On “Opening Statement and Introduction for the Canadian Foundation for Human Rights”

By Raegan Kloschinsky

John Peters Humphrey, acting as vice-president, addressed the Canadian Foundation for Human Rights at their Toronto conference on November 21, 1974. Humphrey provided the opening statements and introductions, commencing a series of lectures and seminars on the subject of human rights and legal action. In doing so, he offers glimpses into his own personal views, but more concretely, the ambitions and motivations of the Canadian Foundation for Human Rights. Now, Humphrey’s speech provides insight into human rights discourse and the initial intentions of the Canadian Foundation for Human Rights, an organisation still in existence today, though under a different name. Humphrey’s speech can illuminate the actors in Canadian human rights discussion in the 1970s, as well smaller-scale action and activism.

In Humphrey’s words, “the Canadian Foundation for Human Rights is a representative body of men and women dedicated to the promotion of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Canada.”[1] Continuing, he expressed his desire for the organisation to be “a channel through which public spirited people could by their individual contributions help promote respect for human rights” and “undertake certain projects that might otherwise not be attempted”.[2] These important projects were education and research based, focusing on human rights and the law. Interestingly, John Peters Humphrey’s Canadian Human Rights Foundation’s continues to exist as Equitas, the International Centre for Human Rights Education, whose mission remains “the advancement of equality, social justice and respect for human dignity” through education.[3] Equitas, then known as the Canadian Human Rights Foundation, was founded in 1967 by scholars and social activists, who strongly believed in the power of education to advance social justice and democracy; John Peters Humphrey, Thérèse Casgrain, and Dr. Gustave Gingras, organised innovative research, conferences, and publications on human rights with the goal of education and ameliorating the status and understanding of rights in Canada.[4] The Canadian Human Rights Foundation was not formed with the intention of advocacy.[5] Rather, it functioned to research and educate on the subject of human rights as a national charitable organisation.[6] Thus, Humphrey’s presentation is a key to understanding an organisation that continues to promote human rights education and social justice today, and the philosophy behind its approach.

The conference Humphrey addressed in this speech is one of many that happened nationally throughout the 1970s to discuss human rights.[7] This conference was attended by both members of the general public and by those who occupied some of the most elite positions in Canadian society.[8] Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, although not able to attend, sent a letter of support, which Humphrey read to begin his opening remarks.[9] Hon. Otto Lang, Minister of Justice for Canada, Hon. Hugh Faulkner, Secretary of State of Canada, Mrs. Helvi Sipila, Assistant Secretary-General in the United National Secretariat, and Mr. Niall MacDermot of the International Commission of Jurists, all led seminars, some of which were opened to the public for discussion.[10] This speech offers an interesting look at the political elite involved in human rights discussion, and through Humphrey’s introductions, his personal opinions and their importance. These opening statements are impactful, for they help reveal the scope and intentions of conferences like these; they display the climate surrounding human rights discussion and the participation of important national and international figures.

Most interestingly demonstrated in Humphrey’s speech are his and the Foundation’s views on the links between education, human rights and social justice. Humphrey outlines the projects the Canadian Foundation for Human Rights was sponsoring: awards and publication of works concerning human rights and more significantly, in his opinion, “an exhaustive, scientific analysis of human rights law and practice in Canada”.[11] Humphrey espoused the importance of understanding the legal mechanisms, which protect human rights or allow for their violation. The purpose of this conference, as purported by Humphrey, was to decide how to proceed with the preliminary research and analysis; how to best continue what?, both as an academic pursuit, but also towards a productive goal. Humphrey propagated inclusion and participation, wanting to include as many people as possible in the discussion. The educational aspect of human rights and social justice supported by the Canadian Foundation for Human Rights and founding members like John Peters Humphrey is unique and productive. It is fascinating, and incredibly important to remember this aspect of Humphrey’s opening remarks. Essentially, human rights are for everyone to learn from and discuss.

While not a significant speech, according to Humphrey, his opening statement and introductions to the Canadian Foundation for Human Rights are nonetheless, salient representations of human rights discourse and its direction in 1973. These remarks display his vision, and those of other members, for understanding human rights and the law. Though the actual presentations given at this conference undoubtedly would be more interesting and informative, this opening statement does in fact, offer a unique glimpse at the philosophy of human rights and justice at a time of great change.

[1] “Opening Statement and Introduction Canadian Foundation for Human Rights Toronto, 21 Nov., 1974,” MG 4127 C.18 F.371, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Our Mission,” Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education / Centre international d’éducation aux droits humains, accessed February 23, 2017, https://equitas.org/en/about-us/our-mission-vision-and-values/.

[4] Ibid.

“About Us,” Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education / Centre international d’éducation aux droits humains, accessed February 23, 2017, https://equitas.org/en/about-us/our-history/.

[5] “Canadian Human Rights Foundation,” Canada’s Human Rights History, accessed February 23, 2017, http://historyofrights.ca/encyclopaedia/social-movements/national-canadian-human-rights-foundation-canadian-council-human-rights/.  

[6] Ibid.

[7] “About Us.”

[8] “Opening Statement and Introduction Canadian Foundation for Human Rights Toronto, 21 Nov., 1974.”

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

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