Freedom and Diversity: Addressing the Future of Canada

By Gina Fung

John Peters Humphrey’s speech “Freedom and Diversity” delivered to St. Thomas University’s 1971 Convocation argues for embracing diversity as a way to distinguish and solidify the Canadian identity as a nation state. Throughout the speech, Humphrey emphasizes French and English tensions, American cultural hegemony, and historical examples of the fall of states. These are all framed in ways that the audience, made up primarily of recent university graduates and academics, can best understand and relate to. Humphrey’s speech was a response to the “present national crisis”[1] and also invoked ideas of what the Canadian state should strive towards.

The rise of Québec nationalism, which stems from historical tensions between English and French traditions, is the initial example Humphrey uses to discuss the divisions of the country at the time. The first specific example he brings up is the October Crisis, in short, a recent event that occurred in Québec the previous year when the separatist group, the Front de Libération du Québec, kidnapped British trade commission James Cross and the minister of labour Pierre Laporte.[2] The crisis sparked questions about Canadian unity. This reference is used by Humphrey to demonstrate and remind the audience of the current existing and ongoing divisions in the country. He remedies this fear by immediately referring to the 1969 Official Languages Act, where both the English and French language are recognized as official languages with equal status in Canada. Humphrey is able to frame these legislative act as the “increasing recognition of the rights of francophones in this Province of New Brunswick”[3], attempting to communicate how the state has made efforts to recognize the need for Francophone rights through institutional processes.

It is understandable why Humphrey would want to address the increased recognition of Francophone rights, given that New Brunswick had a 38% French speaking minority population at the time.[4] With the increasing attention and rise of the Québec nationalist movement, areas in the country with Francophone minority populations could potentially start their own movements based on similar sentiments regarding their marginalized status from mainstream Canadian society. Additionally, being originally from New Brunswick, Humphrey legitimizes his authority and is able to relate to the audience in this way. By framing the Official Languages Act as something that celebrates the diversity of the Canadian population, Humphrey is better able to argue the idea of bringing a divided nation together as an “ideal and a formula for survival”[5].

Later in the speech, Humphrey mentions the threat of the “cultural pull of over two hundred million Americans”[6], further promoting the importance of having a unified country. Concerns regarding the amount of American influence over Canadian sovereignty originated post World War II, due to recognition of the geographical proximity and America’s new position as a global power. According to Humphrey, the way to face American cultural hegemony, which he paints as an ominous force, would be to combat it with an united front and a full embrace of the cultures and diversity from the “two great traditions”[7] to ensure the continued existence of Canadian independence. This would unite the French and English together in opposition to a greater force, instead of sowing conflict towards one anotther.

The images that Humphrey illustrates as to what could potentially happen to the Canadian state if diversity, as defined as the intermediary powers or in a sociological sense ethnic or cultural groups is eliminated,[8] are drawn from historical events. The first case he highlights is how Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich destroyed the intermediary links between the state and the people, suggesting the concept that Canada’s future could become akin to that fascist state. A contemporary example he gives is Mao Zedong’s communist party in China, which also governed without the presence of intermediary groups, resulting in an authoritarian direct bureaucracy. Both examples are used to evoke powerful emotions and pictures to  encourage the audience to imagine the future of Canada if divisions between groups were to continue. He specifically chooses examples that are authoritarian systems to capitalize on the anti-authoritarian sentiments at the time. The first example raises post World War II anti-fascist sentiments for the older generations in the audience, and the second is current to the younger generations because it aligns with the Cold War context fight against communism. Overall, he sees the democratic state as a uniting factor for the country, which can be understood in the context of the Cold War especially when he states that “freedom of association is cherished in a democracy.”[9]

Humphrey argues for the solidification of a Canadian identity that is distinct and secure from both internal and external forces looking to divide the country. Although the essential argument that Humphrey leaves the audience with is Lord Acton’s maxim on how “liberty provokes diversity and diversity preserves liberty”[10], it is important to question and identify what he means by “diversity”. The speech served as an important medium for the message of acceptance between French and English tensions at the time. However, the concept of diversity that is brought up in this speech is limited in that it only addresses the groups of the French and English without addressing the existence of the various additional groups in Canada.

[1] MG 4127 C.18 F.371 – Convocation Address: Freedom and Diversity (1971), John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, 2.

[2] William Tetley, “Introduction,” in October Crisis, 1970: An Insider’s View, (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007), xvi.

[3] Humphrey, Convocation Address: Freedom and Diversity (1971), 3.

[4] Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, Volume IV (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1970), 254.

[5] Humphrey, Convocation Address: Freedom and Diversity (1971), 4.

[6] Ibid., 6.

[7] Ibid., 6.

[8] Ibid., 4.

[9] Ibid., 5.

[10] Ibid., 9.

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