Skip to main content
from saturday's books section

Maxwell YaldenTom Hanson

For 20 years, Max Yalden was a familiar figure in Canadian news, first as the Commissioner of Official Languages (1977-1984) and then as head of the Canadian Human Rights Commission (1987-1996). In both positions, he issued annual reports that castigated the Canadian government for failing to live up to its own commitments in the spheres of bilingualism and anti-discrimination.

These "growlings" were perhaps the most visible moments of what has been a distinguished 50-year career in the public service, starting in the 1950s with international disarmament conferences and ending most recently with an eight-year stint as Canada's representative on the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

As the subtitle indicates, this career put Yalden at the front lines of some of the most important and innovative developments in recent Canadian political life. The period from the 1970s to the 1990s witnessed a "rights revolution" in all Western democracies, with strengthened equality rights for women, people with disabilities, and gays and lesbians. But in the Canadian case, this revolution in individual equality rights coincided with the call for minority or group rights, such as language rights for French Canadians, multiculturalism for immigrant-origin ethnic groups, and land claims or treaty rights for aboriginal peoples, all of which are now entrenched in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The result is a distinctively Canadian model of rights, which affirms both the fundamental equality of Canadian citizens and the need to recognize and accommodate group differences. In Yalden's view, this trajectory should be seen as a genuine achievement, worthy of our continued support. And while there is still much work to do, he has "no doubt we are on the right path."

If we are on the right path, it is at least partly due to the efforts of those such as Yalden, who worked tirelessly to defuse the fears and misunderstandings generated by the extension of rights. When early efforts at bilingualism generated howls of protest about "French being forced down our throats," it often fell to Yalden and his colleagues to patiently explain the actual workings of the law.

So, too, with the initial storms of protest around employment equity, or reasonable accommodation of people with disabilities, all of which are now taken in stride by most Canadians. If Yalden growled at governments for failing to exercise leadership, he also worked to soothe inflamed public opinion.

I suspect that Yalden has many interesting stories to tell about these battles, whether with disgruntled cabinet ministers, outraged citizens, disappointed activists, ill-informed media interviewers or, indeed, with his own fellow commissioners, who surely disagreed at times on matters of both principle and strategy. However, this book is not primarily a memoir, and Yalden makes no attempt to recreate the cut and thrust of life on the front line.

Instead, he steps back, and from the perspective of a 50-year career, asks how we are doing as a country. And he answers this question in the same methodical, low-key, common-sense way in which he wrote his annual reports. In the section on official languages, for example, he begins by breaking the question down into a series of more discrete topics: access to services, courts, schooling, media, language of workplace and so on.

His conclusion, over all, is that we have made remarkable progress compared with the situation in the 1960s, that this progress is irreversible, that the Official Languages Act is "one of the most successful pieces of societal legislation" in Canada, but that it is still far from being fully implemented, and that instead of a renewed political commitment we are now "resting comfortably on the oars."

Similarly, in his evaluation of our human-rights record, Yalden breaks the question down into different subfields: the status of women, homosexuals, people with disabilities, the elderly, ethnic and racial minorities, and aboriginal people. Here again, the overall conclusion is positive: "Few nations are as well endowed" with human-rights protection, there is "no going back" on these commitments, and while there are still gaps between the laws on paper and reality on the ground, "the machinery we need" is in place to fulfill these guarantees of equality rights, if only we had stronger political will to do so.

Yalden identifies one major exception to this generally positive story: aboriginal peoples. In his view, this is the "most shameful" aspect of our human-rights record, one that is of a "different order of magnitude" than the problems of discrimination or exclusion facing other groups. Even here, however, his recommendations are cautious: He rejects "immensely complicated global solutions," such as that envisaged by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, with its 440 recommendations to revise virtually every aspect of the legal and political order that affects aboriginal peoples. Here, as elsewhere, Yalden recommends modest, incremental steps, such as streamlining the land-claims process.

All in all, then, Yalden gives Canada a cautious passing grade: recognition for past achievements and encouragement to do better. Of course, this is more or less what one would expect. After all, he helped design the "machinery" of official languages and human rights in Canada, and conscientiously tended it for many years. He naturally wants Canadians to support this life work, and to make the best use of it.

But do we really have the machinery we need to deal with the human rights and diversity challenges of the 21st century? Yalden sometimes writes as if the rights revolution is essentially complete, at least at the level of constitutional principle and legal machinery, and the only task left is to better implement it. But one could argue that there are forms of injustice for which we need entirely new approaches, and new machinery. Aboriginal peoples are an obvious case.

But one could also think about the growing numbers of migrant workers in Canada, or the growing rates of child poverty. Or Canada's failure to address global poverty, or our limited response to the plight of the world's refugees. Are these not human-rights issues? Or, pushing even further, what about the right to a safe environment, or the rights of animals, millions of whom are enslaved and killed each year in Canada for human pleasure or profit?

The Trudeau era bequeathed us an immensely valuable legacy of rights, and much is owed to people such as Yalden who helped to shape it. But there may yet be other rights revolutions in our future, undreamed of by the architects of Trudeau's Just Society.

Will Kymlicka is the Canada Research Chair in Political Philosophy at Queen's University and the author of Multicultural Odysseys.