When the United Nations Stopped Being Progressive; Examining the Divergence Between the UN and the New Left

By Eric Mayhew

On May 24th 1968, John Peters Humphrey spoke to the convocating class of ‘68 at Carleton University, where Humphrey was being given an honorary Doctor of Laws. Given the option to choose the topic of his convocation address, Humphrey chose a familiar topic to him: human rights, particularly United Nations involvement in advancing human rights. Given that 1968 was the 20 year anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), his speech had extra significance. Notably, his speech gave the convocating class context to the development of the UDHR along with advice for the future generation to manage a society full of malaise.[1] This blog post will examine the advice given to the convocating students and contrast it with the student lead movements at the time. Despite Humphrey’s best intention to turn students on to the United Nation, his advice to the students shows how out of touch he was with students movements that were already making gains in education reform (amongst other things) through other channels and using other methods. In this way, Humphrey’s speech signals a growing disconnect between conceptions of progress between organizations like the UN and grassroots student movements.

At the time, student protest was very active. In 1963, the Canadian Union of Students (CUS) was created to replace its predecessor, the National Federation of Canadian University Students (NFCUS).[2] The CUS was focused on student rights and university accessibility, primarily by advocating for low tuition and student aid funding (like loans and bursaries). As a result of intense student activism by NFCUS and the CUS, public opinion had changed to support government funding for higher education, and the federal government responded with the Canada Student Loan Program (CSLP) in 1964.[3] This marked a significant turning point in the government’s attitude towards student-aid policy.[4]

Fervour over education reform was also present in the Carleton University student community. As documented by the student newspaper The Carleton, students’ council president Bert Painter spoke to 600 students on September 29th, 1967, in an event that drew 600 students to hear Painter’s views on education reform.[5] Immediately after the rally, the Students for a Democratic University (SDU) was created with goals to “change the university into a true institution for learning” instead of “training for use in society”.[6] At a glance, it is easy to see the deep level of organization and action taken by students in the 1960s, both locally and nationally.

Judging by the contents of Humphrey’s speech, one wouldn’t assume he was aware of the progress being made by students. His assumptions regarding Canadian’ conceptions of rights issues imply that these students weren’t aware of issues like poverty and minority rights present in Canada. In Humphrey’s speech, he declares “Canadians are inclined to be smug about human rights”, suggesting Canadians hold an uncritically view of Canada as a “model of virtue”.[7] He goes on to denounce social discontents like wealth inequality, suggesting his audience is oblivious to these issue.[8] Given the huge student movements taking place nationally, it seems these students are more aware of the conditions of wealth inequality in Canada than Humphrey himself. After all, accessibility to education came down to the lack of funding and wealth for students to use for their education.

Humphrey address the issue of language rights in his speech as if students were unaware of the issue as well, but the history of the CUS tells a different story. Humphrey said in his speech, “Only slowly… are we beginning to realize” the importance of protecting “our two linguistic groups”.[9] The wording of “slowly” and “beginning” suggest that Humphrey believes his audience isn’t versed in the issue of language rights. However, the CUS was already addressing the issue in the student movement. One of the most notable changes in the constitution of NFCUS to its successor the CUS in 1963 was the recognition of the “fundamental bi-nationalism of the Canadian state.”[10] Although Quebec sovereignty would only grow more pressing, the changing of the constitution of the national student union to include bi-nationalism speaks to the development of the student movement at the time. Students were already aware of the rights struggle and were actively finding solutions to the problem by adapting their constitution to recognize Quebecois nationalism.

Humphrey’s speech appears most ignorant of the political dynamic at the time when he notifies the graduating students they will now be required to become active members of  bringing about societal change – despite their already impressive track-record in doing so. Humphrey prescribes these newly graduated youth with the tasks of improving society, as they “will now have an opportunity to… [build] the new economic, social, and political machinery which the new circumstances will require”. He then proceeds to offer some advice to these students in their new quest, saying “I venture to suggest in all friendliness that you haven’t yet diagnosed the trouble [of society]”. However this is in stark contrast with what the student movements were already doing. They were already well aware of the malaise in society, such as access to higher education and minority rights. Furthermore, they didn’t wait for Humphrey to tell them they now have the “opportunity” to create change for the better. The CUS, the DSU and creation of the CSLP all speak to the ways that these university students had already been creating societal change.

This disconnect highlights that the torch of progressivism had already passed from the hands of the United Nations (and Humphrey) to the new student movements. Responsible for the energy and influence of the New Left, students were already many steps ahead of where Humphrey thought they were. Despite Humphrey’s best attempt to advise and appoint these graduating students to be the new drivers of progressivism, it appears these students were already knee deep in creating on-the-ground change in Canada. By some critics, that’s more than the UDHR has done.

[1] MG 4127 C.18 F.372 – Convocation Address: Carleton University (1968), John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives. P. 1.

[2] Moses, Nigel R. “Student organizations as historical actors: the case of mass student aid.” The Canadian Journal of Higher Education 31, no. 1 (2001): p. 76.

[3] Ibid, p. 99

[4] Ibid, p. 90

[5] Margeson, Wayne. “600 support Painter at Monday meeting.” The Carleton (Ottawa), September 29, 1967. Accessed February 24, 2017. https://archive.org/details/thecarleton23carl.

[6] “Group formed for academic reform.” The Carleton (Ottawa), September 29, 1967. Accessed February 24, 2017. https://archive.org/details/thecarleton23carl.

[7] MG 4127 C.18 F.372 – Convocation Address: Carleton University (1968), John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives. P. 6 – 7.

[8] Ibid, p. 7.

[9] Ibid, p. 6, 7.

[10] Moses, Nigel R. “Student organizations as historical actors…” p. 77.

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