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Reviewed by:
  • Canada’s Rights Revolution: Social Movements and Social Change, 1937–82
  • James W. St.G. Walker (bio)
Dominique Clément, Canada’s Rights Revolution: Social Movements and Social Change, 1937–82 (Univ. of B.C. Press 2008) 281 pages, ISBN 9780774814799.

In late April 2009 I had the pleasure of attending the retirement dinner for Alan Borovoy, who has led the Canadian Civil Liberties Association since 1968. In attendance at the luxurious Royal York Hotel in downtown Toronto were a former chief justice, a former provincial premier, former mayors, numerous judges, and leaders in the Canadian legal community. Prestigious law firms had reserved corporate tables for the event and placed full-page ads in the glossy program. Toasts were offered by sitting members of the Supreme Court of Canada and the Ontario Court of Appeal, and by ACLU president Susan Herman (a video tribute was sent by her predecessor Nadine Strossen), among others. The establishment turned out to honor Alan Borovoy. It was great oratory and splendid fun. The motto for the evening was “Forty Years of Raising Hell (without breaking the law).” Not long ago I attended a comparable event in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the “Rocky Jones Appreciation Night,” put on by that province’s black community. The numbers in attendance were about the same as the Borovoy dinner, the food was similar (plump chicken), the level of noise and revelry perhaps a bit higher, but there were no corporate tables, no judges, no prominent politicians from the past. Rocky Jones was the leader of the black radical movement in Nova Scotia in the 1960s and 1970s, an associate of the Black Panthers, and, in his later years, the province’s chief agitator and community organizer on behalf of equality rights and social justice. The crowd that gathered in a community hall in Halifax’s North End was made up of civil society activists and individuals who had campaigned with Jones over the previous forty years. Two celebrations, two charismatic and influential men who, as the composition of their tribute dinners might suggest, represented distinct dynamics within the Canadian rights movement.

There has undoubtedly been a fundamental transformation in human rights in Canada. When Borovoy and Jones were schoolboys, one a Jew in Toronto, the other an African Canadian in Nova Scotia, they faced a Canadian society that was exclusive and restrictive toward many people on grounds of “race.” Canada’s borders were closed to a range of prospective immigrants, including Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Europe, because of their alleged inability to assimilate as determined by their “racial” character. Employment discrimination was rife, residential and recreational segregation was widespread, even the vote was denied to some Canadians due to their “race.” The extent of the transformation since that time is measured by the elimination of “race” as a condition for immigration or for the franchise, the passage of the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the introduction of provincial human rights codes and commissions to [End Page 1135] enforce them. In short, there has been a legal sea change, and one that has been accompanied by a shift in public morality and even in national identity. Canada now regards itself as the first truly multicultural nation.

Dominique Clément sets out to examine this Canadian “revolution,” which he locates in the period between 1937 and 1982, in the hope of explaining why the changes occurred. His “Big Question,” as announced in the Introduction, is “To what degree can rights discourse promote social change?”1 To answer it, he engages in analyses of various “Social Movement Organizations” (SMOs), all of which employed human rights principles and rhetoric in contributing to the shifting relationship between Canadians and their state, and with each other. In his early chapters Clément offers an overview of what he calls the “first generation” of rights organizations, beginning in the 1930s and peaking in the 1940s. These organizations were provoked into existence by egregious violations by the federal or provincial governments. As his first example, Clément takes the “Padlock Law” passed by the province of Québec in 1937. Designed to stifle communist propaganda, the law was capable of being used...


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