With the exception of five small chapters of the League for Democratic Rights, the first generation of rights associations lacked a strong presence in Alberta. The rights movement did not become active in the province until International Year for Human Rights (1968), the twentieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A year earlier, the government had set up a provisional human rights committee with the goal of establishing a provincial group to work with voluntary organizations on human rights programs. It was part of the nation-wide effort to promote awareness of human rights in anticipation of the 1968 anniversary. In the same year, the Alberta government hired a full-time human rights officer to bring provincial human rights legislation to the attention of the public. The provisional committee eventually evolved into the Alberta Human Rights Association, which was incorporated in 1968 under the leadership of F.C. Brodie, secretary of the Alberta Federation of Labour. Centred in Edmonton, the group struggled during its early years, kept alive predominantly by the efforts of government officials. Within a few years, lack of money forced it to dispense with its secretary, but in 1971 it managed to secure enough funding from the Secretary of State department and the provincial government to stay afloat. By 1972, it enjoyed greater stability, with about two hundred members and a new president who took an active interest in discrimination cases and the need for an independent board to review complaints regarding the police. It was soon renamed the Alberta Human Rights and Civil Liberties Association to broaden its appeal.
In 1973, the association established its first successful chapter (a previous attempt in Calgary had failed): the Lethbridge Civil Liberties Association was formed in reaction to local concerns about the use of corporal punishment in public schools. It successfully lobbied the school board to remove corporal punishment from its regulations. The group was founded and run by academics, including Ed Webking, a political science professor at the University of Lethbridge who became its driving force by the late 1970s. Within a year of its creation, however, it became independent and changed its name to the Lethbridge Citizens Human Rights Council to qualify for Secretary of State department grants under the program for new groups. Enabled by state funding, it operated a downtown office for screening and referral services, and spent most of the 1970s organizing education programs funded by provincial and federal grants. It remained active until 1982, when Ed Webking took a sabbatical in Ottawa, after which it folded in 1983. (While on sabbatical, Webking helped Walter Tarnopolsky establish the Human Rights Research Centre at the University of Ottawa. Upon his return to Alberta, he decided not to revive the Lethbridge group, choosing instead to involve himself in the Calgary Civil Liberties Association.) Although additional rights groups were formed in Fort McMurray and Grande Prairie in 1977, they remained active for only a few years and never numbered more than about twenty-four people.
Alberta’s most enduring rights association emerged during 1973 as the Calgary Civil Liberties Association. Its founder was Sheldon Chumir, a tax lawyer and former Rhodes scholar from Calgary who was independently wealthy thanks to a small oil and gas company. Chumir, who established a private practice in 1975 and became noted for his civil liberties work in Alberta, chaired the civil liberties section of the Canadian Bar Association’s provincial wing. His fledgling rights association met informally at a Chinese restaurant every second Friday to discuss issues of interest until its members decided to incorporate themselves into a formal organization in 1977 under the Societies Act. Among its founders were Gary Dickson (lawyer), David Cruickshank (University of Calgary law professor), Ed Wolfe (Calgary oil patch worker), and Joan Ryan (University of Calgary anthropology professor). Most of their early work involved drawing media attention to local human rights abuses and writing letters to the provincial government. In fact, despite the presence of a few non-lawyers, by 1982 the Calgary Civil Liberties Association was little more than a small group of lawyers who lobbied and litigated cases. Once it was incorporated, it developed a working relationship with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, although the two groups were never formally affiliated. Among its key issues were free speech, municipal bylaws regarding parade permits and public signs, discrimination against Aboriginals by Calgary landlords, various breaches of privacy access regulations, and prayers in public schools. In 1982, with the help of a grant from the Alberta Law Foundation, it established the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre to receive donations and to conduct civil liberties educational programs and research. Today, the centre remains loosely affiliated with the association and acts as a conduit point for persons who wish to contact it. It is also affiliated with the University of Calgary.
After the Alberta Human Rights and Civil Liberties Association became defunct in the mid-1980s, the Calgary Civil Liberties Association changed its name to the Alberta Civil Liberties Association. It engages in advocacy and has spoken out in the media on issues such as police whistleblowing and the forced treatment of young drug addicts. It rarely involves itself in litigation but did intervene in the famous Vriend case, which required Alberta to add sexual orientation as a prohibited ground of discrimination in its human rights legislation. It also intervened in a case concerning the right of Sikh RCMP officers to wear turbans, and in one that considered the relationship between electoral boundaries and the Charter, but it was turned away from a case that adjudicated whether a convicted criminal should be sentenced as a dangerous offender. On at least one occasion, it made submissions before a parliamentary committee. It maintains no offices and has no website or paid staff. Its current president and frequent spokesman is a Calgary lawyer in private practice.
Alberta Human Rights Association (a.k.a. Alberta Human Rights and Civil Liberties Association) (chapters in Calgary and Lethbridge)
Calgary Civil Liberties Association (a.k.a. Alberta Civil Liberties Association; Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre)
Fort McMurray Citizens Human Rights Council
Grande Prairie Citizens’ Human Rights Council
Lethbridge Citizens Human Rights Council
Clément, Dominique. Canada’s Rights Revolution: Social Movements and Social Change, 1937-82. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008.
Clément, Dominique. “An Exercise in Futility? Regionalism, State Funding and Ideology as Obstacles to the Formation of a National Social Movement Organization in Canada.” BC Studies 146 (2005): 63-91.
Clément, Dominique, and Renée Vaugeois, eds. Alberta’s Human Rights Story: The Search for Equality and Justice. Edmonton: John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights, 2012.
The Sheldon Chumir fonds are available at the Glenbow Archives.