“The Most Massive Compromise of Civil Liberties in Canadian History”

Yesterday, the Ombudsman for the Province of Ontario released a 125-page report on the use of the 1939 Public Works Protection Act during the G20 Summit in Toronto. He argued that “[t]here is a real and insidious danger associated with using subordinate legislation, passed behind closed doors, to increase police authority.” In his press conference yesterday, André Marin concluded that the actions of Premier Dalton McGuinty’s government during the G20 Summit constituted “the most massive compromise of civil liberties in Canadian history.”

This kind of sweeping historical claim often raises the hackles of Canadian historians (as it did a friend of mine). Was this really the most massive compromise of civil liberties in Canadian history? Was this worse than the trial of Louis Riel in 1885? Was this worse than the detention and trial of the leaders of the 1919 general strike in Winnipeg? Was this worse than the Regina Police Riot in 1935? Was this worse than the forced displacement and internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War? Was this worse than the application of the War Measures Act during the October Crisis in 1970?

It might be more accurate to say that this was the most massive compromise of civil liberties in Canadian history since the patriation of the British North America Act and the creation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 (although we could also consider the indefinitely detained Omar Khadr and the so-called “Toronto 18”).

It may be a historical technicality, but Canadians did not have clearly codified citizenship rights until 1947 and the 1982 Charter was our first set of codified constitutionally-protected civil rights. Quebec women did not win the right to vote until 1940. Japanese-Canadians were officially disenfranchised in British Columbia until 1949. Status Indians were disenfranchised until 1960. Prior to 1982, it is difficult to even speak of “Canadian civil rights” since most of those rights were so fragmented and poorly defined by a heterogeneous conglomeration of statutory law, the customs of English common law, and the tradition of British “fair play”.

Canadian history is replete with fine examples of governments ruthlessly undermining our nation’s alleged commitment to core liberal values of the rule of law and equality. Marin should probably be more careful with his words (although he did make a convincing historical case for relating the G20 Summit to the 1970 October Crisis). The only historical continuity here seems to be that, in most cases, governments rarely face any consequences for such violations of Canadian civil liberties. No one is likely to be held to account.

For an excellent historical examination of the evolution of Canadian civil liberties and the social activists who struggled over the course of the twentieth century to improve and defend those rights, I encourage readers to pick up a copy of Dominique Clement’s Canada’s Rights Revolution: Social Movements and Social Change, 1937-82.

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