Skip to main content

Liberal MP Irwin Cotler stands during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, December 14, 2011.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Irwin Cotler, the inaugural winner of the Law Society of Upper Canada's human rights award, to be given to him Thursday in Toronto, has been a federal minister of justice, a Liberal Member of Parliament since 1999, a law professor and has provided counsel and support to political prisoners around the world. The 74-year-old Montrealer, a father of four and grandfather of seven, has announced he will not run in the next federal election. He spoke to The Globe and Mail's Sean Fine about his belief in the power of an individual to change a society.

Where did your pursuit of human rights come from?

My father taught me that the pursuit of justice was equal to all the other commandments combined. My mother would say, 'If you want to pursue justice, you have to feel the injustice about you.' Otherwise, the pursuit of justice would be a theoretical abstract. It would end up just being words.

What did your father do?

My father was a lawyer, but that's an understatement. He was a Renaissance jurist who never really made any money. His hero was Oliver Wendell Holmes, and he would always quote him: "A person who does not share in the actions and passions of his time is deemed not to have lived." That's something that helped propel me. I was fortunate that I had teachers that also nurtured me in the pursuit of justice – role models my father was friendly with, like A.M. Klein [a Montreal poet] and David Lewis [a federal New Democratic Party leader]. And teachers like Irving Layton [a Montreal poet], who taught me my entire secular studies course when I was going to Jewish day school. He would rail against injustice, like a jeremiad. In fact, he looked like the prophet Jeremiah.

What attracted you to working with political prisoners? I understand now you're working with Leopoldo Lopez of Venezuela, Raif Badawi of Saudi Arabia and Ayatollah Boroujerdi in Iran.

I was involved in the two great human rights struggles of the second half of the 20th century: the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and the struggle for Soviet Jewry. Through those struggles, I began to take up the cause of political prisoners, beginning with Anatoly Sharansky and Andrei Sakharov in the former Soviet Union. They are a looking-glass for the repression of their countries. They are often a kind of looking-glass into what life could be like if they would be liberated.

You were involved right from the beginning in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, I understand.

I appeared before the joint House-Senate committee considering a prospective rights charter in 1981, as part of three delegations.

What do you think of how the Charter worked out?

I agree with what chief justice Antonio Lamer [of the Supreme Court] said on the 10th anniversary of the Charter – that the Charter effected a legal revolution in Canada comparable to the discoveries of Pasteur in science. Moving from a Parliamentary democracy to a constitutional democracy, from the sovereignty of Parliament to the sovereignty of the Constitution, from judges being arbiters of legal federalism to the guarantors of human rights. And then the key thing, that individuals and groups were no longer passive objects of a constitutional process. They became rights holders, rights claimants that had standing to initiate justiciable claims. We never would have had a Civil Marriage Act giving equality to gays and lesbians in this country had we not had a Charter of Rights and Freedoms whereby gays and lesbians were able themselves to initiate those legal processes before the courts.

Why should unelected judges, rather than Parliamentarians, make decisions such as last week's on the right to a doctor-assisted death?

Let's face it, it was a Parliamentary enactment that invested in the courts the authority to make these judgments and be the guarantors of these rights. It was not as if the judges on their own usurped this power, and I think they've utilized it judiciously.

During the Maher Arar inquiry, you were minister of justice and you recused yourself. Why?

I had been involved as counsel on behalf of Maher Arar and his wife while he was being detained in Syria, and wrote and advocated on his behalf. On one occasion, I was a member of the foreign affairs committee, and I asked and received permission to appear as a witness in my capacity as a counsel. It was somewhat of an unusual move but it was permitted. When I was appointed minister of justice, one of the first acts we took as a government was to establish a commission of inquiry into Maher Arar. The deputy minister came to me and said I had to recuse myself because of my prior involvement as his counsel. I reluctantly took the advice and recused myself. But shortly thereafter, I began to realize there were a lot of cases in which I had been involved, and if I were to recuse myself, I wouldn't be able to function as the minister of justice.

Tell me about how you were detained in South Africa.

I went to South Africa in 1981. I was then the lawyer for Sharansky. I gave a talk sponsored by the students union and the University of the Witwatersrand: If Sharansky, why not Mandela? It was an offence to mention his name. I was briefly detained after the lecture, and then I was brought before the foreign minister, Pik Botha. He pointed to a picture on his wall and said, "Do you know who that is?" I said, Anatoly Sharansky. He said, "That's right. I could not understand how a person who takes up this great hero who is fighting our common enemy can also take up the case of Nelson Mandela, who is a Commie, etcetera etcetera." I answered by saying, "As far as I'm concerned, the cases of Mandela and Sharansky are the same."

What are you most proud of?

On the international level, I'm probably most proud of what modest involvement I had in the struggles against apartheid and for Soviet Jewry, and representing the political prisoners involved in those struggles. On the domestic side, probably my own very modest involvement in the Charter. And humbled and moved by the thing I'll never forget, when [prime minister] Paul Martin not only appointed me minister of justice and attorney-general, but allowed me to, in fact, be the minister of justice and attorney-general, whether it be reforming the judicial appointment process or in the appointment itself of judges.

What are you going to do after the election?

I've always had a dream to establish a Raoul Wallenberg centre for international justice, named after Canada's first honorary citizen, which would be a unique international consortium of parliamentarians, scholars, jurists, human rights defenders, NGOs and students united in the pursuit of justice, and anchored in and inspired by Wallenberg's humanitarian legacy.

This interview has been edited and condensed

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe