Clément: Human Rights in Canada

by Alex Larsen

Dominique Clément is a sociology professor at the University of Alberta. He has a Bachelor of Arts from Queens, a Master of Arts from the University of British Columbia and a PhD from Memorial University of Newfoundland, he had also done studying in various universities throughout the world. He specializes in human rights and social movements. Clément widely participates in the studying of social and political change in Canada and the ability for marginalized groups to take a stand against state powers. He is a member of the Royal Society of Canada which promotes learning and research in the arts, humanities and sciences. Clément is also an author of many publications including Human Rights in Canada: A History.

Under direction of the Sûreté du Québec, members of the Canadian Armed Forces provided additional support to protect vulnerable buildings and people

Chapter 3 – Human Rights Beginnings

The general theme/argument for this chapter is that Canada’s human rights culture was changing and a new era of human rights will soon emerge during the 1960s and 1970s. Clément began the chapter discussing the FLQ Crisis or the October Crisis of 1970 as a time where human rights were not being advanced but rather signaled the beginning of a new era into the discussion of human rights. The Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) was a group of people during the 1960s who pushed for an independent socialist Quebec nation through violence and protest. They stole weapons and built bombs to attack various institutions including military barracks and recruiting centers, English radio stations, federal properties such as post offices. They also robbed and kidnapped government officials such as British trade consul James Cross and Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte. The response to this crisis was conducted via the War Measures Act which gave police and military personnel significant powers. In turn, citizens’ rights were drastically limited, they were denied habeas corpus and other legal rights. People were also limited in various freedoms including mobility, speech and assembly. Widespread censorship was imposed, especially when it came to teachers and scholars who were often fired if they expressed sympathy toward the FLQ. Police conducted over 3,000 searches and detained or imprisoned over 497 people without charge or warrant. This Crisis ignited national debate about civil liberties. The media and public was largely in support of the government’s actions to suspend civil liberties. In the end it was seen that the War Measures Act was “poorly suited to deal with emergencies in the age of human rights” 

Clément begins identifying the change and actions toward codifying human rights which initially began outside of Canada. He mentions various charters, declarations, and conventions that promote human rights. Some of which includes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, that both come about through the United Nations. Amnesty International was founded in 1961 and that, according to Clément marked a great step forward in human rights activism. He also explains how the Cold War dynamic marked a propaganda tool for nations to call out their opponents for violations. 

Clément then discusses the signs of a new human rights revolution that was emerging within Canada. There was the removal of all references to racial preferences in immigration and created a points system. Ontario became the first province to introduce the first antidiscrimination law in Canadian history, and passed the Human Rights Code. This prohibited the discrimination based on religion, race, and ethnicity in accommodation, employment services and the display of signs. It was crucial for three reasons. The first is that it contained provisions for an effective enforcement mechanism, given the opportunity for tribunals and other groups with powers to enforce settlements. The second is a mandate for human rights education and the third is that the legislation provided for a much broader range of remedies, with the focus on conciliation rather than punishment. The Human Rights Code created a new approach to address discrimination and soon after (within 15 years) the rest of the provinces would pass similar legislation. 

Clément then goes into legal reform between 1968 and 1971 in which many new laws protected a wider range of rights. In 1969 the Official Languages Act was passed. That same year an omnibus bill with 120 amendments was passed that partly legalized abortion, decriminalized homosexuality and included many other orders. Clément discusses the governments 1969 White Paper policy that was passed to further recognize Aboriginals as citizens and repeal things such as the Indian Act than hinders Aboriginal life. The White Paper was retracted, however, it contributed to the expansion of the Aboriginal rights movement. Next, Clément recalls women’s rights activism in which the federal Royal Commission on the Status of Women identified a wide range of laws and policies that discriminated against women in a report in 1970. By 1977, the government had implemented over 80% of the report’s recommendations. In 1974, for example, the Statute law (Status of Women) Amendment Act removed discriminatory provisions in immigration, pensions, unemployment insurance, elections, and citizenship. This energized the human rights movement. He also mentions various women’s rights organizations that were brought about in the 1960s and 1970s. Clément describes the change in political discourse surrounding the constitution. In 1960 the Bill of Rights was established, although it was a statute and not a constitutional amendment but it did demonstrate that codifying rights was not inconsistent with a parliamentary system. The provinces saw civil liberties, due process and voting as the only appropriate human rights for the constitution at the time. Although some provinces such as Manitoba defined economic and social welfare as human rights. Other social movement organizations also pushed for other types of rights to be included. Clément observed that human rights activism was also evident in foreign policy.

Finally Clément explained that much of the public was still on the fence about these new human rights concerns. For example in 1968 41% of the population believed homosexual behaviour should be criminalized and 42% said no. other events such as the Montreal Bylaw 3926 effectively banned freedom of assembly for a month. However, human rights activism was on the rise and the government and other organizations were beginning to take a stand. Human rights was evolving and “would soon lead to a moment in history that revolutionized Canada’s rights culture. 

Chapter 4 – The Rights Revolution

In this chapter Clément discusses how the human rights revolution came to be. He first explains how women were marginalized in society and how they were often victims of sexual assault or harrasement. Women were also denied various jobs and were not equal in terms of the workforce and university graduates. They also earned far less than the male counterpart. For example by 1974, women earned less than 66% of a male wage. However, in the late 1960s this began to change. In 1969 British Columbia became the first province to ban discrimination on the basis of sex. The same province passed the Human Rights Code in 1974 that was arguably the most progressive human rights law in the world at the time. There were also various legal reforms that took place and after numerous failed attempts, the constitution was patriated with a bill of rights included. 

Social movements were also on the rise starting in the 1970s. Advocates began pushing for children’s rights, prisoners’ rights, animal rights, women’s rights, Aboriginal’s rights, peace, poverty and official language rights in unprecedented numbers. Various civil liberties and human rights organizations formed which symbolized a vast change in Canada’s rights culture. However, not all activists embraced human rights. Groups such as the National Indian Brotherhood adopted “Red Paper” in 1970 that rejected the federal government’s approach to human rights for Aboriginals. A collection of women’s liberationists from across Canada published an anthology in 1972 rejecting the discourse for social change. However, the human rights movement was still in the incline according to Clément.

Human rights were also increasing in the international sphere mainly with Amnesty International whose membership increased from 20 000 in 1969 to 570 000 in 1983. There were also various covenants and conventions that recognized different forms of rights such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1981). Canadian foreign policy began incorporating human rights. In 1976 Canada acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights. Canada also played key roles in drafting numerous declarations while participating in negotiations such as the Helsinki Accords in 1975. International developments on human rights also impacted domestic policy. Politicians often cited international treaties when justifying the passage of various human rights laws within Canada including the Bill of Rights (1960) and the Ontario Human Rights Code (1962). Canada was also part of a small group that linked development aid to human rights on the international stage. 

The 1970s was the beginning of legal reform. People began speaking out against sexual harassment as a human rights violation. Provinces began passing their own human rights codes and bill of rights. Human rights legislation reached a new standard. Things such as discrimination on the basis of social condition, language, political opinion, equal pay became more widely recognized. Political rights, social and economic rights, rights for children, elderly, mentally ill, women and Aboriginal rights began being passed.

In less than a generation, Canadians had established the most sophisticated human rights legal regime in the world. There was surprising uniformity across the country: federal and provincial legislation was, with a few notable exceptions, based on the original Ontario model.

Dominique Clément

By the 1980s barely anyone challenged the legitimacy of a bill of rights on the basis of Parliamentary supremacy, Canada’s human rights culture reached a new high. Discussion of a bill of rights had changed immensely since the 1940s. By the ‘80s the discussion had expanded to include things such as the right to maintain separate state-funded schools, hospitals and child care institutions to eliminate repression of religious minorities. In 1940 people included organized labour and business and by 1980 people recognized workplace discrimination including disability and political belief. The discussion as a whole became more in depth to face a wider range of issues. Debates for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms included things that people of the past would never understand or seek to achieve. Sexual minorities, people with disabilities, women, Aboriginals and various other marginalized groups were included in the discussion. Canada became the first country to recognize multiculturalism in its country and is one of the few with a bill of rights that incorporates things such as education, language, Aboriginal peoples, and equality between men and women. 

This is not to say that Canada’s human rights system was perfect. There were numerous cases of violation or ignorance on behalf of the government. Though discussion was happening and more people were hoping on board to push legislation through and protect the citizens of the country. Clément concludes by saying “over the next decade [into the 1990s] there would be increasing pressure to expand the scope of human rights law as Canadians appropriated rights discourse to advance new claims.” 


  • Considering the FLQ Crisis in 1970, do you believe it was necessary to invoke the War Measures Act given the human rights violations that had occured?
  • In both chapters, Clément looks at human rights legislation and activism both in Canada and on the international stage. Do you think that Canada became more involved in the movement toward human rights because of the push for HR seen on the international stage? or is it the other way around?
  • Do you think there is still room today for more legislation in Canada to be passed to protect human rights? or is everything covered within current legislation such as the Bill of Rights or Charter?
  • Compared to the 1960s-1980s do you think the movement toward human rights is still on the rise or do you think activism has tapered off since then?

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