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1960: Canada gets its own Bill of Rights

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On Aug. 10, 1960, Canada's Bill of Rights becomes law. Six weeks later, CBC's Outlook examines the bill's significance. "It was important that Canada should decide what we mean, as Canadians, by rights and freedoms," Canada's Minister of Justice E. Davie Fulton told the CBC. He's clearly proud of the new statute, and believes it will be an indispensable piece of legislation in years to come. But an American law professor is questioning the bill's potential effectiveness.

"Essentially, the words of your Bill of Rights, like the words of our Bill of Rights, are worthless without men who will put it into effect in a decent way," argues Yale law professor Fred Rodell in this 1960 TV clip.
• John Diefenbaker, the prime minister who championed the bill, actually began drafting ideas for it as early as 1936. His concern for human rights went back to his childhood. As a young boy, he witnessed first-hand discrimination against European immigrants, French-Canadians, native people and Métis and it disturbed him.

• In 1948, the United Nations had enacted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This also had a significant influence on Canada's Bill of Rights.

• Canada's bill declared the following human rights and fundamental freedoms for all Canadians:
- The right of the individual to life, liberty, security of the person and enjoyment of property and the right not to be deprived thereof except by due process of law.
- The right of the individual to equality before the law and the protection of the law.
- Freedom of religion.
- Freedom of speech.
- Freedom of assembly and of association.
- Freedom of the press.

• The bill did turn out to have limited scope. It wasn't entrenched in the Constitution, and it only had force on federal laws because it never received provincial assent. One of its major weaknesses, explained the Canadian Encyclopedia, "was that many judges regarded it as a mere interpretative aid."

• Despite its limited power, one well-known triumph of the Bill of Rights was the 1970 Drybones case. As part of Canada's Indian Act, it had been illegal for aboriginal people to be drunk while not on reserve lands. But Canada's Supreme Court ruled in 1970 that a man named J. Drybones, who had been found drunk in a Yellowknife hotel off reserve land, could not be found guilty because the law itself was racist and contradicted the Bill of Rights.

• When Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms was introduced in 1982, much of its content was derived from the 1960 Bill of Rights. So the 1960 bill was essentially a stepping stone to the charter, which was superior to the Bill of Rights because it was entrenched in the Constitution and it applied to all levels of government.

• Although its usefulness is limited, the Bill of Rights remains in effect today.

• "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, executive director of the Historica Foundation, on the foundation's website.

• 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.

Also on August 10:
1876: Alexander Graham Bell makes the world's first long-distance phone call, using a 13 kilometre line from a boot store in Paris Ont. to the Bell homestead in Brantford, Ont.
1990: Canada announces it will send two destroyers, a supply ship and 800 sailors to the Persian Gulf as part of a multinational force massing to force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. HMCS Terra Nova, Athabaskan and Protecteur are given orders to sail within a week.
Medium: Television
Program: Outlook
Broadcast Date: Sept. 25, 1960
Guest(s): Davie Fulton, R.E. Megarry, Fred Rodell
Host: Arnold Edinborough
Duration: 10:22
Photo: National Archives of Canada

Last updated: July 22, 2014

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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