This book is an edited collection based on a “Taking Liberties” workshop held at the Wilson Institute for Canadian Studies at McMaster University in March 2012. The book brings together leading Canadian historical scholars to explore various facets of the history of human rights in Canada. These range from ethnic, Indigenous, and social movement perspectives. The editors of the collection, David Goutor and Stephen Heathorn, emphasize that the history of human rights in Canada is very much a neglected area of historical scholarship. The current study of human rights has been left to be the domain of political scientists and legal scholars, much to the detriment of the discipline of history. Therefore, this edited collection fills an important gap and offers several fascinating directions for further historical [End Page 182] research. Due to limited space, I will focus on three chapters that explore different themes. They were chosen either because they offered an overview of the history of human rights in Canada or because they offered perspectives on groups whose human rights have been historically restricted and continue to be so to this day: women, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and two-spirited community, and Indigenous peoples.
James Walker’s “Decoding the Rights Revolution: Lessons from the Canadian Experience” offers a very useful overview of the history of human rights in Canada (which is why it kicks off the collection), focusing on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (udhr), Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s 1960 Bill of Rights, and the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, before doing this, Walker attempts to situate the Canadian experience in a broader international context, briefly surveying the historical literature on international human rights. And he also places the Canadian experience in a broader historical context, mentioning the restrictions against Chinese and Indian immigration in the early twentieth century and even further back with the experience of the Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia in the late eighteenth century. One of the most interesting aspects of Walker’s chapter is his exploration of remedial programs that were introduced in Canada to address the continued lower education levels attained, and the rates of pay secured by, certain marginalized sections of Canadian society.
“Social Movements and Human Rights: Gender, Sexuality, and the Charter in English-Speaking Canada” by Miriam Smith explores the history of human rights in Canada in relation to social movements, in particular, second wave feminism, lesbian feminism, the gay liberation movement, and the gay and lesbian movement. Smith argues that the form of the activities of these social movements were very much shaped by the changing edifice of Canadian political institutions and the legal heritage included in the Canadian constitutional system that facilitated the construction of state-based political calls for inclusion and citizenship. In particular, she focuses on the impact that the women’s movement had on section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which stressed affirmative action for equality not only for women but also for other marginalized groups. This was best seen in the section’s expansive wording: “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination” (222).
J.R. Miller’s “Human Rights for Some: First Nations Rights in Twentieth-Century Canada” studies the history of human rights in [End Page 183] Canada in relation to First Nations. Miller effectively highlights the major points of discrimination against First Nations, even when Canada as a whole was supposedly more enlightened when it came to issues of human rights–for example, after the adoption of the udhr. Another important point that Miller makes is just how long a lot of these policies directed against First Nations’ people lasted, whether it was enfranchisement (whereby First Nations people had to give up their “Indian Status” to exercise the franchise), the residential school system (which has been rightly described as committing genocide against First Nations), various restrictions on land holding or...