Diefenbaker’s Bill of Rights an act worth remembering
Published On Tue Aug 10 2010. Arthur Milnes, Inaugural Fellow in Political History Queen’s University Archives
Upon John Diefenbaker’s death in 1979 it was one of his successors as prime minister who summed up the Prairie populist’s greatest achievement.
“I was struck,” Pierre Trudeau said, “by his vigorous defence of human rights and individual liberties. The Bill of Rights remains a monument to him.”
August 10 is the 50th anniversary of the proclamation of the Canadian Bill of Rights. Had this lifelong dream of Diefenbaker’s not become a reality, one could argue that Trudeau’s own Charter of Rights might not have come into being.
It is indeed a monument to Diefenbaker. Quite rightly, the statue of our 13th prime minister on Parliament Hill portrays Diefenbaker staring defiantly forward as he clutches his Bill of Rights.
Thanks to the tireless work by Diefenbaker — a former defence lawyer, a Canadian of non-French or English origins, and a child of the Prairie west who knew discrimination and had witnessed injustice far too many times in his life — who began calling for a declaration by Parliament of the fundamental rights, freedoms and responsibilities of Canadians from the moment he was first elected in 1940, these crucial issues were put on the nation’s agenda.
“I believe the time has come for a declaration of liberties to be made by this Parliament,” he thundered in the Commons in 1946. “Magna Carta is part of our birthright. Habeas corpus, the bill of rights, the petition of right, all are part of our traditions . . . freedom from capricious arrest and freedoms under the rule of law, should be made part and parcel of the law of the country.”
Diefenbaker made those comments at the dawn of the Cold War and the shocking defection of Ottawa-based Soviet clerk Igor Gouzenko. It was an era of Royal Commissions being held in secret and a draconian Official Secrets Act holding sway. Entering into the “Red Scare” period — perhaps akin to the United States right after 9/11 — it took a brave politician not to pander to public opinion in the emerging ideological war against communism and the USSR. Instead, the future prime minister stood on principle and fought for the civil liberties of his generation of Canadians.
“The issue was genuine,” Diefenbaker biographer Denis Smith wrote in the 1990s. “It was a subject that suited his individualism, his sense of tradition, his sympathy for the voiceless, and his rhetorical genius.”
The declaration that Diefenbaker bequeathed us 50 years ago this summer was far from a perfect document by the standards of post-Charter Canada. It was, of course, an Act of Parliament and not entrenched in the Constitution as the Charter is today. It also only applied to areas of federal jurisdiction.
Seeking perfection, many legal experts at the time dismissed and belittled Diefenbaker’s Bill of Rights. Smith’s biography of Diefenbaker, Rogue Tory, again describes the reaction of experts when the government first publicly floated the idea.
“The challenge was instantly taken up at the annual meeting of the Canadian Bar Association, where delegates, attacking on all fronts, called the bill “downright dangerous,” “window dressing,” “a political show,” “a useless piece of paper unless it was entrenched in the Constitution,” Smith wrote.
Dief forged ahead despite the criticism. Smith continues: “The bill was a politician’s tentative step onto a high wire — but a step that no other federal politician had dared to take.”
Trudeau’s brilliant principal secretary during the 15th prime minister’s final term (1980-1984) was Tom Axworthy. He was at Trudeau’s side throughout the constitutional negotiations that led to our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Axworthy once wrote the following concerning the crucial role he believed the Bill of Rights played in our constitutional evolution:
“In 1982, the Constitution was finally amended and the Charter came into force,” he wrote. “But this would never have happened if John Diefenbaker had not lit the way with his lifelong dedication to human rights.”
On this, the 50th anniversary of the proclamation of the Bill of Rights, it will do all Canadians well to remember John Diefenbaker’s words from the summer of 1960 as he described his duty: “I am a Canadian, a free Canadian, free to speak without fear, free to worship God in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, free to choose those who shall govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and all mankind.”
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