I read the document years ago but seeing it up close reminded me of Canada’s long tradition of freedom, ranging from anti-slavery efforts in the late 18th century to Pierre Trudeau’s defence of individual rights. These realities of Canadian history are too often forgotten today.
One reason Diefenbaker pushed for the Bill of Rights, even though it was only an act of Parliament and lacked constitutional grounding, is that although ideals of liberty had existed for centuries in both English- and French-speaking countries, their application had been narrow. Many individuals, if they belonged to the ‘wrong’ group – women, for instance, or Chinese immigrants – were mostly denied equality or even standing before the law.
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My find was timely. I bought the framed copy shortly before the Freedom Convoy arrived in Ottawa to protest restrictions on their freedoms. While I sympathized with their general preference for a free Canada, two points about freedom should always be kept in mind.
The first is that no freedom is absolute though infringement should be rare. John Stuart Mill made this point in On Liberty over 150 years ago in his famous harm principle: that the state should only use force to prevent harm to others.
Thus, people have the right to associate and protest but not deprive others of their freedom by interfering with trade at the border, pipeline construction or commuting in Vancouver, to cite a few contemporary examples. I also believe in property rights, but my neighbour has no right to poison her land lest she poison mine. This reminder of the limits on freedom annoyed some readers who liked the rhetoric of freedom but may have forgotten its necessary twin – responsibility.
My second point – that Canada has a long history of freedom – provoked just as strong a reaction among those who dismiss all ‘freedom talk’ as un-Canadian, or ‘extreme.’ In fact, this country has a long history of both rhetoric about and commitment to freedom, including a clear grasp of where rights originate – with individuals, not governments.
Inspired by the British parliamentarian and abolitionist William Wilberforce, John Graves Simcoe, governor of Upper Canada between 1791 and 1796, pledged from the start of his governorship that any laws or policies that provided a framework for or supported slavery would henceforth be under attack. His first action was to make the importation of more slaves illegal, a common first step by abolitionists in their crusade against the trade in human flesh.
As for the rhetoric of freedom, consider what one parliamentarian told a crowd in Winnipeg in 1894: “The good Saxon word, freedom; freedom in every sense of the term, freedom of speech, freedom of action, freedom in religious life and civil life and last but not least, freedom in commercial life.”
Today, those words sound almost American, only because many Canadians have lost the language of liberty. But the speaker was Liberal Leader Wilfrid Laurier, who would become prime minister in 1896. The spur for Laurier’s freedom speech was the Conservative government’s protectionism, which he relentlessly attacked. Laurier emphasized freedom precisely because it resonated with Canadians, and he used it to counter the unjust repression of “commercial life,” i.e. free trade.
Another proponent and rhetorical publicist for freedom?
Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the prime architect of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Though a default collectivist on economic matters, Trudeau well understood that individuals must have their civil rights protected vis-à-vis those who pushed what he called the “theory of collective rights.” That’s why Trudeau consistently opposed Quebec nationalists who discriminated against English speakers, an attack on individual rights that continues today.
Why does individual freedom matter, and where does it originate? In a 1992 speech to a Cité Libre dinner in Montreal, Trudeau explained that “Larger and smaller collectives confront each other in the heart of one and the same country, and that can eventually lead to civil war. And that’s why the French Revolution established liberty as a fundamental right.”
He then made clear that although collectives – nation-states – obviously exist, it was critical to grasp that citizens and their rights precede the state and that the state must always justify infringements of liberty. “(C)itizens, you are all first of all equal among yourselves, and … your rights take priority over those of the state. … The collectivity is not the bearer of rights: it receives the rights it exercises from the citizens.”
This brings us to Trudeau’s son, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and his government’s invocation of the Emergencies Act, which allowed for the arbitrary shutdown of bank accounts among other severe and unnecessary injuries to freedom. That was a stark reminder of why our default principle should always be that governments must justify infringements on citizens’ freedom – it’s not for citizens to justify their preference for a free society.
Freedom is as Canadian as maple syrup and the Canadian Rockies. Don’t let collectivists tell you otherwise.
Mark Milke is executive director of The Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy. His latest book is The Victim Cult: How the Grievance Culture Hurts Everyone and Wrecks Civilization.
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