Human Rights and Canada: Building The Foundation


Canadian laws, including human rights legislation, not only specify the rights that protected, but here are also mechanisms in place to redress and remedy the human rights violation.   We therefore have a legal structure in place to promote and protect our human rights. 

Often the particular political and social circumstances in which a person lives shapes their specific human rights concerns.  In Canada, we have federal and provincial legislation to protect us against discrimination, depending on the province, in such areas as employment, accommodation (housing), services (as in a restaurant) etc., based on grounds of discrimination including race, colour, handicap, sex, marital status, etc. (LINK TO THE DIFFERENT PROVINCIAL H.R WEB-SITES).

If we work for a federal body, such as Canada Post or an inter-provincial trucking company, we have the Canadian Human Rights Commission to protect us.  If we work for the provincial government or a company that is incorporated provincially, each province has a human rights body to enforce its Human Rights Code or Act. If we feel that our rights have been violated by the Government of Canada, we have recourse through the Courts under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  What ties all these pieces of legislation together, is that each is based on the general principles set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

More significantly, the principles set out in the UNDHR are incorporated into all aspects of our domestic law (i.e. the law of Canada).

(United Nations Declaration of Human Rights)

Domestic Law



           (Federal)                                         (Provincial)                   (Municipal)

Give some thoughts to the following scenarios: You’re old enough to vote, on your way the polling station, do you have to worry about being shot at by supporters of the opposition party? Can the police enter your home and search through your belongings without a warrant?  How many churches do you see in your neighbourhood, and how many of the patrons of these churches harassed by the authorities because of their religious beliefs? 

The same or similar structure that has been built in Canada to protect human rights, does not exist in many other nations. In some cases they did, but subsequent governments dismantled them, putting in its place a totalitarian regime. There are many countries where there is no legal structure to protect or promote human rights, and where the systematic violation of citizens’ human rights is actually used by the government as tool of control.  As a consequence, the magnitude of the violations committed by the government against citizens is beyond our comprehension.   Human rights concerns in these countries centre on basic concepts that we take for granted -- the principles set out in the UNDHR including the right to live, to eat, to political participation, to an education, to association etc.

In Canada, we have taken these principles a step further by enacting specific legislation, at the Federal and Provincial levels, which identify the human rights to be protected and set out the mechanism for remedying human rights violations.

 Bricks and Mortar, Blood and Bones

Unlike other modern nations, Canada emerged as a country without having to go to war.  We never suffered through a civil war; we have never been subjected to a brutal government; we have never had to endure a completely lawless society.  This background, alone, is sufficient to make us stand out in the world.

At the same time, our transformation into a nation that prides itself on its respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, has not been an easy one.  Canadians have had to travel along jagged and challenging paths to arrive at where we are today. 

The chapters of our history are stained with slavery, blatant discrimination, open prejudice, xenophobia, and countless efforts to trounce upon the rights that we hold in such high esteem today.  These rights were so hard earned by genuine Canadian heroes ( see interviews with Jean Lumb, Bromely Armstrong ) whose efforts pushed and coaxed Canadians into reevaluating their attitudes towards others, and to reassess legislation, so that all Canadians could enjoy greater equality.

Differential treatment has erupted into ugly historical events such as the Anti-Chinese Riot of 1907, and in Federal legislation; Chinese Immigration Acts and Exclusion[i]The Komagata Maru Incident.

The Jewish community was target in the Christie Pits Riot and during World War II. Canada would not allow Jewish refugees into the country example those on board the St. Louis. Fear of people has led Canadians to take drastic actions against people for no other reason than their race, as we have witnessed with the Internment of the Japanese communtity; Internment of the Ukrainian community

Religion and language may distinguish us, but they have also been used as a reason for imposing differential treatment. Duplessis Era in Quebec; October Crisis

Let's take a trip to the not-too-distant past and visit the events that shaped Canada's role as a forerunner for human rights and fundamental freedoms.  Remember, up until the Second World War, Canadians had little concept of what constituted "human rights fundamental freedoms.  That means over the span of a couple of generations, we have taken the concept of universal rights and gradually forged it into the Canadian psyche.

Early Political Influences

Early political influences, although significant for the time, were infrequent and had little impact on shifting social attitudes (Link to "A").  The judiciary could also have played a more significant role in eliminating inequities, but the courts of the time decided that it would not deal with issues of racism or discrimination.  Instead, judges drafted decisions that had little to reference to the notion of "equality".  It cannot be said that the judiciary lacked the opportunity to advance equality; it simply preferred to advance other areas of law -- more tangible aspects, such as commerce -- by finding that discriminatory aspects of a particular law were just "incidental".


Laws and Bars

At three all levels of government, municipal, provincial and federal, have introduced various pieces of legislation directed at specific ethno-racial and cultural groups.  To the great public, the objective was safeguard the community; to those who were targeted the legislation impacted on members of these groups to earn a living and to become full participants in society.  These laws dictated your life -- how you would work; where you would live; how you were viewed socially; etc.

n. b. some summaries available at

(links to the relevant sections of the following Acts)

·      B.C. Provincial Voter’s Act, 1875

·      Municipal Elections Act, S.B.C. 1908, s. 14. Section 13 (1): "no Chinaman, Japanese or Indian …"

·      Provincial Elections Act, S.B.C. 1939, s. 16. S. 5 disqualified a Chinese, Japanese, Hindu or Indian, except for Japanese whohad served in the Armed Forces, from the franchaise.

·      Provincial Elections Act Amendment Act, S.B.C. 1947, c. 28. S. 14 amended Act of 1939 and gave the franchaise to all except the Japanese and Indians but took it from the Doukhobors, the Hutterites, and the Mennonites, unless they had been in the Armed Forces.

Quong-Wing v. the King (1914) 49 S.C.R.

This was the first case to be presented to the Supreme Court of Canada that had a racial focus.  Mr. Quong-Wing was convicted under An Act to Prevent the Employment of Female Labour in Certain Capacities, S.S. 1912, c. 17, for hiring white waitresses for his restaurant.  The Supreme Court upheld the decision (agree with the lower court’s decision) that the purpose of the Act was to protect the “interest of the morals of women and girls in Saskatchewan”.

Chinese Immigration Acts of 1885, 1900, 1903 and 1923.   The Acts of 1885, 1900 and 1904 are often referred to as the “Head Taxes”, because Act imposed a increasingly higher surtax required of all Chinese, with certain exempted classes, to enter the country.  Each Act also imposed other restrictions such as the number of Chinese who could travel based on the tonnage of the ship.  The 1923 Act is known as the “Exclusion Act” because, following intense debate in the House of Parliament, the Canadian government decided to repeal the Chinese Immigration Act of 1904 and replace it with one that effectively closed the door to Chinese immigrants from the day it was implemented, July 1, 1923 to May 1947.   What was  “Dominion Day’ (July 1st) for Canada became “Humiliation Day” for Chinese Canadians.

It wasn’t until after World War II, when Canada and China were Allies, Canada’s role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the participation of Chinese Canadians in the Armed Forces, that Canada repealed the “Exclusion Act[ii] (link to Chinese Women’s web-page; Jean Lumb). 

Union Colliery v. Bryden [1899] A.C. 580.  This case concerned the constitutional validity of an amendment to an 1890 B.C. Act that disallowed any Chinese person to work in an underground mine. Rather than look at whether the Act itself was discriminatory, the judges focused on the issue of whether person’s status of being “naturalized” or an “alien” is within federal jurisdiction, rather than provincial jurisdiction.  It was for this reason only that the judges declared the Act illegal.

Cunningham and A.G. for B.C. v. Tomey Homma and A.G. for Canada [1903] A.C. 151. Mr. Homma was a naturalized British subject who was of Japanese background.  He applied to have his name placed on the voter’s list and was refused. Mr. Homma challenged the denial in the courts.  The judges decided that the issue of whether a person is denied the right to vote because of her/his race isn’t a matter that should be brought before or decided by a court.

Others attempted to use the Courts at lower levels, again without much success.  The following cases discuss how different courts dealt with issues in which race with tied in with commercial interests. 

John v. Sparrow [1899], 15 Que. S.C. 104.  Mr. Johnson, an African Canadian man, and a woman who is described in the text as a “lady friend” had seats in the orchestra section of a theatre in Montreal.  When they arrived, however, they were not permitted to sit there because Mr. Johnson is Black.   Mr. Johnson took the owners to court and won. The judge held that a theatre, like a tavern, received its license from the municipal authorities.  It was therefore providing a service to the public.  As Mr. Johnson was a member of the public, he was to be served, otherwise the tavern could lose its license for failing to “serve the public”. To this judge, members of the public included persons African Canadians.

Brookes-Bidlake and Whittal v. A.G. B.C.  [1923] A.C. 450

Christie v. York Corporation (1940) 1 D.L.R. 81 (S.C.C.). Mr. Christie, an African Canadian man, was a season ticket-holder at the Montreal Forum.  Together with two other friends, one white and the other who is described in the decision as “coloured”, went for a drink at a tavern inside the Forum.  The waiter, however, would not take Mr. Christie’s order saying that he was instructed “not to serve coloured people”.  Mr. Christie’s case went to the Supreme Court of Canada where his claim was rejected on the basis that Quebec law allowed complete freedom of commerce.  This meant that a tavern owner, in the spirit of commerce, could decide which customers would be served and which would not, on the basis of the customer’s colour. The Court ruled that the tavern-keeper’s interest, which was a commercial one, was given primacy over Mr. Christie’s as a “coloured” person in Canada.

Re Drummon Wren [1945] O.R. 778.  In this case, Mr. Justice MacKay of the Ontario High Court declared that a “covenant” (define: a written agreement that is singed by the parties, where either party agrees to do, or not to do, something) note to sell land to “Jews” or to persons of objectionable nationality”, was invalid on the grounds that it was contrary to public policy, and was therefore void (link: having no legal force or effect) for uncertainty.   Link to: Racial Discrimination Act (below under "Anti-Discrimination Legislation from Coast to Coast")

Noble and Wolf v. Alley [1951] S.C.R. 64. This case also concerned a restrictive covenant on a piece of land. The sale was contingent on the purchaser agreeing not to later sell the land to any person who is  “Jewish, Hebrew, Semitic, Negro or of coloured race or blood”.  The land was sold with this covenant in place, however, later on the owner wanted to sell it to a Jewish person. The case went before the Court.  Rather than addressing the racial barrier to the re-selling of the land, the Court simply decided that the covenant was void for uncertainty as it was too vague.

Co-op Committee on Japanese Canadians v. A.G. Can. [1947] A.C. 88.

In the Matter of a Reference in the meaning of the word “Person” in s. 24 of the British North American Act, 1867 [1928] S.C.R. 276.  The issue to be decided by the Supreme Court was whether women could be appointed to the Senate.  In doing so, it had to consider whether the word “Persons” in s. 24 of the BNA Act, 1867 includes female persons.  It decided that women were not eligible for appointments.  The case then proceed further through the court and it was not until 1930, that the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council held that women are eligible to become members of the Senate.  That is, women are “Persons”.

(link to U of T’s, Faculty of Law,  Women and the Law web-page).


  Socially "Acceptable"

Slavery in Canada

                        Forced to leave, forced to stay

                        The Christie Pitts Riot

                        The Anti-Asian Riot of 1907 (Vancouver)                       

                        The St. Louis Jewish Refugees

                        The Duplessis Era in Quebec

First Nations Issues

Internment of the Japanese

Internment of the Ukrainians; Italians

The Komagata Maru Incident

The Expulsion of the Acadians

The October Crisis

Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion



Slavery in Canada

Slavery, the practice of buying, selling and holding in servitude a human being,  is centuries old.  It is not restricted to any one society or group of people, and Canada was no exception.  Slavery, racial segregation and discrimination against "free" Black people is a disturbing chapter of Canadian history.

Slavery was prominent in various cultures, the ancient Romans, Greeks and Egyptians, for example.  The colonizers of the "new world", the British and the French, the Dutch, Spanish and the Portuguese, brought the practice to North and South America enslaving Africans and indigenous peoples. The actual buying and selling of slaves was outlawed in Denmark in 1803, in Britain in 1807, and in Portugal in 1836. However, the slave trade continued illegally in these places into the 1860s.)

Black slavery was introduced to Canada by the French as early as 1608, and the African first slave to be brought in directly to "New France" came from Madagascar in 1629.  By the mid-1700s there were about 4000 slaves, Indian and Black, in New France. In the St. Lawrence and Niagara regions of Upper Canada (later Ontario), slaves were brought in from the United States by United Empire Loyalists during and after the American Revolution, and at least sixteen legislators in Upper Canada's first Parliament were slave owners (see D. Hill, The Freedom Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada. Agincourt: Book Society of Ontario, 1981).

Slavery in Canada did not reach the same proportions as in the United States because of the difference in agriculture requirements.  In Canada, the land did not lend itself to monocrop agriculture.   Slavery was nevertheless active.  Despite the British Emancipation Act of 1833 (CHECK TITLE) freeing all slaves in Canada, Blacks were held as slaves until the 19th century, with the founding of Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Ontario.

For the three thousand Black Loyalists who were emancipated in exchange for fighting supporting the British who entered Canada in 1783, there was blatant discrimination against them. They were considered "free", yet did not receive the same treatment as White Loyalists.  The British had promised all Black and White Loyalists settling in Canada 100 acre-lots.  Blacks received no land or sparse 1-acre lots on the fringes of White townships.

Blacks therefore found themselves without land to earn a living and were compelled to work as hired or indenture servants to White settlers.  They were paid 1/4 of the wages offered to White workers and this also caused resent amount unemployed Whites.

Tensions increased and resulted in Canada's first race riot in Shelburne and Birchtown, Nova Scotia in 1874, where a mob destroyed Black property and drove them out of the township. 

A number of significant events unfolded in 1792 - 1793.  In 1792, 1200 disillusioned Nova Scotia Blacks accepted an offer by the Sierra Leone Company to sail for West Africa.  Among those who left included teachers,  preachers and community leaders, which left void in the community.

At the first meeting of the Legislature of the Province of Upper Canada (today, Ontario) in 1792, an Act was passed to prohibit bringing slaves into Canada. The Act became law on May 31, 1793. This was the first such law passed anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, it didn’t actually free any slaves already in the province. The same year, the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada (today, Quebec) tried to introduce a proposal to abolish slavery, but it failed.

Also in 1793, the U.S. Abolition Act was passed, which classified any runaway slaves as free.  Several thousand found their way to Canada through the "Underground Railroad". 

In 1794, Chief Justice Monk of the Court of the King’s Bench, in Montreal, released 2 black slaves who were brought before him for running away. He provided initiative to repress the growth of slavery by stating that slavery did not exist. These two slaves, who appeared before Justice Monk on separate charges, were therefore released on technical grounds. 

The second Fugitive Slave Act in the U.S. was passed in 1850, and within the next 10 years, Canada's Black population increased to some 60,000.  The lives of Canadian Blacks was underscored by over prejudice and discrimination:  property ownership was restricted; education was a challenge because many Whites did not want to see Black children in their schools; the press of day subjected them to derision and ridicule. 

The Blacks who decided to remain in Canada lived in segregated communities in Nova Scotia (link to Africville), New Brunswick and Ontario.  They were forced to attend segregated schools.  Schools were segregated in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Ontario's statute establishing segregated schools remained in the books until 1964, when it was brought to the public's attention by a law professor (link to H. Aurthur, "Civil Liberties and Public Schools: Segregation of Negro Students." (1963) Canadian Bar Review, Vol. 4:453-57).

Segregation was not only widespread, it was also legally enforced through racially restrictive covenants attached to deeds and leases (link to:

Noble and Wolf v. Alley [1951] S.C.R. 64. The most celebrated case was Christie v. York Corporation (1940) 1 D.L.R. 81 (S.C.C.) which ended with the Supreme Court of Canada, our highest court concluding that racial discrimination was legally enforceable.

Link to:           Many Rivers to Cross



The Christie Pits Riot (1933)

Although Jewish people had been part of Canadian society for a long time (see section on Jewish Immigration), anti-Semitism was prevalent in Toronto in the early part of the 20th century. Jewish people were often discriminated against – they were excluded from jobs, and they were not welcome in all social circles. In the decade before World War II, anti-Semitism was worsening in Europe, notably in Germany through the rise of the Nazi Party. Following Hitler’s lead, some people in Toronto formed a Swastika Club, displaying the swastika flag in order to intimidate the Jewish people there. Jewish youths responded to this by organizing parades on the boardwalks by the lake. The mayor of Toronto tried to stop the groups who were adopting the Nazi symbol, but his efforts had no effect.

On August 16, 1933 in Toronto, a semifinal series of an amateur softball championship was scheduled to take place between two teams, one of whose players were mostly Jewish. At the end of the game, a group of Nazi supporters unfurled a huge swastika flag, shouting “Heil Hitler”. Jewish youths challenged the Nazi sympathizers and one of Canada's ugliest race-motivated riots erupted. Police could not restore order, and the fighting continued for hours. Many were injured. Although 22 members of the group who had displayed the swastika flag were questioned by police, no-one was charged.

Nazism in Europe fueled anti-Semitic attitudes in North America, and both contributed to the refusal by the U.S.A. and Canada, to accept Jewish refugees, including those who sailed on the St. Louis (see below).  It is both sad and shocking that anti-Semitism continues, even though knowledge about the horror of the Holocaust shook so many nations to the core that they sought to develop laws to protect human rights and from there to create the United Nations (Link: to UN module)

Source: Multi-Ethnic Canada, Leo Driedger, 1996, Toronto: Oxford University Press. PCED Jewish Immigration Elaborating Paragraph

·      The Anti-Asian Riot of 1907 (Vancouver)  

On August 12, 1907, the a branch of the Asiatic Exclusion League was formed in Vancouver.  It was a social response to the perceived threat of Asian workers in the labour market and the increased number of Chinese, South Asian and Japanese immigrants who were believed to be entering Canada. (Link to modules on Chinese Women; 5 Generations). 

The League organized a mass anti-Asian rally on the evening of September 7, 1907.  5,000 marched to City Hall demanding a "White Canada".  They first headed for the Chinese quarters of the city and the rally exploded into a riot.  The mob marched and catching the Chinese shop owners unprepared, broke the windows of all Chinese stores. They moved onto the Japanese quarters, but by this time the Japanese merchants had been forewarned and were armed when the mob showed up.  Rocks and pieces of wood were thrown down from the roof-tops at the mob.

Following the riot, many Chinese and Japanese protested the violence by refusing to work.  As a result, industries that relied on Asian labour, such as factors and mills, were forced to close until the workers returned.

Vancouver was shocked by the riot.  Even the Mayor, who was a member of the Legaue condemned the mob's actions. William Lyon MacKenzie King, the 29 year old Deputy Minister of Labour, was sent to Vancouver to assess the damage.  After several days of hearings, he compensated the Japanese community $9,000, which was viewed as generous.

At that time, Japan and Canada had relatively strong diplomatic relations.  Prime Minister Laurier cabled a message to the Emperor of Japan expressing his regrets and assuring him that there would not be a repeat of the incident.  One year later, W.L. MacKenzie King would go to Japan and negotiate a "Gentlemen's Agreement of 1908", by which Japan agreed to limit certain classes of emigrants to Canada.  The general classes of permitted emigrants included: returning residents and their families, servants of established Japanese residents of Canada, students, merchants, tourists, agricultural labourers under contract to Japanese owners of farm land in Canada, and labourers for specific projects under contracts approved by the Canadian government.  Labourers in the last two classes were informally limited to 400.

In contrast, China and Canada did not enjoy the diplomatic recognition or respect.  Unlike Japan, China had no consular representative in Canada. W.L. MacKenzie King did not investigate the claims of the Chinese for damages during the 1997 Riot until the following year.   In the end, the claim for losses was $25,990 plus $1,000 legal fees which MacKenzie King awarded in full.

·      The St. Louis Jewish Refugees (1939)

After Hitler’s political debut and creation of the Nazi Party in 1920s, the Party stalled, having only 17 000 members in 1926. However, as the economy worsened in the Depression and people were looking for someone who would lead them out.  Hitler’s popularity grew exponentially, and the Nazi Party had 1 million members by 1931. An increasingly oppressive regime began when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. Soon after Hitler entered office, his government passed an “emergency” law permitting the suspension of civil rights and freedoms; this began Hitler’s career as a legally established military dictator.

Jewish businesses and shops were boycotted by Nazi party members.  In 1935, laws were passed which took away German citizenship from Jews living there, denied them the vote, and required that Jewish civil servants leave their jobs. The West knew of these developments but did not comment. (Perhaps this was because there were laws and practices which discriminated against Jews and other ethnic groups in many other countries too, including the U.S.A. and Canada.)  Rules were tightened one at a time, restricting Jewish occupations, schooling, and residential areas, requiring registration of Jewish assets, businesses, and individuals, until German Jews were subject to open and public persecution.

By 1938, Hitler’s police, the Gestapo, were placed above the law, and the expansion of Hitler’s rule was well underway after the annexation of Austria and the occupation of the Rhineland and Czechoslovakia. Then, in November 1938, Kristallnacht or “The Night of Broken Glass” took place. In Berlin, Stuttgart, and Vienna, civilian mobs – incited by SS officers out of uniform – beat and killed Jewish people, destroyed a thousand synagogues, and broke into and wrecked Jewish stores and homes. Thousands of Jews were taken to concentration camps. Further, the Jewish community was collectively fined 1 billion German marks as punishment for ‘provoking’ the damage of Kristallnacht.

War had not yet been declared against Germany, and the United States and Canada were not keen to accept the Jewish refugees as immigrants. There were several factors which contributed to this attitude, including anti-Semitism (Link to The Christie Pits Riot in Toronto), fear of communism and socialism, and a desire to keep out of European problems, for it was often believed that American involvement in WW I had caused the Depression.

Canada bears the shame of having the worst record of all the western democracies for accepting Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi regime. Between 1933 and 1945 Canada accepted fewer than 5000 Jewish refugees, while other nations accepted tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands.  Since the onset of the Depression, Canada’s borders had been largely closed to immigration.  Jews were not considered 'preferred immigrants'.

In May 1939, the passenger ship, the St. Louis, set sail from Hamburg, with over 900 German Jews on board. Those on board had permission to land in Cuba, but that permission was revoked by the time they arrived. The U.S.A. then denied them entry. The refugees then tried Canada. Despite pleas from Jewish citizens of Canada, Prime Minister Mackenzie King refused the refugees permission to land, saying that it was “not a Canadian problem.”  Their desperate hopes for new lives in the New World were dashed, and the Jews aboard the St. Louis returned to Europe. They were permitted to land in Belgium, and were dispersed to England, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. As Hitler proceeded to invade three out of these four countries, many died in the Holocaust which followed. 

In September 1939, England and France declared war on Germany, and the Second World War began on a large scale. The U.S.A. entered the war in December1941, following the bombing of Pearl Harbour. In 1942, Adolf Hitler activated his "final solution" to eliminate the Jewish people.

As Germany and the Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) were defeated in Europe in1945, Allied forces reached the concentration camps. When the news of what they found was told to the North American public, people realized the enormity of what had happened under the Nazi regime, and many felt shame for not doing more to avert these tragedies. During the first several years after WWII, Canadian laws changed to make religious discrimination illegal and to admit Jewish immigrants, the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees was drafted, and the independent state of Israel was created in 1948.

For images of the St. Louis, see

Link to: The Nizkor Project- A Response to Holocaust Denial

For more on Jewish people in Canada, see A Coat of Many Colours: Two Centuries of Jewish Life in Canada. Irving Abella. 1990. Toronto: Lester and Orpen Dennys.


  The Duplessis Era in Quebec (1936 - 1939; 1944 - 1959)

Prior to 1959, under the government of Premier Maurice Duplessis, the Roman Catholic Church was the dominant institution in the life of the province.  For two hundred years from 1859 to 1959, the Roman Catholic Church preserved and nourished French Canadian culture.  It influenced the young people of Quebec, in language and faith; and at the same time it endorsed the legitimacy of British rule and of the established economic order.

For generations, the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec worked with the government, schools, and the courts to maintain the values and attitudes that supported the Church. This encouraged people to vote for politicians who favoured the status quo, the existing political, economic and social order.

Under Duplessis, politics and the Church were intertwined as the latter continued to maintain a firm and influential hold on the people of Quebec. Throughout his political career, Duplessis courted and succeeded in securing the alliance of the Church.

In 1949, as Quebec was making the gradual transformation from an agriculturally based sector into an industrial economy, a violent strike at Asbestos, brought intellectuals, journalists and even some clergy on the side of the striking workers.  The strike brought into question the role of clerical domination on the life of the people of the province.

At approximately the same time, the Church came attack by a small Protestant sect, the Witnesses of Jehovah, who challenged the doctrines of the Church.  The clash between the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Church became an issue of the competing ideas of freedom of speech and the freedom of religion.

The Jehovah's Witnesses went to court to establish the right to distribute their literature on the streets of Quebec.  They were determined to seek Catholic converts.  The Jehovah's Witnesses also became unlikely political dissenters because during the Duplessis era, a challenge to the Church was tantamount to challenging the government.  Any limitation of the Church's authority would mean limiting Duplessis's authority.  It was during this time that Pierre Elliot Trudeau, later to become Canada's Prime Minister, entered politics promoting democratic and liberal ideas.

From 1936 to 1959, Church and State joined forces to persecute the Jehovah's Witnesses.  In 1949, the Jehovah's Witnesses launched a national campaign for the enactment of a Bill of Rights.  On June 9, 1947, they presented a petition to Parliament with 625,510 signatures.  John Diefenbaker, who later became Canada's Prime Minister, became an advocate of the Canadian Bill of Rights.

In 1960, as Prime Minister, Diefenbaker introduced the Canadian Bill of Rights, the precursor of the Chart of Rights and Freedoms.  Duplessis' efforts to rid the streets of Jehovah's Witnesses took the issue all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.  The legal issues concerned freedom of speech as much as it concerned freedom of religion.  The Supreme Court held that there can be no freedom of religion without freedom of speech.  Since then, there has been solid legal ground that only Parliament can place any limits on fundamental freedoms.

Walter Tarnopolsky, Canada's leading legal authority on civil liberties, stated:

The best testing of the standard of civil liberties in a society is the best way that society treats its dissenters and minorities.  Few dissenters, an no other religious minorities, have put Canada to the test quite so acutely in this century as have the Witnesses of Jehovah. (quoted from Thomas Berger, Fragile Freedoms (TorontoL Irwin Publishing, 1981)


Forced to leave, forced to stay


Internment of the Ukrainians

Under construction

The Komagata Maru Incident (1914)


Persons of South Asian background were born, or whose ancestors were born in the Indian Sub-continent which includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan.

The first South Asians to immigrate to Canada were Sikhs from the northern Indian province of Punjab, came in the early 1900s looking for the same opportunities that drew thousands of other immigrants.  Despite their small numbers (approximately 5000 in 1908), their presence drew racial hostility and resentment that was directed to other ethno-racial communities.

Legislation was introduced to control the economic and social mobility of the South Asians  who were here and to prevent more from emigrating.  Through an order-in-council,  South Asians were required to have at least $200 to enter British Columbia (a considerable amount because at the time the average wage in India was then 10 cents a day).  In 1907, even though many Indians were British subjects, British Columbia were prohibited South Asians from voting, running for public office, or becoming accountants, pharmacists, or lawyers. 

 In 1908, the federal government passed the Continuous Passage Act requiring all immigrants to arrive on uninterrupted journey on their passage ticket. For Indians who were also British subjects, this Act made it impossible for them to enter Canada as immigrants.

The Immigration Act, S.C. 1910, c. 27 created a class of immigrants who were deemed "undesirable" because they could not adjust to Canada's climate or its social, educational, labour because of the customs of their country of origin made it improbable that they could assimilate in Canada.  This Act embodied Canada's clearly discriminatory policies toward immigrants who were not from the U.K., the U.S. or Europe.  Differential treatment based on race, ethnic origin and place of origin were firmly established as government policy.

In 1914, a shipload of 400 immigrants from India landed in Vancouver.  Having sailed directly from Calcutta aboard the Japanese freighter the Komagata Maru, all the passengers were denied entry.  The freighter remained in the harbour, with its human cargo for three months until it was forced to return to India..

Plaque at the Gateway to the Pacific in downtown Vancouver was erected to commemorate those on the Komagata Maru.  It reads:

“On May 23, 1914, 376 British subjects (12 Hindus, 24 Muslims and 340 Sikhs) of Indian origin arrived in Vancouver harbour aboard the Komagata Maru, seeking to enter Canada. 352 of the passengers were denied entry and forced to depart on July 23, 1914. This plaque commemorates the 75th anniversary of that unfortunate incident of racial discrimination and reminds Canadians of our commitment to an open society in which mutual respect and understanding are honoured, differences are respected, and traditions are cherished”.

Resource: S.K. Jain, East Indians in Canada, University of Windsor, 1970 (Research Group for European migration Problems, Supplement ).

The Expulsion of the Acadians

Under construction

The October Crisis

Under construction


Chinese Immigration Acts: "Head Tax" and Exclusion (link back to footnote 1 which sets out the Acts)

In the late 1870s, part of the plan of John A. Macdonald’s government was to build a continent-wide railroad linking Canada’s east and west, and unifying its economy. The Canadian Pacific Railway company needed workers to build the track from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Labour shortages encouraged the company to recruit Chinese labourers, who were paid low wages to perform difficult and dangerous work. Anti-Asian sentiments, particularly in British Columbia, became worse, and by the time the CPR railway was completed in 1885, the Chinese were accused of stealing jobs, lowering wages, refusing to assimilate and being racially inferior.

To discourage Chinese immigration, in 1885 the Canadian government passed the Act to Restrict and Regulate Chinese Immigration into Canada. This introduced a head tax on all Chinese immigrants of $50, equivalent to two month’s wages for a white worker. In 1900, this tax was raised to $100, and in 1903, it was raised to $500 – the equivalent of one year’s wages for a white worker. In 1923, the Chinese Immigration Act (referred to as the Exclusion Act) was passed, denying entry to almost all Chinese immigrants. (link to footnote #1 herein which takes the user to the various Chinese Immigration Acts)

The "Exclusion Act" was repealed in 1947 (Link to footnote 1), when post-war Canada reopened her borders to immigration. However, Prime Minister Mackenzie King reiterated the government's preference for British and Northern European immigrants, regulations for Asian immigrants were still harsh, and explicit racial discrimination in Canadian immigration policy was not removed until 1967.

Link to: 

Anti-Discrimination Legislation from Coast to Coast

Beginning in the 1930's we see several provinces enacting legislation that had an anti-discrimination provision:

·      British Columbia's Unemployment Relief Act, S.B.C. 1931, c. 65, clause 8, validated a federal-provincial agreement by which the province would receive money for relief work projects.  Specifically, it provided that there be no discrimination in employment on projects because of "political affiliation".

·      In 1932, British Columbia introduced a new Unemployment Relief Act,

S. B. C. 1932, c. 58, which validated clause 15 of a federal-provincial agreement which provided that "in no case shall discrimination be made or permitted in the employment of any reason of their political affiliation, race or religious views".

·      In 1933, the Unemployment Relief Act, S.B.C., 1933, c.71, which, among other provision, ratified a prior agreement with the federal government to pay part of the cost of placing families on land for farming, provided that "the selection of families shall be made without discrimination by reason of political affiliation, race, or religious views".

·      The Ontario Insurance Act, S.O. 1932, c. 24, s. 4, provided that any insurer who discriminated unfairly between risks "because of race or religion of the insured", was guilty of an offence.

·      In 1934, Manitoba passed an amendment to its Libel Act, S.M. 1934, c. 23, adding section 13A, which provided that 'the publication of a libel against a race or creed likely to expose persons belonging to a race or professing the creed to hatred, contempt or ridicule, and tending to raise unrest or disorder among the people", entitled the person belonging to the race or creed to sue for an injunction.

With the end of the Second World War we see the beginnings of modern human rights legislation emerging across Canada.

In 1944, Ontario enacted the Racial Discrimination Act, S.O. 1944., c. 51, s. 1, which prohibited the publication of or displaying of signs, symbols, or other representations or expressing racial or religious discrimination.  This Act was quasi-criminal which meant that certain practices were illegal and sanctions were set out. (Link: Mr. Justice McKay relied on this Act to strike down a racially discriminatory property covenant that prohibited the sale of land to “hews or persons of objectionable nationality”. (link to Re Drummond in the section above under "Laws and Bars")


·      In 1945, British Columbia's Social Assistance Act, S.B.C. 1945, c. 62, s. 8 provided that "in the administration of social assistance there shall be no discrimination based on race, colour, creed or political affiliations".

·      In 1947, Saskatchewan enacted the first detailed statute that addressed human rights and political civil liberties (i.e. the fundamental freedoms of speech, press, assembly, religion and accommodation), the Saskatchewan Bill of Rights Act, S. S. 1947, c. 35. It also prohibited discrimination in the areas of accommodation, employment, occupation, land transactions, education, business and enterprises. 

Like Ontario's Racial Discrimination Act, the Saskatchewan Bill of Rights was also quasi-criminal in nature, which was its weakness.  It meant having to initiate a criminal action to be enforced and few people were willing to do so because the standard of proof ("beyond a reasonable doubt") is so high.  Also, this approach would not help the person discriminated against get a job or service in a shop.

The social values of the day influence the laws that are made and enforced.   World War II and its aftermath propelled Canadians to lobby the various levels of government to introduce measures at home. A new generation of fair accommodation and fair employment practices were enshrined in provincial legislation.

They were no long quasi-criminal, and instead were modeled on employment legislation first introduced in the State of New York in 1945.  Its fair employment and accommodation Acts provided for the filing of complaints, investigation and conciliation, and for the setting up of Commissions or Boards of Inquiry where it was not possible to settle a complaint.

·      In 1951, Ontario introduced The Fair Employment Practices Act, S.O. 1951, c. 24. The following Fair Employment Practices Acts were introduced in various provinces:

·      Manitoba, S.M. 1953 (2nd Sess.)., c. 18

·      Nova Scotia, S.N.S. 1955, c. 5

·      New Brunswick, S.N.B. 1956, c.9

·      British Columbia S.B.C. 1956, c. 16

·      Quebec, S.Q. 1964, c. 46

In 1954, Ontario introduced the first Fair Accommodation Practices Act, S.O. 1954, c. 28, s. 2. Link: Mr. Morley McKay (not related to Mr. Justice McKay) was convicted under this act because he “did unlawfully deny to one Bromley L. Armstrong service in McKay’s Café, a place to which the public customarily admitted, because of his colour. “ McKay’s Cafe was in the Town of Dresden, in the County of Kent. (link to: R. McKay (1955) 113 C.C.C. 56 (Ont. Co. Ct.). This Act was amended in 1961 as the Fair Accommodation Practices Act, S.O. 1960 - 61, c. 28, s. 2, to include "occupancy of any dwelling unit in any building that contains more than six self-contained dwelling units". .

·      In 1956, Saskatchewan implements its Fair Accommodation Practices Act, S.S. 1956, c. 68.

Human Rights Acts/Codes and Commissions

The above acts, on fair accommodation and fair employment, were consolidated into Codes or Acts that are administered by a human rights body, a "Commission" or "Council".  Through these pieces of legislation, the community at large recognizes that all are to be equated with equal treatment without discrimination in various social areas (i.e. employment, accommodation (e.g. housing), services, etc.).

Dr. Daniel Hill, the Ontario Human Rights Commission's first Director and Chair summed up the objects and purposes of human rights body as:

Modern day human rights legislation is predicated on the theory that the actions of prejudiced people and their attitudes can be changed and influenced by the process of re-education, discussion, and the presentation of dispassionate socio-scientific materials that are used to challenge popular myths and stereotypes about people. Human Rights legislation on this continent is the skilful blending of educational and legal techniques in the pursuit of social justice. (source: "The Rise and Spread of Anti-Discrimination Legislation", W.S. Tarnopolsky and W.F. Pentney, in Human Rights and Freedoms in Canada, ed. Mark Berlin and W.F. Pentney (Toronto: Butterworths, 1987), 3-1)

Canadian Human Rights Acts/Codes

Of course, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has greatly influenced the promotion of human rights in Canada.  Several provincial human rights Acts/Codes make specific reference to it.

Alberta                   Ontario

British Columbia   Prince Edward Island HRC

Manitoba                Quebec

New Brunswick     Saskatchewan

Nova Scotia           Newfoundland

Canadian Human Rights Commission

Canadian Human Rights Tribunal       

Toronto Board of Education Human Rights Site        

Atlantic Human Rights Centre            

B'nai Brith Canada

Sites on Disability Issues

Articles on Disability by David Lepofsky      

Disabilities Resources                       

The Integrated Network of Disability Information & Education         

Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee   

Universal Web Access                       

Sites Related to the Law and Human Rights

Access to Justice Network                

Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network     

The World Wide Legal Information Association Legal Dictionary    

The Supreme Court of Canada           

Department of Justice (Supreme Court Decisions)   

University of Montreal Faculty of Law

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights         

Educational Resources                      

Human Rights Internet (HRI)               

International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development              

League for Human Rights of B'nai Brith                             

Human Rights at Harvard                   

University of Minnesota Human Rights Library                 

York University - Centre for Refugee Studies                    


Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

includes its history, the importance of being part of the Constitution, etc.

came into force in 1982, replacing earlier legislation. (Section 15 came into force in 1985)

[i] links to the following Acts)

·       1885 Act

·       1900 Act

·       1903 Act

·       1923 Act (some excerpts from the 1922 Debate in the House)

·       1947 [i]The two major cases at the turn of the century to deal with legislation that discriminated on the basis of race, which were de cided by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (highest Court in Canada until 1949) were Union Colliery v. Bryden, and Cunningham v. Homma:

[ii] The Committee for the Repeal of the Chinese Immigration was formally organized at the end of November 1946.  The group sent a statement to the Minister of Mines and Resources (the Federal

Department that was responsible for immigration at the time), setting out nine reasons for repealing the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923: 

1.             The Act was in conflict with the UN Charter, of which Canada was a signatory,

2.             The Act was the "greatest single" cause of disturbance of the friendly relations between Canada and China.

3.             The Act was a "major barrier" to the development of trade between the two countries.

4.             The Act was against "all principles of humanity, morality and social welfare," by preventing normal family life for the majority of Chinese in Canada.

5.             The Act was contrary to the principles of Canadian democracy.

6.             Canada was now the only North American country with a special Chinese Immigration Act.

7.             The Act was "counter to the recommendations of the Senate Standing Committee on immigration an Labor in its report of August 13, 1946.

8.             The CCF [sic forerunner of the New Democratic Party] and the Progressive Conservatives supported its repeal.

9.             Prime Minister King had already admitted in October, 1943, that it was a mistake.