Jehovah’s Witnesses

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Aimé Boucher, a farmer in St-Germain Parish and a Jehovah’s Witness, was arrested for sedition in 1946 because he had distributed copies of a flyer titled “Quebec’s Burning Hate.” Sedition was a common charge used to harass Jehovah’s Witnesses. Boucher decided to challenge the government’s definition of sedition in court. Two years later, John Switzman, a prominent Marxist in Montreal, rented an apartment from Freda Elbling. It was not long before the police raided and barricaded the apartment. Duplessis’s Padlock Act permitted the police to close buildings without warrant, charge, or trial for promoting communism. In a direct reversal of legal tradition, the accused was assumed guilty and had the burden of proving his or her innocence. Elbling sued Switzman for loss of rent, and Switzman used the opportunity to challenge the law’s constitutionality. In another case, Laurier Saumur was arrested under a municipal ordinance in Quebec City that prohibited the distribution of any book, pamphlet, circular, or tract without permission of the chief of police (with no procedure for appealing the decision). He also challenged the law in court. Meanwhile, Frank Roncarelli,

Meanwhile, Frank Roncarelli, the owner of Quaff Café in Montreal, was busy providing hundreds of jailed Jehovah’s Witnesses with bail in defiance of Duplessis’s campaign against the unpopular sect. Duplessis was outraged and publicly admonished Roncarelli about posting bail. Speaking to a reporter from the Montreal Gazette, Duplessis explained that “the communists, Nazis as well as those who are the propagandists for the Witnesses of Jehovah, have been treated and will continue to be treated by the Union Nationale government as they deserve for trying to infiltrate themselves and their seditious ideas in the Province of Quebec.” When Roncarelli refused to stop, Duplessis used his influence to have the restaurant owner’s licence revoked, and the restaurant soon went bankrupt. Roncarelli sued the premier for $100,000. The case ignited what one historian described as “the most extensive campaign of state-sponsored religious persecution ever undertaken in Canada.” Jehovah’s Witnesses were dragged from their homes at night and arrested, police stood by as violent mobs attacked them, hundreds were imprisoned, prayer meetings were raided, and their literature was burned on the streets.

The Supreme Court of Canada sided with the defendants in each case. In Boucher v the King (1949), the Court narrowed the definition of sedition. In putting aside the guilty verdict, it concluded that an individual was not guilty of sedition for simply fomenting ill will or hostility. The accused also had to be guilty of inciting violence against the state. Saumur v. City of Quebec and Attorney-General  (1953) was a confusing mix of contradictory judicial findings: the justices were divided over whether the case constituted a violation of freedom of religion and whether the power to legislate on civil liberties was provincial or federal (one justice decided that the ordinance violated the Freedom to Worship Act). Fortunately for Saumur, the collective result was to rule that the arrest was illegal. In Switzman v. Elbling  (1957) the Court struck down the Padlock Act as ultra vires the province’s jurisdiction because it functioned as criminal law. And Duplessis was fined $8,000 in Roncarelli v. Duplessis  (1959) for abusing his powers.

The 1960 federal Bill of Rights was another landmark piece of rights legislation. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s original vision had been for a constitutionally entrenched bill of rights. His opponents, however, citing the principle of Parliamentary supremacy, undermined any attempt to amend the constitution. It was passed simply as a federal statute. Also, the Bill of Rights defined rights largely in the same terms as other antidiscrimination laws in Canada, with the sole exception that it banned discrimination on the basis of sex (alongside race, religion, and national origin). It was the first Canadian statute to prohibit sex discrimination, although unlike race, religion, and national origin, sex discrimination was only banned in employment. The Bill of Rights was ultimately ineffective in practice. Of the thirty-five claims brought under the legislation between 1960 and 1982, only five were successful and only one led to the striking down of legislation.


Further Reading

Berger, Thomas. Fragile Freedoms: Human Rights and Dissent in Canada.  Toronto: Clarke-Irwin, 1981.

Botting, Gary Norman Arthur. Fundamental Freedoms and Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1993. Book.

Heathorn, Stephen, and David Goutor, eds. Taking Liberties: A History of Human Rights in Canada. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2013.\

Kaplan, William. Canadian Maverick: The Life and Times of Ivan C. Rand.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Kaplan, William. State and Salvation: The Jehovah’s Witnesses and Their Fight for Civil Rights.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989. Bibliographies.

Miron, Janet, ed. A History of Human Rights in Canada. Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press, 2009.

Scott, Frank. Essays on the Constitution: Aspects of Canadian Law and Politics.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977.