John Peters Humphrey Blog Contribution: Nationalism, Freedom and Social Justice in Humphrey’s Dalhousie Convocation Speech

By Erin Grant

John Peters Humphrey is celebrated both in Canada and internationally for his contributions to the protection of human rights.  As a lawyer and diplomat, Humphrey not only helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), but also served as the director of the United Nations Human Rights Division from 1946 to 1966.[1] Throughout his career, he received numerous accolades including the United Nations Prize for human rights advocacy (1988), the Order of Canada (1974), as well as the honor of having a rights and democracy award named after him.[2]

On May 16, 1975, Humphrey received an honorary doctor of laws from Dalhousie University. [3] While the degree might not have been the most eminent of the awards he has accumulated, I think he would have felt greatly honoured by it, specifically since he was asked by the Dalhousie president, Henry D. Hicks, to give a speech at the general convocation ceremony that same afternoon.[4][5]

Humphrey chose to “…talk about nationalism about freedom and about social justice”.[6] These subjects were relevant to all members of the audience, including the Chancellor and President of Dalhousie, students and guests, but most specifically to the graduates who represented the new generation and hope for the future.[7] President Hicks likewise emphasized this hope for the new generation when he wrote in the 1975 yearbook  “…that in the years ahead [he hoped] we may hear well of you whether your field of activity is one that draws public attention or whether you contribute quietly and steadfastly in some way to the welfare and happiness of your fellows”.[8]

In his speech, Humphrey argued that nationalism does not inherently guarantee freedom, but can instead create conflict such as “war…and the denial of human rights”.[9] It is an argument that contradicts the “Much greater men than [himself]” who have argued for the power of nationalism to create freedom.[10] Nonetheless, Humphrey’s position is not unique.  After all, the Victorian scholar and historian, Lord Acton[11] also argued that “real freedom is more apt to exist in states made up of minorities whose loyalties are divided between the state and an ethnic, cultural religious or linguistic group” than in the “national state”.[12] I argue that Humphrey’s speech is innovative because it recognizes that nationalism is not a historical problem, but remains a threat which continues to evolve and spread across the world. His speech emphasizes the need for citizens to remain informed about historic events and past mistakes and to be wary of any inclination to over-idealize their nation, in order to avoid the pitfalls of nationalism.

Humphrey compares nationalism to an “epidemic”,[13] and vividly describes how it engenders “the dragon seeds of war and…new challenges to freedom” which threaten society.[14] In listing the volatile consequences of nationalism, he emphasizes the vast historic scope of the problem which spans from eighteenth century France’s Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic wars, to the contemporary threat posed by China’s and the Soviet Union’s socialist-nationalism in the 1970s.[15] He attributes nationalism to be the “immediate, if not-ultimate, cause” of several negative phenomena of the past including: both World Wars, National Socialism in Germany and the breakup of the League of Nations.[16] By listing this catalogue of horrific events, Humphrey emphasizes how nationalism is a problem which transcends time; he warns that people must be mindful of past mistakes to avoid repeating them.

Humphrey himself admits that he is “something of a nationalist [and that he] lov[es] [his] country”[17], but nonetheless recognizes  the danger of over-idealizing one’s country and in sacrificing human rights to further  Canadian nationalism.[18]  He warns that “…even in a country so favoured as Canada (where the cry has usually been that nationalism is not strong enough) we should be weighing our priorities”.[19]  When Humphrey delivered the convocation speech at Dalhousie, he was seventy-years old, had been retired from his work at the UN for nine years and had returned to Canada to teach law at McGill University.[20]  He recognized that his work in the UN allowed him to “observe what was happening in the world”,[21] and helped him to develop a more distanced view of his home country and a less biased view of its flaws.  While he praised Canada for being “multi-national, multi-cultural and bi-lingual”,[22] he nonetheless recognized that Canada had developed a destructive nationalism which was leading Canadians to become “…more self-centered and more parochial in their attitude toward other countries and cultures”.[23] He cautioned that a nationalist agenda which sacrificed civil and political rights for economic and social rights would not only fracture the country, but damage relations with other nations.[24]  Thus, he advocated for an outlook that would be a balance between internationalism and nationalism,[25] as well as among economic, social, civil and political rights.[26]

Although John Peters Humphrey’s convocation speech was written in 1975 for an audience of university graduates and their guests, it remains relevant to this day, forty-two years later. In 2016 the United Kingdom decided to leave the European Union, a decision which appeared to be motivated by the type of nationalism which Humphrey described as “self-centered and… parochial in their attitude toward other countries and cultures”.[27][28] The British public chose to fracture international relations because they believed they would benefit economically if they separated from the EU, showing that they prioritized their economic rights over political relations.[29] Further, many were tempted to leave the EU due to the promise of limitations on immigration,[30] which suggests that the UK was fostering a “national and cultural identity” which sought to exclude minority groups and their rights.[31] In view of recent events, it might seem that Humphrey’s words could not solve the problematic aspects of nationalism in the world. However, I argue that while he does not provide an immediate solution, he nonetheless raises concerns about the negative effects of nationalism and raises hope for a solution.  As Humphrey famously said, “I have enough sense to realize that I can’t step out of McGill and by the aid of a few clever words or acts [create change] …[but that] Success, if it comes, will be slow and after many set backs, but it will come…”.[32]

[1] Laura Neilson Bonikowsky and William Kaplan, 2011, John Peters Humphrey, The Canadian

Encyclopedia (accessed February 19, 2017).

[2] Ibid

[3] MG 4127 C.18 F.370/371 – Speech to the General Convocation: Dalhousie University (1975),

John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives,1.

[4] Ibid

[5] Dalhousie University, Pharos: Dalhousie University Yearbook 1975, (Graduating Class of 1975),

Dalhousie University Archives and Special Collections, Dalhousie University, pg. 5, Killam Memorial Library. Did you access this online? If yes, please provide the date of access.

[6] “Speech to the General Convocation: Dalhousie University”, 1.

[7] Ibid

[8] Dalhousie University, Pharos: Dalhousie University Yearbook 1975,5.

[9] “Speech to the General Convocation: Dalhousie University”,3.

[10] Ibid.,1-2.

[11] Roland Hill, Lord Acton, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000, 20.

[12] “Speech to the General Convocation: Dalhousie University”,2.

[13] Ibid.,4.

[14] Ibid.,3.

[15] Ibid.,3,12.

[16] Ibid.,3.

[17] Ibid.,4.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.,12-3.

[20] Bonikowsky and Kaplan, John Peters Humphrey.

[21] “Speech to the General Convocation: Dalhousie University”,6-7.

[22] Ibid.,2.

[23] Ibid.,6.

[24] Ibid.,4-5.

[25] Ibid.,5,10.

[26] Ibid.,10-11.

[27] Ibid.,6.

[28] Eight reasons Leave won the UK’s referendum on the EU,” BBC News. June 24, 2016,

Accessed February 17, 2017.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Erin C. Roth “John Peters Humphrey: Canadian Nationalist and World Government Advocate,”

The Canadian Yearbook of International Law 45 (2007): 1.


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