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John Diefenbaker and the Canadian Bill of Rights

His eyes blazing and his finger stabbing the air, John George Diefenbaker set 1950s Canada alight with his vision of a bountiful land on the threshold of greatness. Yet many feel the Saskatchewan lawyer's promise as prime minister exceeded his deeds. His own party eventually turned against him. But nobody can deny that "Dief the Chief" forged an intense bond with his beloved "average Canadians."

A decade before fulfilling his lifelong dream to enshrine in law a Canadian Bill of Rights, John Diefenbaker, the lawyer and Saskatchewan MP, tells a public forum why such a law is needed. Individuals' freedoms of religion, press, speech and association are threatened by the state, he says. A Bill of Rights is needed to take a "forthright stand against discrimination based on colour, creed or racial origin." 
• John Diefenbaker began drafting his Bill of Rights as early as 1936 - four years before he was elected to Parliament. Diefenbaker said in a 1977 CBC Television interview that, as a young boy, he saw injustice first-hand in the form of discrimination against French-Canadians, natives, Métis and European immigrants, I saw them ill-treated, regarded by the people as a whole as intruders, not invaders, who could never hope to become Canadians. They were second-class citizens.," Diefenbaker told the interviewer.

• Diefenbaker used the massive majority given to his Progressive Conservatives in the 1958 election to push through the Canadian Bill of Rights. It became law Aug. 10, 1960, and reflected the same values he outlined in this clip a decade earlier.

• The bill turned out to have limited scope. It was basically guidelines for courts to interpret federal laws in a way that didn't infringe on individual freedoms. The bill, however, didn't safeguard people's rights from being trampled by provincial governments or private companies, agencies or individuals.

• The Canadian Bill of Rights still exists, but much of it has been subsumed into the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which was entrenched in the Constitution in 1982. The charter expanded the rights and applied them to provincial and civil laws through a constitutional amendment.

• Diefenbaker often called the Bill of Rights his proudest achievement. When he spoke to the Conservative leadership convention in 1979, his fellow Tories presented him with a brass copy of the bill. Diefenbaker acknowledged over the years that the bill's practical effect was limited but said the provinces weren't prepared to agree to constitutional change to make the bill more robust.

• "In 1982, the Constitution was finally amended and the Charter came into force. But this would never have happened if John Diefenbaker had not lit the way with his lifelong dedication to human rights." - Thomas Axworthy, director of the Historica Foundation, on the foundation's website.

• The Bill of Rights wasn't the only display of Diefenbaker's commitment to minority rights. He appointed Ellen Fairclough as Canada's first woman cabinet minister and James Gladstone the first native senator. In 1960, Diefenbaker gave natives the right to vote in Canadian elections without losing their treaty rights.
• To learn more, go to the clip "Diefenbaker and the native vote" in the topic Voting in Canada: How a Privilege Became a Right.

• The "Mr. O'Meara" whom Diefenbaker refers to in this clip is John O'Meara. The Montreal lawyer had just argued at the forum, held at a college in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Que., that human rights could not be legislated. The "centuries of Anglo-Saxon resistance to despotic power" were a better guardian of rights than a "rigid constitutional set of guarantees," he said.
Medium: Radio
Program: Citizens' Forum
Broadcast Date: March 16, 1950
Guest: John Diefenbaker
Moderator: Neil Morrison
Duration: 3:04
Photo: National Archives of Canada / PA-112659

Last updated: January 29, 2014

Page consulted on January 29, 2014

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