Diefenbaker with Davie Fulton, circa 1950.

Diefenbaker wanted to use the Canadian Bill of Rights to empower Parliament with the authority to protect civil liberties, which had at times been disregarded by previous governments. He argued that the whole of Parliament, and not just the Executive, was required to thoroughly debate proposed laws dealing with rights and freedoms in order to give all legislation appropriate consideration.

The Bill of Rights specified that the Justice Minister was required to scrutinize and dispute any proposed legislation that was seen to breach of the rights outlined in the Bill. The Minister was then to “...report any such inconsistency to the House of Commons” for discussion and debate. (Canadian Bill of Rights, Part 1, Section 3) As part of his Cabinet, Diefenbaker appointed E. Davie Fulton as his Minister of Justice.

1959 Cabinet in Privy Council Chambers

The first highly publicised use of the Canadian Bill of Rights was in R. v. Drybones. In 1970, Joseph Drybones, a status Indian, was convicted of being intoxicated off-reserve - a violation of the Indian Act. The Supreme court of Canada however, determined that according to the Bill, Drybones had been discriminated against based on his race. As well, his personal liberties had been infringed upon based on laws which differed from those applied to other Canadians. The Court ruled for the removal of Section 94(b) from the Indian Act.

Despite the landmark result of the Drybones case, the effectiveness of theCanadian Bill of Rights was limited to the federal level; the Bill did not have authority over provincial legislation. Neither was the Bill entrenched in the Constitution, so it could not supercede existing laws. Regardless, the Bill remains a federal statute and continues to be cited in court decisions.

"It became my abiding purpose to see every Canadian not only secure in his liberty, but secure in the knowledge of his fundamental rights and freedoms. It distressed me that those who were neither British nor French in origin were not treated with the regard that non-discrimination demands. I was even more distressed that many contended they would never become Canadians. My determination to see the Bill of Rights a reality was increased by experiences during and after the Second World War. Even now, I am still somewhat amazed at the opposition I encountered in trying to forward a Canadian Bill of Rights."

(John Diefenbaker, One Canada, Volume One, 234)