Alan Borovoy: a troublemaker who made history
TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – Alan Borovoy’s memoir provides a ringside seat for 40 years of social and legal progress.
Apr 07 2014. By: Carol Goar, Star Columnist
Too disruptive to be a hero, too self-effacing to be a celebrity, and too irreverent to be a national icon, Alan Borovoy defies categorization.
He is used to it. “I’ve gone through much of my life in the belief that I was being perceived as some kind of weirdo,” says the long-time head of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) in his engaging new memoir, At the Barricades.
The 81-year-old old lawyer, human rights activist and unflinching advocate of free speech — even when he disagreed with the speaker — certainly doesn’t claim to be a luminary. He sees himself as a scrappy Jewish kid fromGrace Street, in a working-class Toronto, who happened to have a hand in changing Canadian history.
His admirers insist he is selling himself short. He is a brilliant litigator, a fearless champion of the underdog and a very funny guy. His detractors complain that he is a blinkered crusader who alienated friends and drove away allies with his hardline stands. Both descriptions are accurate, but neither captures the man.
Borovoy’s book pulls all the threads together. It is not a conventional biography. It weaves together his life story, his landmark cases and his philosophy as a social reformer. Nor is it his first book — he wrote four over the course of his career as general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association — but it is his most personal. It sums up the lessons he has learned, tots up the costs and rewards of speaking out against authority and examines the hurt he caused — and felt — when his principles compelled him to defend widely reviled figures such as neo-Nazi Ernst Zundel and anti-Semite schoolteacher Jim Keegstra in their fights against censorship.
Asked what he would like young activists to take away from his memoirs, Borovoy responded without hesitation. “It’s fun to kick the ass of the establishment,” he said in an interview. “You don’t have to go through life so dedicated to the cause that you get uptight and develop a bad digestive system.”
On reflection, he highlighted a second message. “A lot can be done by a very few people on a small budget. I don’t ever remember having more than a shoestring but we changed hundreds of statutes.” Comparing the CCLA toGideon’s Army, he said, “A small army composed of talented and tenacious fighters can defeat powerful foes.”
Although Borovoy lived a very public life, his memoir contains a few surprises:
- The first is he changed the trajectory of his life at the age of six. Born in Hamilton where his father ran a successful drugstore, he initially lived in a cocoon of middle-class comfort. “I was a relatively well-behaved, well-dressed, shy, overprotected, imaginative little boy,” he recounts. Then the Great Depression hit, his father’s drugstore went belly-up and his family had to move into his grandparents’ home on Grace Street in Toronto. It was a rough neighbourhood where fists mattered. He doffed his “Little Lord Fauntleroy” clothes, ditched his old identity and became a street fighter.
- The second is that he is neither an optimist nor a Utopian. He doesn’t believe people are inherently good. He doesn’t believe social change happens without “unpleasant situations.” He did not aim to make the world a good place, just a less bad one. “To do this sort of work, you have to be a tough-minded pragmatist.”
- The third is that he holds absolutely nothing back. Memoirists normally keep certain aspects of their life private, edit out embarrassing recollections and present themselves in a flattering light. Borovoy reveals everything from his clumsy antics on the baseball diamond to the trade-offs he made between career and family.
The substance of At the Barricades is Borovoy’s courtroom battles, the discriminatory laws he and his colleagues proved unconstitutional, the government policies they changed and the safeguards they brought to power-wielding institutions. But the real value of the book is that it gives readers a ringside seat for a remarkable era in this country’s social and legal history.
Looking back, Borovoy believes Canada’s civil rights record has improved. But he warns readers never to take for granted the momentum will continue. Those who value freedom have to “fight like hell” to push back control-hungry authorities, he says. He has stepped back from the front lines, but he counts on Canada’s next generation of lawful troublemakers to teach him a trick or two.
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