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Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University's objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide.

Price: $35.00

Hardback 304 pp.
6" x 9"



Publication date:
November 2013

Imprint: OUP Canada

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Taking Liberties

A History of Human Rights in Canada

David Goutor and Stephen Heathorn

Universal human rights are considered to be a fundamental, inalienable aspect of Canadian legal culture, not to mention central to our international positioning. However the reality is that Canada was surprisingly slow to adopt the rights revolution that followed the Second World War, given concerns that existing norms and liberties could conflict with these new universal rights. Moreover, even when Canada did sign up, these rights were not all automatically put into practice. Nor, interestingly, did all groups embrace these rights.

Human rights, as we know, did become entrenched. There have been challenges to and changes in the legal framework of citizenship in Canada. But this has followed a long process of transformation, and many groups have faced tremendous struggle to get their rights claims recognized. This collection sheds new lights on the bumpy road toward universal human rights in our diverse and complex country. Topics include sexual rights, children's rights, "race" and multiculturalism, and class. A landmark essay by J.R. Miller explores the rights of Aboriginal peoples from the 1876 Indian Act to the repeal of Section 67 in the Canadian Human Rights Act in 2011. Also considered is the central role of rights activists - often struggling in the face of widespread hostility - to secure protection for their rights. A highly insightful, original foreword by Michael Ignatieff is based on a very well-received public lecture in response to the chapters written for this volume.

New research in the growing new field of human rights history explores the novelty of, the struggle for, and the limitations of, the new rights regime, and its uneven application across Canadian society.

Readership : The market for this volume includes the disciplines of history, political science, legal studies, and sociology. There are a growing number of teaching and research institutes and dedicated programs in human rights at Canadian universities that include historical content.


  • "A path-breaking collection of historical essays."

    --Michael Ignatieff

Michael Ignatieff: Foreword
Stephen Heathorn and David Goutor: Introduction
1. James E. St.G. Walker: Decoding the Rights Revolution: Lessons from the Canadian Experience
2. Bonny Ibhawoh: Where Do We Begin? Human Rights, Public History, and the Challenge of Conceptualization
3. Dominique Clément: The Rights Revolution in Canada and Australia: International Politics, Social Movements, and Domestic Law
4. Stephanie Bangarth: "Their Equality Is My Equality": F. Andrew Brewin and Human Rights Activism, 1940s-1970s
5. Ruth A. Frager and Carmela Patrias: Transnational Links and Citizens' Rights: Canadian Jewish Human Rights Activists and Their American Allies in the 1940s and 1950s
6. Jennifer Tunnicliffe: A Limited Vision: Canadian Participation in the Adoption of the International Covenants on Human Rights
7. Dominique Marshall: Children's Rights from Below: Canadian and Transnational Actions, Beliefs, and Discourses, 1900-1989
8. Miriam Smith: Social Movements and Human Rights: Gender, Sexuality, and the Charter in English-Speaking Canada
9. J.R. Miller: Human Rights for Some: First Nations Rights in Twentieth-Century Canada
William Schabas: Afterword: Rights, History, and Turning Points
Select Bibliography

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David Goutor is assistant professor in the School of Labour Studies at McMaster University, specializing in labour, immigration, and politics. He is the author of Guarding the Gates: The Canadian Labour Movement and Immigration, 1872-1934 (UBC Press, 2007) and a regular contributor to the Toronto Star.

Stephen Heathorn is professor in the Department of History at McMaster University, specializing in nineteenth- and twentieth-century British history. He is the author of For Home, Country, and Race: Gender, Class, and Englishness in the Elementary School, 1880-1914 (UTP, 2000) and Haig and Kitchener in Twentieth-Century Britain: Representation, Remembrance, and Appropriation (Ashgate, 2013).

Special Features

  • New and growing field of study. The ways in which universal declaration of human rights have become entrenched in particular countries is a growing field, with this new historical research at the forefront of scholarship.
  • Groundbreaking. First historical study of human rights in Canada to encompass law, politics, history, class, and labour relations.
  • Wide-ranging study. Experts explore a range of topics, including sexual rights, children's rights, and Aboriginal rights.
  • Landmark essay on Aboriginal rights. J.R. Miller's excellent contribution addresses the unique history of Aboriginal rights in Canada, exploring why First Nations peoples until recently have not used human rights discourse in their struggles for cultural recognition and in legal claims for land.
  • Universal concepts vs. local experience. While human rights are theoretically universal and inalienable, defining and operationalizing them in terms of local experience is messy and uneven.
  • Overturns common understanding. Canada is thought to be forward-looking in its human rights application; this study, however, reveals the highs and lows of slow and uneven progression.
  • Reveals the importance of establishing human rights. Not merely abstract ideals, rights have material consequences such as access to social services, benefits, housing, and employment opportunities.
  • Fascinating theoretical questions. From the definition of rights to indigenous societies that define rights as kinship-based rather than individual, this collection raises some of the key questions that have still to be settled in our legal discourse.
  • Comparative outlook. The context is the evolving discourse of rights in the English-speaking commonwealth world and includes comparisons with the UK, the US, and Australia.
  • Explores Canadian diversity. An excellent contribution to how diversity has been managed, and at times mismanaged, in Canada and how different groups have positioned themselves within the legal framework.
  • Preface by Michael Ignatieff. This highly insightful original and unpublished piece by the man who almost became our prime minister is based on a very well-received public lecture in response to the chapters written for this volume.
  • Afterword by William Schabas. A Canadian national, Schabas is an internationally respected expert on human rights and genocide.