Humphrey’s Warnings and Directives: The 1980s and Quebec Separatism and Nuclear Fallout

By Brigitte Pawliw-Fry

In May of 1984, John Peters Humphrey, author of the first draft of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, gave the commencement speech for the graduating class of St. Mary’s University in Halifax, which he used to “challenge” his audience to assume the problems his generation could not solve. [1] This largely rhetorical and directive speech is significant for its register of the anxieties of the time, including Quebec separatism and nuclear fallout. It also appeals to both group rights and patriotism and warns against the perils of nationalism.

First, his content and rhetoric is largely shaped for his young, Maritime audience. Humphrey immediately identifies himself as one of them, an alumnus who still considers Halifax “home.” [2] Though putting “Nova Scotians, New Brunswickers, and Islanders…into the same boat,” and recalling his advocacy for “the union of our three maritime provinces,” he constructs a more unified sense of community and signals shared goals and directions.[3] One such goal is warding off Quebec’s separation from the union. Crafted through the lens of shared identities, Humphrey warns that the Maritimes face an uncertain future.[4]

This uncertainty was based on a sustained separatist movement in Quebec. Only four years before his commencement was the narrowly failed Quebec referendum and the re-election of Rene Lévesque’s Parti Québécois, with a majority government in 1981, with a larger margin of victory than the last election.[5] Humphrey’s fears about the continued threat of Quebec’s split could have been further encouraged by Quebec’s refusal to sign the Constitution Act of 1982, thus flaming the fire of separatism in the province.[6] His address of separatism, filtered through the language of the Maritime’s and Canada’s future, speaks to an early 1980s desire for Canadian unity and diversity, and articulates the sense that the threat of Quebec’s split was not wholly quashed – which proved to be true with the even closer defeat of separation in the 1995 referendum.

Yet, to Humphrey, Quebec’s potential separation from Canada was not the greatest challenge that this audience’s generation faced. Rather, it was nuclear fallout. The future of “Canada, or indeed of the word in which we live” appeared uncertain to him, as his “working hypothesis” of “optimism,” was being tested by the historical moment of 1984.[7] Based on this perceived threat, his speech served to directly challenge his audience to “find solutions for some of the problems that my generation has been unable to solve.” [8] If they did not, he warns that they would “have…no future either as Canadians or even as human beings.” [9]

The cautioning reads as dire, even heavy-handed, to a modern audience. Yet Humphrey’s claims did have cause. The early 1980s, with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1981, saw a deterioration in relations between the Soviets and The West.[10] In 1979, the USSR invaded Afghanistan, and the threat of nuclear war became more imminent.[11] Reagan was also more cavalier and strong-man-like in his approach to nuclear negotiations, and the Soviets were turning increasingly to isolationist policies.[12] In the context of heightened tensions, Humphrey calls the U.S. “so aggressive and in possession of such weapons of destruction that there is a very great danger that your generation will be the last to live on this planet.”[13] To Humphrey, averting nuclear fallout was the “great challenge to which your generation must respond.” [14]

His speech does provide some possible responses, including reinvigorating international organizations, giving them “effective sanctions,” [15] and curbing the power of the “modern state,” as “the contemporary state system is obsolete” [16]— positions he characterizes as “provocative.” That they were “provocative” speaks significantly to the climate of this era and suggests that the prevailing opinions were centered on the importance of nationalism and the state rather than on cooperation among nations.[17]

Building upon Canada’s difference from the ideological divisiveness of the U.S., he describes Canada as patriotic, rather than nationalistic, and argues against “nationalism that becomes an explosion,” which he saw in the Falkland Islands only two years earlier 1982, which led lead to hundreds of deaths on both sides.[18] Refuting the criticism that Canadians were “not nationalistic enough,” [19] he defines nationalism as anathema to democracy, and emphasizes the importance of “local patriotism” and bilingualism in Canada’s future. [20]

This is further affirmed by his argument for internationalism, in which nations learn from and accept more nuanced understandings of each other. For example, he suggests that it “isn’t true that all Russians are cynical aggressors or that all Americans are capitalistic imperialists.”[21] Rather than judgement, this internationalism demands that one is a “citizen of the world,” and that one “return[s] to the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount.” [22] This message of his speech is one of universalism, paired with Christian idealistic teachings, as the 1980s, he believes, could no “longer afford the luxury of demagogues who say “my country right or wrong”.”[23] Thus, Humphrey’s speech registers a left, internationalist stance of the early 1980s and counters the upswing of conservatism and nationalism seen with Ronald Reagan and the Falklands War. He uses the platform of the speech to announce the problems that his generation could not address and to pass on the project of international cooperation to a new generation.

[1] Humphrey, John Peters. MG 4127 C.18 F.369. St. Mary’s University Convocation Address. May 12, 1984.

1984 p. 1

[2]J, Humphrey p. 1

[3] Ibid. p. 1

[4] Ibid. p. 4

[5] “Oui” or “Non” Canada’s future teeters on the brink as Quebecers decide if they want to remain in Confederation. Canada: A People’s History. CBC Learning. 2001. http://www.cbc.ca/history/EPISCONTENTSE1EP17CH1PA1LE.html

[6] J, Humphrey, p. 2

[7] Ibid. P. 2

[8] Ibid. p. 2

[9] Ibid. P. 2

[10] Viswanathan, Vivek. “Fallout From Reykjavik: Reagan’s Stand and the Fate of Arms Control.” New York History 87, no. 1 (2006): 135-43. http://www.jstor.org.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/stable/23183461.p. 135

[11] A, Kapur. P. 435 Kapur, Ashok. “Nuclear Proliferation in the 1980s.” International Journal, vol. 36, no. 3, 1981, pp. 535–555. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40201979

[12] V, Viswanathan. P. 125

[13] J, Humphrey. P. 5

[14] Ibid. p. 6

[15] Ibid. p. 10

[16] Ibid, p. 9

[17] Ibid. p. 9

[18] “Falkland Islands: Imperial pride.” The Gaurdian. February 2010.  Web.

[19] J, Humphrey p. 7

[20] Ibid. p. 3

[21] Ibid. P. 8

[22] Ibid. P. 8

[23] Ibid. P. 8

Comments are closed.

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.