Ross Lambertson. Repression and Resistance: Canadian Human Rights Activists, 1930-1960. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005. xiii + 523 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8020-8921-2.
Reviewed by Brian Howe (Department of Political Science, Cape Breton University)
Published on H-Canada (July, 2006)
The Dawn of Human Rights in Canada
This comprehensive, engaging, and well-written book is a must-read for historians, political scientists, sociologists, and human rights practitioners with an interest in the early history of human rights in Canada. In Repression and Resistance, Ross Lambertson examines the history of civil liberties and human rights in Canada from 1930 to 1960, with special attention on the major issues, emerging organizations, and activists who made such a significant contribution to the development of laws and policies providing for the rights and liberties enjoyed by Canadians today. This is a very important period and Lambertson is quite correct to make it his focus. The violations of human rights and the threats to civil liberties during this period provided the context for developments that led to early anti-discrimination legislation and to the 1960 Bill of Rights--which in turn provided the groundwork for later expansions of human rights legislation and for the Charter of Rights in 1982.
With information gathered through government documents, newspaper files, the files of human rights organizations, and interviews with former activists, Lambertson analyzes the leading issues and role of activists in eight chronologically ordered chapters. These chapters show how the activists respond to a particular injustice, how organizations develop, and how the response of activists to particular issues feeds into a movement for wider human rights protection and law after the Second World War. Central in his analysis are the aims and activities of two types of human rights groups: civil liberties groups, with an emphasis on protecting libertarian rights such as free speech and due process, and egalitarian groups, with a focus on countering discrimination and advancing equality rights. These groups "did not always see eye to eye on human rights issues, but they were not poles apart" (p. 9). Despite their conflicts, that they often cooperated and energetically pursued their objectives was a major factor in the progress made towards human rights during the period.
The first four chapters deal primarily with libertarian rights. Chapter 1 deals with a key issue that emerged during the Great Depression--the Padlock Law in Quebec. Here, the Quebec government attacked not only Communists, but also freedom of expression in general. Civil liberties groups--non-Communist as well as Communist--resisted. Chapter 2 examines the growth of discretionary power used by the Canadian federal government in prosecuting the war and the threat that this posed for the legal rights of citizens. The federal government over-reacted to the challenge of the war by unduly limiting civil liberties. Again, civil liberties groups resisted. Chapter 3 looks at the issue of the deportation of Japanese Canadians at the close of the war. Resistance to this injustice came from egalitarian as well as civil rights groups and the problem of discrimination was put on the human rights agenda. Chapter 4 examines the 1945-46 Gouzenko affair and the federal government's over-reaction to Communist infiltration. Civil liberties groups again resisted the suppression of libertarian rights, but their response was hampered by the Cold War and a Communist/non-Communist division within the civil libertarian movement.
The last four chapters give more attention to egalitarian groups and equality rights. Chapter 5 focuses on the Canadian Jewish Congress and its attempt after the war to show the need for anti-discrimination legislation in Canada. The main focus is on Ontario which pioneered the legislation. Chapter 6 returns to the issue of the Padlock Law. It shows how the Communist/non-Communist division was transcended during the 1950s in a successful battle to have the law declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Chapter 7 examines the role of the Jewish Labour Committee and other labor and equality rights groups in successfully pressuring for extensions of anti-discrimination legislation during the 1950s. Again, most of the focus is on Ontario. Finally, chapter 8 shows how civil liberties and egalitarian rights groups came together in the successful movement for the Canadian Bill of Rights, enacted by John G. Diefenbaker in 1960. The Bill of Rights may not have been an important constitutional document but it was a significant symbolic achievement, preparing the way to the Charter of Rights.
Lambertson's thesis is that these developments, which provide an important foundation for the expansion of human rights consciousness and law after 1960, were the result of three major factors. First, there was a cultural factor. The international rise of human rights consciousness during the 1940s and 1950s, and the growing belief in the notion of fundamental human rights, created a changing political culture and ideological climate that facilitated the work of human rights activists. Second, there was an economic and demographic factor. The economic growth and prosperity that took place in the immediate postwar years, together with ethnically diverse immigration and the spread of multiculturalism, created a social and economic environment that was helpful to the activists.
Third was the determination and commitment of the activists themselves, which is the central focus of the book. Lambertson does an excellent job in demonstrating his thesis and in showing that despite the obstacles and internal schisms and divisions, the activists were ultimately successful. With energy and conviction, they raised the issue of the injustice of violations of civil liberties and human rights, and they successfully applied pressure for legal change and for wider human rights protections.
There are a few shortcomings in the book. For example, there is little analysis of a very important piece of early human rights legislation, the 1947 Saskatchewan Bill of Rights. This was a remarkably broad piece of legislation, covering equality as well as libertarian rights. The achievement of this legislation deserved much more attention than it received. To what extent were activists and human rights organizations involved? If they were not so involved, how does this relate to Lambertson's three factors? There also might have been more discussion of the role of the state and of state actors in these human rights developments. Important though the activists were, politicians such as Tommy Douglas and Leslie Frost and judges such as Ivan Rand and Keiller Mackay had an important role to play. How does their role relate to the three factors? Finally, apart from discussions in the introduction and conclusion, there might have been more analysis of the impact of the first two factors in the chapters. There needed to be more examples and more discussion of how changing political culture, economic development, and changing patterns of immigration facilitated the work of the activists.
These points aside, Lambertson makes a very major contribution to the historical literature on human rights in Canada. A major strength of his book is the careful research and documentation of the formation, ideologies, and activities of the various civil liberties and equality rights groups. On the basis of sound scholarship, he helps us understand the evolution of these groups from small ad hoc organizations and coalitions in the early 1930s, and groups guided by narrow self-interest, to more permanent bodies that were motivated not only by enlightened self-interest, but also by a genuine commitment to social justice. Furthermore, he helps us understand that in this evolution, despite the divide between libertarians and egalitarians and between Communists and non-Communists, the activists were able to rise above these differences and come to appreciate the importance of both equality and libertarian rights for all persons. Cooperating and working together at crucial points, they helped bring us the human rights protections that we enjoy today in Canada.
At the end of the book, Lambertson states: "To all of the human rights activists mentioned in this book, Canadians owe a debt of gratitude" (p. 386). I echo the words of A. Alan Borovoy on the back cover of the book: "And to Ross Lambertson for telling us about these human rights activists, Canadians also owe a debt of gratitude."
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Brian Howe. Review of Lambertson, Ross, Repression and Resistance: Canadian Human Rights Activists, 1930-1960.
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