John Humphrey’ speech at Bishop’s College School

By Robyn Lee

In November of 1989, John Humphrey delivered a speech at Bishop’s College School in Quebec. Given Humphrey’s history and level of involvement with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he was “asked … to talk about human rights” [1]. However, the 1980s were dominated by the tensions between Quebec and Ottawa with the failure of the Meech Lake Accords. In the wake of Meech Lake and rising Quebec Nationalism, Humphrey’s lecture seems to be tailored to the future generation of voters, urging them to think critically about Canada’s national identity.

Despite having an extensive history in the crafting of human rights legislation, Humphrey seems to gloss over the past and spend more time on how the young students at Bishop’s College can contribute to the rapidly changing rights culture. Fifty years after the war, Humphrey commends the 1948 Universal Declaration as a “new world law” that was designed to protect human dignity. He continues to explain that the responsibility to maintain the law depends on individual men and women. Humphrey personally annotated an emphasis on how “one of the challenges of your generation, [is] to see that [preserved peace]” truly takes place. He ends the first portion of his speech by asserting the importance of public opinion, and the need for “your generation … to improve these mechanisms of implementation and to develop mechanisms of enforcement […] to support the world law of human rights”[2].

In 1989, there was still fierce debate regarding the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the topic of Quebec’s sovereignty. The Constitution Act of 1982 was a “valiant attempt to reconcile and harmonize the concepts of individual rights for all and collective rights for certain specific groups in Canadian society.” [3] However, the Quebec premier Robert Bourassa refused to sign the Constitution Act, because it failed to address Quebec as a “distinct society”.[4] It is within this context, of increasing resentment amongst Quebecers of being overlooked as a linguistic minority that the Meech Lake Accords took place. The Meech Lake Accords in 1987 represented the growing debate about Quebec francophone nationalism. It recognized Quebec as a distinct society, and included the “responsibility “to preserve and promote this distinct society” [5]

Delivering this speech to a Quebec audience, Humphrey grounded himself in his Francophone roots by describing his own personal history. He mentions his French-Canadian wife, his appreciation for the French language, his membership of the National Order of Quebec and his love for the province. He includes a disclaimer to the audience, as he wanted [them] to understand his words were “not the reaction of some English speaking redneck”[6]. This reflects the intense divides between English-speaking Canada and Quebec. The historic tensions between Quebec and English-Canada are well documented. Humphrey’s disclaimer acknowledges the value of Quebecers concerns’ about being a cultural and linguistic minority. However, Humphrey disputes the notion that opposing the “acceptance of distinct society provision is proof of anti-Quebec sentiment.”[7] He emphasizes that conflating anti-Quebec sentiment with the usage of the distinct society clause has overlooked his own basic definition of human rights- in that it protects individuals rather than ‘collective groups’.

Meech Lake was characteried by it’s closed door, “late night discussions”[8]  that lead to what Peach describes as the death of deference in politics”[9] in his article. People, particularly Quebecers, had less faith in political elites, because they felt they were constantly being overlooked. Humphrey echoes this sentiment by describing the accords as the result of “politicians sitting around a table, using the accords to “their own political advantage” [10]. Humphrey seems distressed by the state of the country, stating “the future of this country … is in jeopardy”[11]. He highlights his worries about “the presence of that clause”… and “what that might mean for the future of [his[ country”[12]. It is clear that towards the end, Humphrey’s lecture has turned into a message of concern for the country. His tone is one of disbelief as he asks: “Have they ever read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?”[13]. The document he had worked so hard on, seems to be ignored and misinterpreted. In the last years of his life, Humphreys faced a crowd of eager, passionate and easily influenced youth and tried to persuade them of his vision of Canada and human rights.

Humphrey ends with his final request for Canada’s national identity with his belief in bilingualism. Humphreys speech ends almost in a plea: “If we abandon that heritage .. it distinguishes us most clearly from our neighbours to the south”[14].  The reoccurring issue of Canada’s geographical proximity to a global power such as the United States becomes increasingly present in the lecture. Humphrey drives home the importance of maintaining a distinct, bilingual culture to remain “distinct on the North American continent”.

John Humphrey is 84 years old in 1989. He dedicated his entire life and career to the protection of individual human rights and begins to see an unfamiliar change in his country. He ends with an almost urgent tone, advising the students at Bishop’s College to continue his own legacy. Humphrey reflects back on his career, recalling the anecdote with Henri Laugier, who invited Humphrey to become the first director of the Division of Human Rights in the World organization[15]. He attributes his greatest achievement to the value of bilingualism to inspire the audience. Humphrey reveals his doubts and worries in an almost hurried manner, resulting in an unexpected attitude for a young school audience.

[1] MG-4127-C.18-F.364-Lecture at Bishop’s College School (1989), John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, 1.

[2] Ibid., 5

[3] Michael D. Behiels, “From the Constitution Act, 1982 to the Meech Lake Accords: Individual Rights for All versus Collective Rights for Some”, In Democracy with Justice/La Juste Democratie: Melanges En L’honneur De/Essays in Honour of Khayyam Zev Paltiel, (1992) ,127

[4] Ibid.,128


[6] MG-4127-C.18-F.364-Lecture at Bishop’s College School (1989), John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, 6.

[7] Ibid., 8

[8] Ibid.,5

[9] Peach, Ian The Death of Defernece: the implications of the defeat of the meech lake and Charlottetown accords for executive federalism in Canada, Multiculturalism in Canada (2007), 91

[10] MG-4127-C.18-F.364-Lecture at Bishop’s College School (1989), John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives, 6.

[11] Ibid.,5

[12] Ibid,.7

[13] Ibid.,8

[14] Ibid.,8

[15] Ibid.,9

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