Alan Borovoy, the man who was right

Posted on in Equality History – Opinion/Column
February 13, 2014.   By Terry Glavin, Ottawa Citizen

Over the course of the past few decades’ most divisive and closely contested struggles for civil rights and social justice in Canada, exceedingly few people can credibly claim the right to say “I told you so.” One person who can say it is that scruffy and wisecracking kid from Toronto’s Grace Street gang, back in the late 1940s, the one who could always be counted on to throw the first punch.

That kid was Alan Borovoy, best known for his 40-year role as general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. In his just-published At The Barricades (Irwin Law, Inc., 364 pages, softcover), a surprisingly elegant cross-genre fusion of legal history, political analysis and riveting memoir, the 81-year-old Borovoy nevertheless doesn’t allow himself so much as a boast.

Neither would Borovoy let me goad him into any bragging during our conversations earlier this week, but looking back over a lifetime of front-line activism against the more thuggish practices of the Canadian establishment, Borovoy has consistently shown up on the just and the decent side of history. Similarly, in Borovoy’s many fallings-out with the mainstream of liberal-left opinion, it’s the liberal left that has ended up looking not so great, in retrospect.

Borovoy’s At the Barricades presents a sweeping panorama of dramatic social change in Canada. It is chilling to be reminded of Pierre Trudeau’s grossly overreaching invocation of the War Measures Act in 1970, but how many of us remember that the FLQ crisis record for mass arrests was broken more than a decade later when the Toronto police carted off more than 300 people in a 1981 sweep of gay bath houses?

The bathhouse raids came 20 years after the Ontario legislature established Canada’s first Human Rights Commission, which was the result of a campaign Borovoy helped lead against the racist and anti-Semitic practices of landlords, public beach managers, private clubs and golf course owners in Toronto, Windsor, St. Catharines, Hamilton and Newmarket.

By the mid-1960s, Borovoy had helped found the Halifax Committee for Human Rights, setting in motion the historic and controversial relocation of the residents of Africville, the long-neglected and marginalized ghetto of black people on the outskirts of Halifax that had its origins in the tumults following the War of 1812.

That led to the Kenora campaign, one of the major agitations for Aboriginal people in Canada during the 20th century. Among other things, the campaign led to the revival of the Anishinabe Treaty Council and a tightened federal focus on Aboriginal housing and health across the country.

All this was while Borovoy was still with the old Labour Committee for Human Rights, before he’d taken up his post with the CCLA, on the magnificently auspicious date of May 1, 1968.

Still, Borovoy says he never considered himself a soixante-huitard — a “68er”of the New Left — preferring to think of his political standpoint as hailing from an earlier, sterner-stuff tradition, that of the “1930s liberal.” This helpfully explains why Borovoy so often found himself obliged to fight in opposition to the received wisdom of Canada’s liberal establishment.

Borovoy was an early skeptic of “hate speech” laws, for instance. This put him at odds with the Canadian Jewish Congress (Borovoy had been a CJC activist from his school days) as far back as the 1960s. By the 1980s, Borovoy was finding himself having to more or less side with such unsavoury characters as the Jew-hating high school teacher and Eckville, Alberta mayor Jim Keegstra, and the neo-Nazi Ernst Zundel, the serially-imprisoned author of such pamphlet classics as “The Hitler We Loved, and Why.”

The folly of Canada’s hate speech laws would end up producing an embarrassing public spectacle half way through the 21st century’s first decade. While right-wing pundit Ezra Levant was prosecuted for publishing allegedly offensive cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, similarly absurd proceedings were brought against Maclean’s magazine over an allegedly “Islamophobic” series of articles by conservative author and polemicist Mark Steyn. No convictions resulted, in either case.

By the 1990s, Borovoy also ended up having to confront something he hadn’t quite expected. A disturbing authoritarian tendency on Canada’s university campuses, of all places, produced a sequence of rights-trampling excesses of the kind conservatives will attribute to political correctness.

“I was a social democrat, a civil libertarian, a secular Jew, and a philosophical pragmatist,” Borovoy writes, a “small l liberal” and a skeptical egalitarian, but “an unequivocal anti-Communist and perhaps even a Cold War hawk.” Thus was Borovoy situated a the margins of the main liberal-left currents of late 20th century (Borovoy was a youthful admirer and later a dear friend of the great American political theorist and philosopher Sidney Hook).

When his friends in the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (later the NDP) were all for Canada pulling out of NATO, Borovoy wanted none of it. When almost everyone on the “left” seemed animated by an unseemly antipathy to Israel, Borovoy remained steadfast that Israel was deserving of our affection and support, not least because it is a democratic island in a sea of police states.

“This commitment to democracy became, as I allegedly matured, the central point of my philosophy,” Borovoy told me, not missing the chance for a wisecrack with that “allegedly” bit. “Every experience I had shored that up. You’ve got to be able to fight on all sides, intentionally.”

The fight is nowhere near over. Constant vigilance is called for, and Borovoy sees ominous signs even now, nearly half way through second decade of the 21st century. While he admits to a nostalgia for the “Red Tories” of Canada’s recent conservative past, Borovoy doesn’t have the kindest words for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

“I’m particularly bothered by his anti-crime agenda, the way he’s using it to pander to his base,” Borovoy said. “With minimum sentences, he’s undermining the judicial process. Does anyone in his right mind believe that raising a minimum sentence from four years to five years is going to do anything for deterrence? Please.”

Another thing weighing heavily on Borovoy’s mind these days is the Quebec Charter of Values: “It’s a gratuitous assault on inter-religious respect and rapport. It’s fanning the flames of xenophobia, and it really disturbs me.”

On foreign policy matters, however, Borovoy is perhaps not so hard on the Conservatives. “I’m not prepared to kiss Harper’s ass just because he’s supportive of Israel,” Borovoy told me. “But in Harper’s recent visit to Israel he was paying a special respect to a political democracy in that part of the world, in the Middle East. I do appreciate his attachment of a special value to Israel, because Israel is a democracy, a beleaguered democracy.”

Borovy remains active, having gone back to his roots in the labour movement — he serves as the chair of the public review board for Unifor, the successor union to the Canadian Auto Workers — and from time to time he takes on teaching assignments. Borovoy has some advice, too, for young activists.

It’s not what you believe that matters, but how you believe it. “Beware of your allies.” Respect, but do not “worship,” the people. Things get better, but usually in small increments, so avoid fantasizing about what you can easily achieve.

Most importantly, have fun: “We should attach a high priority to having fun. It’s often such fun to kick the ass of the establishment. And there’s no reason to be deprived of it.”

Terry Glavin is an author and journalist whose most recent book is Come from the Shadows.

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