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Civil Liberties vs. Human Rights

This letter was published by the short-lived Canadian periodical The Idler in September 1985.

A bit of background for non-Canadian readers: the eleven men referred to are the Prime Minister and the Premiers of the ten provinces. Under the parliamentary system, the leaders of majority governments have essentially unfettered power. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms was introduced in 1982 as part of the new codified Constitution, which was not subject to popular approval and in fact was barely publicized before being turned into law. The year 1970 saw the suspension of civil liberties, and the arrest of hundreds of innocent people without charge, in response to political bombings and kidnappings in Quebec.

To the IDLER,

Thank you for publishing ‘What’s Wrong with Human Rights?’. Ian Hunter has confirmed my growing sense that the causes of ‘human rights’ and ‘civil liberties', so far from being complementary, are in fact now at odds with one another. It is interesting, for example, that the Chairman of the federal Human Rights Commission, Gordon Fairweather, has recently been quoted as advocating the removal of the word ‘wilfully’ from the so-called hate provisions of the Criminal Code — meaning that one could be jailed for publishing anything that might tend to incite race hatred, regardless of intent. This would be a remarkable departure from our legal tradition; but any excess is justified, it seems, in the rooting out of anti-social attitudes.

With the proliferation of ‘human rights leagues’ dedicated to defending the reputations of various ethnic and religious groups under this same law, I wonder whether as a scholar I am now safe in publishing my views on the history, for example, of Christianity, since I have discovered certain facts which do not leave the Church in a good light, and might cause some imbalanced person to feel hatred.

The most disturbing thing, though, is that all this well-meant attention to the rights of individual groups has obscured the lack of protection for the most basic liberties of all of us. Our constitution (a document drawn up by eleven men) contains a provision allowing Parliament or any legislature (meaning, in effect, any of eleven men) to override most of the important sections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including the freedoms of belief, expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and freedom from arbitrary arrest and cruel and unusual treatment. Even the right to free elections can be denied by a vote of the assembly. All the legal mechanisms are in place to turn Canada into a police state overnight. If that should happen — and the memory of 1970 is not encouraging — we will find scant consolation in the fact that our secret trials will be in the language of our choice, and that the political prisons will be properly equipped with wheelchair ramps.

Yours, &c.,

PETER DONNELLY

Victoria, B.C.