Fighting Discrimination and Developing Human Rights Laws

Project Description


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Photographer: Jean-Marc Carisse©

Chief Justice Bora Laskin shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth II, with then
Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1982

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Justice Rosalie Abella, 2008

Courtesy of Supreme Court of Canada

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Courtesy of the Office of the Prime Minister

Announcing federal government participation and the national museum status for the Canadian Museum
for Human Rights, 2007.
Back Row L-R: David Asper, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Leonard Asper, Moses Levy, Gail Asper,
Ruth (Babs) Asper. Front Row L-R: Mayor Sam Katz, Minister of Canadian Heritage Bev Oda, Gary Doer,
Premier of Manitoba.

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Courtesy of the Asper Foundation

Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg, 2007

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Lea Roback, labour activist

Source: Jewish Public Library Archives, Montreal #pa015204

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Irwin Cotler (L) with Quebec Premier René Levesque, 1982

Source: Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives | Archives juives canadiennes Alex Dworkin

Fighting Discrimination and Developing Human Rights Laws

During the 1940s and 50s, Jewish individuals along with the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Jewish Labour Committee, led the fight against discrimination in housing, jobs and recreation. Activists such as Ben Kayfetz of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Kalmen Kaplansky, of the Canadian Labour Congress, and Léa Roback fought tirelessly to eliminate racial and religious discrimination in all areas of Canadian society, and particularly in the areas of employment, housing, and public accommodation.

All minority groups including Jews benefitted from new human rights laws and the creation of Human Rights Commissions that became part of Canada’s network of laws and values during the past 50 years. The first Chair of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, Tillie Taylor from Saskatoon, was a Jewish woman and long-time activist, appointed in 1972.

In 1970, Bora Laskin became the first Jewish judge on the Supreme Court (later promoted to Chief Justice). Laskin was renowned for upholding reforms to property equality in matrimonial law. Rosalie Abella, one of Canada’s top legal thinkers, developed the concept of “employment equity,” and in 2004, became the first Jewish woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada. She has served at different times with two other Jewish ‘supremes’, Morris Fish and Michael Moldaver.

In 2005, as federal Minister of Justice, Irwin Cotler, a leading international human rights activist, spearheaded the Civil Marriage Act which formally recognized marriage equality for gays and lesbians. Winnipeg’s David Matas has contributed to the field of human rights both in Canada and internationally, and has been an outspoken writer on Nazi war criminals residing in Canada. Stephen Lewis, Canada’s former Ambassador to the United Nations, has distinguished himself through his efforts to combat AIDS/HIV in Africa in the establishment of the Stephen Lewis Foundation. A generation of legal minds were deeply influenced by Maxwell Cohen, Dean of the McGill Law School and a brilliant jurist. Many Jewish lawyers have been strong advocates of human rights, particularly in criminal cases.

A major initiative to educate and study the broad field of human rights was led by Israel Asper, a former lawyer and founder of the CanWest Global Communication Corporation, his daughter Gail Asper, and Moses (Moe) Levy, CEO of The Asper Foundation, through the creation of Canada’s fifth National Museum based in Winnipeg, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Similarly, in Halifax, Ruth Goldbloom, a community activist and philanthropist, inspired the Canadian Museum of Immigration (Pier 21), now Canada’s sixth national museum, which is focused on the challenges and histories of newly arriving people.

Victor Goldbloom, a Montreal MD, served as CEO of the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews, where he did much to promote inter-faith dialogue and understanding. In 1991, he was appointed Commissioner of Official Languages, where he was quoted as saying, “I look around the world today and I see people fighting each other and pulling apart from one another because of religious or linguistic or ethnic or cultural differences, and I thank God for Canada.”

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