The Canadian Bill of Rights
After witnessing the horrors of the Second World War, demand for the national and international protection of human rights and freedoms grew sharply within Canada.
As the national press brought the controversy over the internment of Japanese-Canadians and after the Second World War to the forefront, the question of human rights in Canadian society became an urgent matter of public debate. Additionally, with the post-war development of the United Nations Charter, an alliance of nations had declared their commitments to human rights. As a country which stressed the importance of the United Nations, Canada could hardly ignore matters of civil liberties at home.
John Diefenbaker, whose reputation was built on his dedication to civil liberties, held a longstanding commitment to developing a Canadian Bill of Rights. During the minority parliament of 1957-58, his goal of developing human rights legislation was deferred in favour of more pressing political measures. However, once Diefenbaker's government gained an overwhelming majority, the issue topped his agenda.
Diefenbaker's interest in human rights was genuine, and his views on universal civil and political rights are apparent in the records of his early years in federal politics in the 1940s. Diefenbaker also had a personal agenda of promoting multiculturalism, noting that he could "speak on the subject of mixed racial origin," and that he knew "what it has meant in the past for some to regard those with names other than British and French origin as not being quite that kind of Canadian that those of British or French origin could claim to be." It was a subject that suited his strong individualism, his sympathy for the voiceless, and his rhetorical abilities.
In the two years between the first introduction of the Bill by the Prime Minister in 1958 and its final passage by the House of Commons in 1960, the government invited comment from both lay and professional groups concerning the nature and contents of the Bill and received a torrent of responses.
Diefenbaker's agenda would profoundly influence Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who would succeed in winning the battle with the provinces needed to bind human rights legislation to the Canadian Constitution. In 1982, the Constitution was officially amended and a full Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into force - a step made easier by Diefenbaker's dedication and action.
Though more a symbolic declaration than a piece of practical legislation, the Canadian Bill of Rights succeeded in influencing developments in the Canadian courts, resulting in a greater public awareness of human rights issues. It would become, as Diefenbaker often reminded Canadians, his proudest achievement.