Ross Lambertson, as an Arts and Science teacher at Camosum College in Victoria, published Repression and Resistance: Canadian Human Rights Activists, 1930-1960 (UTP, 2005), intended to serve as a companion volume to Michael Ignatieff's The Rights Revolution that argues "Canada has become one of the most distinctive rights cultures in the world." Lambertson suggests "Canada has been as, and in some ways more, authoritarian than the United States and Britain, and in the field of equality rights we actually followed the Americans (in the northern states), modelling our early anti-discrimination laws upon their pioneering efforts."
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Repression and Resistance
When asked about the foundation of contemporary human rights in Canada, many will recall the Persons' Case brought forward by the "Famous Five"; in 1929, or the civil rights and women's liberation movements popularized in the 1960s and 1970s. However, few would recollect the significant human rights struggles that occurred in the critical period between these key events, from 1930 to 1960. It is here that Repression and Resistance: Canadian Human Rights Activists, 1930-1960 fills a void in our understanding of the emergence and evolution of human rights in Canada.
Repression and Resistance describes and analyzes the struggles of human rights activists from 1930-1960. It depicts the activities of individual activists who risked social relationships and livelihoods, as well as the formation, development, and relative levels of success of a number of human rights groups and coalitions. Lambertson illustrates how the human rights community was often brought together through interrelated issues, while at the same time plagued by divisions created by ideological and cultural differences.
The first chapter lays the foundation for the book by describing how Canadians viewed basic rights and liberties from the time of confederation until the late 1920s. This leads into a description of the first fight to defeat the so-called Padlock Law in Quebec in 1937. Chapter two explores the violation of civil liberties during the Second World War as well as the fracturing of some civil libertarian organizations over political tensions related to communism. Chapter three is a portrayal of the Co-operative Committee on Japanese Canadians and their post-war fight against the attempt to deport Japanese Canadians. In chapter four, Lambertson demonstrates how the Gouzenko affair led to renewed interest in civil liberties across the country. He also describes the general effect the cold war had on groups working on libertarian issues in Canada. Chapter five discusses the Canadian Jewish Congress' efforts to promote equality rights through campaigns against racial and religious discrimination in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Chapter six revisits the cold war and the divisions that troubled activists and therefore restricted co-operation. Chapter seven describes the Jewish Labour Committee and the successful campaign in Ontario for anti-discriminatory legislation. Chapter eight discusses the 1960 Bill of Rights, including the impact of the aforementioned struggles, the evolving Canadian consciousness, and the role of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.
Repression and Resistance is the product of Lambertson's industrious, scholarly investigation. He has provided a meticulous historiography of 1930-1960 human rights activism through painstaking research using sources such as government documents, personal interviews with political activists, political party platforms, newspaper articles, and the minutes of organizations. The author combined the details to reveal a series of very readable and interesting accounts of key historical events.
Lambertson clearly succeeds in demonstrating that 1930-1960 was a critical time for the evolution of human rights in Canada due to "the emergence of new organizations forming a loosely linked human rights community, the shift in both the language and the focus of rights, and changes in the legal status of human rights"; (p. 378). In addition, he reveals the expansion of Canadian consciousness and discourse over time to include egalitarian, as well as libertarian, rights.
Perhaps what is as important as the struggles that were fought from 1930-1960 are those that were given less consideration by some of the prominent organizations of the day. Lambertson explains that many activists ignored Aboriginal rights, the rights of disabled people, and gay liberation. Repression and Resistance will remind readers that some struggles have long histories in Canada while others are relatively new to our consciousness. Yet these more recent struggles face many of the same ideological, cultural, and geographical challenges as those depicted in the book.
In his conclusion, Lambertson reminds readers of the importance of understanding history as we move into the future. He explains that "fear is one of the great enemies of both liberty and equality"; (p. 383) and uses examples from his book to demonstrate how fear of others has historically led to discrimination against those who are often already marginalized. He connects this historical reality to contemporary times, stating that "the events of 11 September have shown how fear can suddenly create demands for the curtailment of traditional civil liberties and also generate enthusiasm for discrimination against 'the other'"; (p. 383).
Repression and Resistance is recommended without reservation for use in any sociology, political science, cultural studies, or other course involving the related study of human rights at the undergraduate level. Indeed, it is recommended to anyone interested in understanding this important, yet oft ignored, aspect of Canadian history.
Department of Sociology and Social Studies
University of Regina