defined political crimes. This power was used extensively during the Great Depression to suppress the Communist Party of Canada and other groups active in organizing workers and the unemployed in response to their desperate conditions, until opposition to this repression forced the repeal of Section 98 in 1936.[i] Political repression did not end there, however, with the government’s emergency powers during the Second World War being put to familiar use against Communists and their allies in the labour movement. After the war, the investigation of alleged Soviet spies involved extensive use of detention without charge and denial of access to defense.[ii] Religious minorities were also subject to state repression: the ultra-conservative Catholic regime of Quebec’s premier Maurice Duplessis repeatedly persecuted Jehovah’s Witnesses on the grounds that they insulted the religion of the Catholic majority.[iii]

“Arrested While Distributing Literature”: Able Pearl Pearl and the police constable who arrested him at Spadina Ave. and Queen St. while distributing communist literature, August 1929. Image courtesy of the Toronto Public Library & the Toronto Star Archives.

Besides those whose political or religious views and actions made them targets, discriminatory action toward many whose ethnic, national, or racial identity placed them outside the narrowly-defined majority was widespread. Between the 1880s and 1930s, Canada constructed a racially discriminatory immigration system that eventually made it virtually impossible for anyone of non-European origin to enter the country. Southern and Eastern Europeans were never excluded entirely, but their numbers were also tightly controlled–particularly for Jewish migrants from Central and Eastern Europe.[iv] Within Canada, legal and social discrimination was pervasive. For example, the vast majority of Canada’s populations of Chinese, Japanese, and South Asian origin lived in British Columbia, where they could not vote in provincial or federal elections or follow many professions. Black Canadians faced similar treatment: when a Black Montrealer named Fred Christie took a case against a tavern keeper who had refused to serve him to the Supreme Court in 1939, the Court ruled that the freedom to choose one’s customers was superior to any alleged discrimination. This social and state racism reached a nadir in the treatment of Japanese Canadians during and after the Second World War. Not only were they forcibly relocated across the country and robbed of productive property, after the war the government attempted to deport them to Japan, including those who were native-born Canadian citizens.[v] In general, then, for those outside the political, religious, or ethnoracial mainstream of early 20th century Canada, any notion of fundamental rights and freedoms was vulnerable indeed.

Against this backdrop, the conservative response of most of the Canadian political elite to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ideas it represented can be more easily understood. The wartime government of Mackenzie King was indifferent to the first discussions of human rights protection within the emerging United Nations. Although Canadian John Humphrey played an important role in drafting the Declaration, he received no support in this work from the Canadian government. Indeed, the government initially opposed the draft declaration, with Canadian representatives voting against or abstaining on it several times before ultimately voting for the final version out of a concern to avoid diplomatic embarrassment and isolation from the United States and Britain.[vi] One 1948 cabinet discussion of the draft declaration reveals the conservative impulses shaping the government’s response. While some cabinet members simply regarded the declaration as impossible to implement and liable to hypocrisy, others feared it would “confer the right to public employment on Canadian Communists and permit the unrestricted activities of sects like the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” in other words interfere with Canada’s restriction of the rights and freedoms of unpopular minorities.[vii] Even after adopting the Declaration, Canadian government statements were defensive, as when John Wendell Holmes, a senior external affairs official, declared that “no country in the world is yet prepared to let outsiders interfere with their own delicate provisions for civil rights.”[viii] While diplomatic exigencies had compelled the Canadian government to formally endorse the Declaration, reluctance to let it have any impact within Canada remained entrenched.

Rt. Hon. Louis St. Laurent with Viscount Alexander, Rt. Hon. W.L. Mackenzie King, and the members of M. St. Laurent’s first Cabinet, Rideau Hall, November 1948. Image courtesy of Library & Archives Canada.

Not all Canadians shared this conservative response to the new ideas of universal human rights. Small groups of civil liberties advocates, many affiliated with the political Left, had been advocating stronger protections for fundamental rights and freedoms in Canada for many decades. The events of the Second World War and its immediate aftermath–-the dispersal and attempted expulsion of Japanese Canadians and the spy trials–convinced many of these activists of the need to move from temporary, defensive campaigns to a more positive and far-reaching demand for a Canadian bill of rights. Within the political mainstream, this demand was echoed both by the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and by some Conservatives, most prominently and consistently the Saskatchewan MP John Diefenbaker.[ix] Alongside these civil libertarian demands, the events of this period also spurred a rise in anti-racist activism. The wartime persecution of the Japanese community, the glaring contradiction between Canada’s adherence to the war against Nazism and continued discrimination at home, and the exposure of the Holocaust spurred activists mainly from the Japanese, Black, and Jewish communities to step up anti-racist mass education and advocacy for legal measures against discrimination.[x] Both the civil libertarians and anti-racists were inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the new global ideological climate it seemed to embody, and used its principles and Canada’s formal adherence as a lever to press for the protection of human rights at the national level. By the early 1950s, these efforts had come up against the federal Liberal government’s staunch rejection of the idea of a bill of rights.[xi] Turning their attention to the provincial level, some of these activists would play a key role in the passage of Ontario’s first substantial anti-discrimination laws, which in turn inspired similar laws in other provinces. The questions of civil liberties and human rights raised by the war and its aftermath would return to federal politics with the election of long-time civil libertarian and bill of rights advocate John Diefenbaker as Prime Minister in 1957.

Further Reading

Carmela Patrias and Ruth Frager, ‘“This Is Our Country and These Are Our Rights”: Minorities and the Origins of Ontario’s Human Rights Campaigns,” Canadian Historical Review 82, 1, March 2001.

Christopher MacLennan, Toward the Charter: Canadians and the Demand for a Bill of Rights, 1929-1960 (Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003).

George Egerton, “Entering the Age of Human Rights: Religion, Politics and Canadian Liberalism, 1945-1950,” Canadian Historical Review 85, 3, September 2004.

George Egerton, “Writing the Canadian Bill of Rights: Religion, Politics, and the Challenge of Pluralism 1957–1960,” Canadian Journal of Law and Society, 19, 2004, pp.1-22.

John F. Leslie, ‘Assimilation, Integration, or Termination: The Development of Canadian Indian Policy, 1943-1963’ [PhD dissertation, Carleton University, 1999].

Ross Lambertson, Repression and Resistance: Canadian Human Rights Activists, 1930-1960 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005).

Triadafilos Triadafilopoulos, Becoming Multicultural: Immigration and the Politics of Membership in Canada and Germany (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012).


[i] Christopher MacLennan, Toward the Charter: Canadians and the Demand for a Bill of Rights, 1929-1960 (Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003), 14-20.

[ii] MacLennan, Toward the Charter, 21-30; 37-43.

[iii] MacLennan, Toward the Charter, 112.

[iv] Triadafilos Triadafilopoulos, Becoming Multicultural: Immigration and the Politics of Membership in Canada and Germany (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012), 24-36.

[v] Patricia E. Roy, The Triumph of Citizenship: The Japanese and Chinese in Canada, 1941-1967 (Vancouver/Toronto: UBC Press, 2007) 4-7.

[vi] MacLennan, Toward the Charter, 63-75.

[vii] George Egerton, “Entering the Age of Human Rights: Religion, Politics and Canadian Liberalism, 1945-1950,” Canadian Historical Review 85, 3, September 2004, p. 469.

[viii] MacLennan, Toward the Charter, 76.

[ix] MacLennan, Toward the Charter, 45-46.

[x] Carmela Patrias and Ruth Frager, ‘“This Is Our Country and These Are Our Rights”: Minorities and the Origins of Ontario’s Human Rights Campaigns,” Canadian Historical Review 82, 1, March 2001.

[xi] MacLennan, Toward the Charter, 104-5.