As in Saskatchewan and Alberta, the 1968 anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) stimulated the creation of a rights association in Canada’s easternmost province: the Newfoundland-Labrador Human Rights Association (NLHRA). It would later become a founding member and stalwart supporter of the Canadian Federation of Civil Liberties and Human Rights Associations until the federation was disbanded in 1990.
Newfoundland-Labrador Human Rights Association (chapters in Northern Labrador, Gander, and Cornerbrook)
The impetus to form the NLHRA began in Ottawa, with plans to celebrate International Year for Human Rights (IYHR) in 1968. John Humphrey, dean of law at McGill University and the original drafter of the UDHR, and Kalmen Kaplansky, an executive member of the International Labour Organization, headed the Canadian Commission for the IYHR. Formed in 1967 and funded through the federal Secretary of State department’s citizenship program, the commission encouraged the creation of provincial human rights committees to organize conferences and educational activities to celebrate IYHR. Humphrey wrote to provincial premiers, requesting their support.
Originally dubbed the Newfoundland-Labrador Human Rights Committee, the NLHRA was formed on 31 January 1968 at a public meeting initiated by the provincial government. It was attended by twenty-three volunteer groups, Peter Truman of the United Nations Association of Canada, and seventy high school and university students. The meeting elected an executive, which consisted of R.J. Greene and W.J. Noseworthy (co-chairs), Felix Murphy (secretary), and J.E. Butler and Shannon O’Keefe (directors). A cabinet committee was formed to consult with the executive and discuss recommendations for legislative action. It included G.A. Frecker, F.W. Rowe, John Crosbie, Alex Hickman, W.J. Keough, Edward Roberts, and J.G. Channing. A provincial grant of $7,500 reflected the importance that the government placed on the event, as did the composition of the cabinet committee. F.W. Rowe was the influential minister of education (later appointed to the Senate); John Crosbie was the minister of municipal affairs and housing; and Minister of Labour W.J. Keough, a close friend of Premier Joey Smallwood, subsequently drafted the Newfoundland Human Rights Code. NLHRA members spent 1968 speaking at school assemblies, encouraging clergy to address the issue of human rights in their sermons, organizing a conference at Memorial University, corresponding with community groups, and planning for a national conference in December.
The provincial government’s interest in supporting a human rights association soon waned, and Biswarup Bhattacharya, a psychiatrist at Waterford Hospital, took control in 1969 of what was now known as the Newfoundland-Labrador Human Rights Association. Thanks to his efforts and those of a few dedicated activists, the NLHRA thrived despite its limited funding and virtually non-existent support staff. During its early years, it devoted a great deal of its energy to taking calls from people who believed that their rights had been violated and directing them to the proper agency, such as the Human Rights Commission or the Workers’ Compensation Board. The NLHRA also involved itself in local issues and managed to implement change. In 1973, it pressured the minister of justice to destroy police photographs of protesters taken the year before in front of the Confederation Building, and it elicited a statement confirming that the RCMP was not keeping photo files on demonstrators. It helped to secure an amendment to the equal pay provisions of the Newfoundland Human Rights Code and also to have sex and marital status added to the code as prohibited grounds of discrimination. In 1978-79, the NLHRA made representations to the minister of justice in a successful bid to improve conditions at the St. John’s courtroom jail, and it convinced the Mutual Life Insurance Company to remove a question regarding illegal drug use from its insurance applications. During the same period, it joined local residents in pushing the provincial government to stop uranium mining in rural Labrador because of health and environmental dangers. It also distinguished itself as a tireless critic of the province’s denominational education system, which was heavily influenced by the churches and as such, according to the NLHRA, violated the rights of non-Christians. During the 1990s, its efforts bore fruit in two referendums that ultimately led to the full secularization of Newfoundland’s education system.
Clément, Dominique. Canada’s Rights Revolution: Social Movements and Social Change, 1937-82. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008.
Clément, Dominique. “Equality Deferred: Sex Discrimination and the Newfoundland Human Rights State.” Acadiensis 41, 1 (2012): 102-27.
Clément, Dominique. “Searching for Rights in the Age of Activism: The Newfoundland-Labrador Human Rights Association, 1968-1982.” Newfoundland Studies 19, 2 (2003): 347-72.
The NLHRA archives are located at Memorial University’s Centre for Newfoundland Studies.