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Saskatchewan Bill of Rights

In 1947, a year before the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Saskatchewan passed into law a bill of rights which was, and continues to be, unique. The Saskatchewan Bill of Rights covered both fundamental freedoms and equality rights. In the first category, section 3 protected freedom of conscience, opinion and religion. Section 4 protected freedom of expression. Section 5 protected peaceable assembly and association. Section 6 protected against arbitrary arrest and detention. The second category prohibited discrimination in employment (section 8), occupations and businesses (section 9), property (section 10), accommodation and services (section 11), and professional associations and unions (section 12).

The first category of the Saskatchewan Bill of Rights broke new ground in Canada as it protected civil libertarian values. And to this day it is the only legislation in Canada to extend this protection from abuse by powerful private institutions and persons. The explanation for these two important contributions to Canadian civil liberties law lies in the biography and ideology of Premier T.C. Douglas. As a teenager Douglas moved with his family to Winnipeg in 1919. That same year, he witnessed the actions of the police in suppressing the Winnipeg General Strike: on June 21, 1919, from a rooftop vantage point on Main Street, Douglas witnessed Mounties charging the strikers with clubs and guns, a streetcar being overturned and set on fire, and a man being shot. In 1930, he moved to Weyburn following his ordination as a Baptist minister; a year later, he saw some workers, wounded by bullets shot by the police, brought to Weyburn from the coal workers riot in Estevan. On July 2, 1935, as a Co-operative Commomwealth Federation (CCF) candidate in a federal by-election, Douglas came to Regina to deliver a radio broadcast and learned about what had occurred in the Regina Riot of the previous day. He went to see an old friend, Dr. Hugh Maclean, who told him that for hours he had been kept busy extracting RCMP bullets from wounded young On-to-Ottawa Trekkers. For nine years prior to becoming Premier, Douglas served as a member of Parliament for the Weyburn constituency. This was the heyday of fascism in Germany and Italy. As a member of Parliament, Douglas paid special attention to the abuses of these police states. He kept an ear out, when no one else might notice, for rumours from these places of secret arrests and midnight trials. In sum, Douglas brought to the premiership in 1944 strong interests and credentials as a civil libertarian: this is the very personal story behind the governmental decision to protect fundamental freedoms in the Saskatchewan Bill of Rights.

Extending the reach of this protection from abuse at the hands of private institutions and persons flows from the CCF philosophy that the individual is vulnerable to abuse at the hands of corporations and other powerful private actors, not just at the hands of the state, as traditional liberalism would have it. The justification for such a bill of fundamental freedoms from abuse by private actors is that no one argues that equality rights ought not to be applied to private actors. All human rights codes in Canada have as their main purpose protecting individuals from such discrimination in employment, housing, services, professions, and unions. The argument from the left is, Why should fundamental freedoms be regarded any differently?

Ken Norman

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Further Reading

McLeod, T.H. and I. McLeod. 1987. Tommy Douglas: The Road to Jerusalem. Edmonton: Hurtig; Remple, Ryan. 1991. “Fundamental Freedoms, Private Actors and the Saskatchewan Bill of Rights,” The Saskatchewan Law Review 55 (2): 263, 264, 273, 276 and 279; Shackleton, D.F. 1975. Tommy Douglas. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.
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