Canada’s glory, Canada’s shame

Before you mail a letter this month, stop and check the portrait of the modest Canadian, John Humphrey, on the 45-cent stamp. Behind the portrait lies a story of Canada’s glory — and Canada’s shame.

Humphrey, a New Brunswick-born law professor, was the author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 50th anniversary of which is being celebrated on Dec. 10.

For years, a French diplomat, Rene Cassin, received credit for writing the first draft, and it was only in 1988 that a McGill University librarian, John Hobbins, discovered the original first draft. Lo and behold it was in the handwriting of Humphrey, the first director of the human rights division at the United Nations.

Ottawa, full of self-congratulations over Humphrey’s role, has issued the commemorative stamp, and his widow (Humphrey died in 1995, aged 89), Dr. Margaret Kunstler Humphrey, was honoured with an introduction to Nelson Mandela on the South African president’s recent visit to Canada.

But law professor William Schabas, using recently released cabinet and external affairs documents, has just revealed an altogether darker, not to say disreputable, side to the part Canada played in theeclaration approval process.

Canada abstained in one crucial UN committee vote on the declaration, and the presiding St. Laurent government explained it was over concerns about ‘provincial jurisdiction.’ That, says Schabas, who teaches at the University of Quéec in Montréal, is false. The real reason was the St. Laurent cabinet was concerned the declaration would tie its hands in depriving human rights to Canadians of Japanese descent, alleged communists and Jehova’s Witnesses.

"There was really something rotten in the cabinet in 1948," Schabas told CARPNews, citing ‘shocking violations of human rights." As late as March 1948, the cabinet renewed provisions denying Canadians of Japanese descent the right to vote (they had only recently been released from wartime internment), and these limitations did not expire until 1949.

Following the revelations of former Soviet spy Igor Gouzenko, a number of Canadian communists were, to use today’s Third World phrase, ‘disappeared’ — arrested and held in secret for months. In addition, Jehovah’s Witnesses were subject to persecution in Québec.

In a handwritten note from the time, Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent expresses his reservations about the freedoms of expression, assembly and religion embodied in the declaration. Schabas says he found these views disturbing when Canada’s allies, Britain and the U.S., were all in favour of the declaration. To their credit, some Ottawa politicians, like Tory John Diefenbaker, were firmly in favour of the declaration.

McGill librarian Hobbins speculates it might have been the prospect of lining up with opponents of freedom like the Soviet Union and South Africa that finally shamed the St. Laurent government into voting for the declaration.

Canada’s one shining moment, albeit concealed for years, was Humphrey’s role in penning the declaration. Although Humphrey claimed credit in his autobiography, little attention was paid until Hobbins discovered the original, with the author’s own corrections, in Humphrey’s papers at the library.