Humphrey and his Canadian Concerns in My Brother’s Keeper

By Sowmya Iyathurai

On May 19th 1990, John Peters Humphrey was awarded the Order of the Keepers of Compassion by the Centre for Democracy and Human Rights.[1] The award recognized his work to promote human rights in Canada and internationally. He was given the award at a conference held by the organization, My Brother’s Keeper, in Canada; the subject of the conference was human rights and constitutional changes by referendum. Humphrey described his own philosophy to be similar to that of the organization. Referencing a “common humanity [in which we are] our brother’s and our sister’s keepers,” Humphrey noted that both he and the organization were focused on highlighting the collective moral responsibility to protect human rights domestically and abroad.[2] Upon receipt of the award, Humphrey delivered a speech in which he addressed the subject of the conference while relating it back to the Canadian context. This speech illuminates Humphrey’s opinion on the Meech Lake Accord and his concerns about Canada’s future.

Within his speech, Humphrey contextualized his own beliefs on international human rights while arguing that rights must be protected in order to ensure peace among nations.[3] By discussing the implications of World War II, Humphrey suggested that the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and a new world law had been born out of the conflict; he considered these to be the most significant developments of the 20th century.[4] In terms of a new world law, Humphrey believed that both the content and nature of international law had changed and that this new focus on basic human rights could ensure peace around the world.

Humphrey described the relationship between human rights and referendums by relating them to the UDHR. By referring to Article 21, Humphrey defended the right of citizens to participate in government.[5] As well, Article 21 stipulates that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government;” Humphrey believed that the Meech Lake Accord should be considered with the idea of the “will of the people” in mind. The Meech Lake Accord was meant to unite Quebec and Canada through a series of constitutional amendments. Among other changes, the Accord would have added a clause to the Canadian Constitution to recognize Quebec as “distinct society” within Canada.[6] Although the proposed constitutional amendments had been agreed upon by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and most provincial premiers in April of 1987, opposition to the amendments grew within the three-year period during which they to be ratified. In the end, two provinces failed to ratify the constitutional amendments.[7] Humphrey believed that this would have been an appropriate time for a national referendum.

Before acknowledging his award and discussing the theme of the conference, Humphrey recognized his colleagues and students from McGill who were in attendance. Specifically, Humphrey thanked David Berger, his friend and former student, who presented him with the award. Berger was a Liberal politician in Canada and Humphrey described him as an honest man and “good Canadian [who acted] in the real interest of the people who elected him to Parliament.”[8] Humphrey’s comments on Berger emphasized that he was the exception to Humphrey’s generally negative view of politicians in Canada. It is interesting to note that Humphrey believed that most Canadian politicians were not honest or forthright. Humphrey’s high praise of Berger can also be related to his references to the UDHR. He clearly believed that a good Canadian politician would be true to the interests of their constituency and respect “the will of the people.”[9] Again, this further highlights Humphrey’s disappointment with the events surrounding the Meech Lake Accord.

Throughout his speech, Humphrey expressed his worry for the future of Canadian federalism. Considering the era of Canadian constitutional politics, it is also unsurprising that Humphrey was apprehensive about Canadian politicians and federal-provincial tensions. He questioned federalism by asking if we are “some kind of mere alliance of states.”[10] He also voiced concerned for Canada’s bilingual heritage. As an advocate for bilingualism, he hoped that Canada could be a country “with two basic cultures.”[11] He explained his advocacy by stating that one of the reasons that he was hired and able to work at the United Nations was his ability to communicate in French and English.[12]

Although My Brother’s Keeper was an award acceptance speech, Humphrey did not shy away from addressing the subject of the conference in relation to Canadian affairs. This speech provides insight into Humphrey’s view on Meech Lake and his discontent with Canadian political affairs. Considering Humphrey’s impact on the history of human rights, it is interesting to see his criticism of Canada’s human rights image.[13] Despite his efforts to support human rights domestically and abroad, this speech shows that Humphrey had some reservations about Canada in 1990. A recurring theme in Humphrey’s work was his belief in a collective moral responsibility to protect human rights; the notion of collective responsibility calls for international awareness of human rights. It can also be seen as a plea to Canadians to be socially conscious and contribute to what Humphrey saw as Canada’s inadequate human rights record.

[1] John Peters Humphrey, “My Brother’s Keeper,” 1.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Richard Simeon, “Meech Lake Accord.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] John Peters Humphrey, “My Brother’s Keeper,” 1.

[9] Ibid., 1; 3.

[10] Ibid., 5.

[11] Ibid., 6.

[12] Ibid., 6.

[13] Ibid., 2.

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