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Reviewed by:
  • Taking Liberties: A History of Human Rights in Canada ed. by David Goutor and Stephen Heathorn
  • Michael Lynk
David Goutor and Stephen Heathorn, eds. Taking Liberties: A History of Human Rights in Canada. Oxford University Press 2013. xii, 292. $35.00

Andrew Brewin’s name is hardly known today outside of a small circle of political historians and older social activists, but between the 1930s and the 1970s, this self-described Christian socialist was the beating heart for many of the formative struggles for human rights protections in Canada. The son of an Anglican clergyman who was raised in relative privilege in Toronto, educated at a boarding school in England before studying law at Osgoode Hall, and had a world view that was decisively shaped by the desolation of the Great Depression, Brewin used his bully pulpits as a lawyer and later as a member of Parliament to become a formidable advocate for the rights of the marginalized and the scorned in Canada and abroad. His footprints in those days seemed to be everywhere. An early and influential member of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, a founder of the Civil Liberties Association of Toronto, a drafter of the Saskatchewan Trade Union Act for the Tommy Douglas government (the first labour legislation of its kind in Canada), and a highly effective legal counsel for the rights of Japanese Canadians interned during World War II, Brewin blended the hard legal skills of persuasion and litigation with his innate qualities of leadership and compassion. Between 1962 and 1979, he sat in Parliament for the New Democratic Party representing an east end Toronto riding and became an outspoken critic of the Trudeau government on such issues as Biafra, the plight of Chilean refugees after the Pinochet coup in 1973, and the need for an entrenched bill of rights in the Canadian constitution. [End Page 300]

The recovery of Brewin’s multiple contributions to the early human rights movement in Canada—in the form of an engaging article by Stephanie Bangarth—is one of the many achievements of Taking Liberties, an edited collection of essays on such diverse issues in our history as children’s rights, the women’s movement, the closeted lives of sexual minorities, the role of Jewish social activists in the early post-war period, and a comparison of the rights revolutions in Canada and Australia. While a brief review cannot do justice to the richness of this collection, three themes from the book illustrate what it can tell us about the social struggles for human rights in our society.

First, Canada’s history illuminates our anguished relationship with recognizing the rights of the Other. We have much to be proud of today, with a vibrant Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the most sophisticated human rights legal system in the world, and a generally accommodating society. But these achievements were possible only because of the corrective lessons drawn from the many troubling shadows across our history. To name but a few: Duplessis’s Padlock Law, the 1970 invocation of the War Measures Act, the Komagata Maru incident, the closing of our borders to European refugees on the brink of World War II, the internment of the Japanese Canadians and, above all, the shameful relationship with our First Nations peoples. As Michael Ignatieff eloquently writes in his introduction to Taking Liberties, our present self-image as an open and tolerant nation does not fit easily with our complex and stained historical record. That we have embedded the language of human rights into our contemporary legal and political discourse is to our credit, Ignatieff argues, given that human rights have become the most influential example of the globalization of ethical language itself. But, he asserts, we do not need a church history of ourselves, and an honest, even searing, scrutiny of our past can only enhance our embrace of the rights project.

Second, the human rights project in Canada, and elsewhere, has invariably been the history of gritty struggles by ordinary people thrust forward by extraordinary events and times to demand an end to injustices and the securing of rights through laws and proclamations. Rights are not legislative and judicial gifts bestowed...


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pp. 300-303
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