Human Rights Activism

The rights revolution entered a new phase during the 1960s, with the rise of an expansive grassroots human rights movement. It is fair to say that by this time Canadians participated in social movements to a degree never before seen in history. Social movement activism defined the 1960s and 1970s. In Vancouver and Toronto, gay men met in their homes to form the country’s first gay rights groups and to organize the first gay pride parades; women came together in community centres to develop a program of action to raise awareness of such issues as abortion and equal pay; students congregated outside their classrooms to organize campus demonstrations to demand a say in the governance of the university; and in Vancouver, men and women who were concerned about the impact of nuclear testing on the environment united to form Greenpeace, which eventually became one of the most recognized advocacy groups in the world.

Social movements embodied the rights revolution. An astounding number of them had emerged by the 1970s. The student movement and the New Left became a powerful force for social change; in British Columbia alone, the number of women’s groups increased from two in 1969 to more than two hundred; the first gay rights organizations were formed in Vancouver and Toronto, and a national association was instigated in 1975; and the founding of Greenpeace symbolized the birth of the modern environmental movement. There were at least four national Aboriginal associations and thirty-three provincial organizations. African Canadian social movement organizations spread across the country, and advocates for children’s rights, prisoners’ rights, animal rights, peace, an end to poverty, and official languages organized in unprecedented numbers. The federal Secretary of State department alone was providing funding to over 3,500 social movement organizations. These movements employed the language of rights. The Vancouver Status of Women, for example, called for a Ministry of Women’s Rights and defined freedom from sexual harassment as a human right. Even Canada’s churches were deeply implicated in the rights revolution. Several of them, most notably the United Church, replaced missionary work with humanitarian and rights-based activism overseas.

Social movements led by women, gays and lesbians, Aboriginal people, churches, and a host of others embraced human rights as a vision for social change. Although they often sought to strengthen and enforce human rights law, this was not their only strategy for promoting new conceptions of rights. In many provinces, social movements played a leading role in human rights education. Incidents such as the police raid at Fort Erie, Ontario, were critical in mobilizing activists and stimulating the formation of new civil liberties or human rights associations. On the night of 11 May 1974, undercover agents from the RCMP and the Niagara Regional Police crept into Fort Erie’s Landmark Motor Inn Hotel in preparation for a massive drug raid. Although the drug dealers had recognized three of the officers and had quickly left the scene, the raid went ahead. Approximately 115 hotel patrons were arrested and detained. All 35 of the women were herded into the women’s washroom, stripped, and subjected to vaginal and anal searches; those who refused to comply were told that they would be forcibly searched by a male officer. Only 7 of the male patrons were similarly examined. With the searches completed, the raid’s bounty became depressingly clear: six ounces of marijuana, most of it lying on the floor, not in people’s orifices. As a Toronto Globe and Mail editorial noted wryly on 30 July, “it is highly probable that the Niagara Regional Police has succeeded in making itself the laughing stock of its community; that is, among people who aren’t afraid to go out to have a drink for fear that they’ll end up stark naked and leaning spread eagled against some washroom wall.”In response to the Fort Erie raid, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association organized a rally and successfully lobbied the Ontario attorney general to initiate an investigation into the affair.

The proliferation of human rights and civil liberties groups in the 1960s and 1970s was astonishing. During the 1950s, fewer than twelve civil liberties groups were active in Canada. Between 1962 and 1982, however, more than forty rights associations were created, with at least one group in each province. British Columbia alone had a dozen rights associations. Some were formed in reaction to excessive state abuse of individual rights such as the Fort Erie raid. Others emerged in the wake of the twentieth anniversary celebrations of the 1948 signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1968 was International Year for Human Rights). They would have a profound impact in Canada. In Vancouver, for instance, the BC Civil Liberties Association was a powerful voice in the defence of free speech at a time when alternative newspapers such as the Georgia Straight were under constant attack (Vancouver’s infamous mayor, Tom Campbell, actively sought to censor the Georgia Straight). Thousands of miles away, in St. John’s, the Newfoundland-Labrador Human Rights Association was a constant critic of the church monopoly of public education. Other issues that mobilized rights activists during this period included the bathhouse raidscapital punishmentcensorship (particularly in connection with the Georgia Straight); the Gastown Riot; the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; discrimination (including sexual orientation); International Year for Human Rights; the Montreal Olympicsbylaw 3926; the October Crisis; and many other issues and events (for a complete list of rights associations, visit the section on social movement organizations).

By 1974, there were dozens of human rights and civil liberties organizations across Canada. This development was all the more surprising given the lack of a strong tradition of rights advocacy before the 1970s. However, the rights revolution produced significant divisions within the movement. For example, civil liberties groups fought to remove unfair restrictions on single women, who lost their welfare support if they lived with a man, but their advocacy ended at ensuring equal treatment and due process for welfare recipients. In contrast, human rights groups argued that individuals had a right to economic security and could not exercise their political and civil rights without proper resources (civil liberties groups took the position that this was a matter of public policy, not rights). They not only lobbied to eliminate the man-in-the-house policy but also to increase benefits for people on welfare. The differences among civil liberties and human rights activists were evident on numerous issues, such as pornography, immigration, hate speech, and sexual assault laws. For instance, human rights groups advocated censoring pornography and criminalizing hate speech, but civil liberties groups saw this as a violation of free speech. Human rights organizations supported the creation of a rape shield law (prohibiting any evidence at trial of a victim’s sexual history). Civil liberties groups successfully fought to have the law overturned in the 1980s as a violation of due process. These ideological divisions were quite real for Canadian activists: for many years, the leading national rights association in the country was an awkwardly named umbrella group called the Canadian Federation of Civil Liberties and Human Rights Associations. It was a uniquely Canadian organization.

One of the country’s largest rights associations, Montreal’s Ligue des droits de l’homme (LDH), exemplifies how human rights transformed social movements in Canada. The LDH, which began as a civil liberties association (its original English name was the Quebec Civil Liberties Union), explicitly rejected its civil libertarian roots and embraced a human rights platform in 1974. Its new mandate was to adapt to the changes occurring in Quebec society and to consider the unique problems facing the poor, women, elderly, youth, and minorities. Under its new mandate, economic and social rights were accorded equal (if not greater) importance to civil and political rights. Instead of concerning itself with individual rights, the LDH believed that equality would be achieved by improving the social conditions in which those rights were exercised. In this way, it reflected broader developments in Canada’s social movement landscape and typified rights inflation in the 1970s.

Site Resources

Detailed resources outlining the history of Human Rights in Canada.

Further Reading

The readings lists available on this site deal with a range of topics from human rights to biographies and specific events.

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~ Clément, Dominique. “page title or document title.” Canada’s Human Rights (date accessed).

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