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Canadian Bill of Rights

Honourable senators, many Canadians misunderstand the life and legacy of the Right Honourable John Diefenbaker. John Diefenbaker was the foremost proponent of the fundamental rights of Canadians and the purest expression of his commitment to safeguard those rights occurred 52 years ago last Sunday.

On April 25, 1958, in a speech to the Canadian Congress of Labour, Prime Minister Diefenbaker vowed to champion a bill to define and enshrine the rights of Canadians in the law of the land. Mr. Diefenbaker fulfilled that promise two years later when Parliament proclaimed the Canadian Bill of Rights.

The essence of the Bill of Rights is captured in this pledge Mr. Diefenbaker made to all Canadians:

I am a Canadian, a free Canadian, free to speak without fear, free to worship God in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, free to choose those who shall govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and all mankind.

It sounds self-evident today, yet in 1950s Canada, the Bill of Rights was a remarkably farsighted achievement of a government to protect the vulnerable, embrace the excluded and expand opportunity for all. Mr. Diefenbaker performed such momentous actions as appointing the first Aboriginal person to the Senate, appointing the first woman to cabinet, ending discriminatory immigration quotas, granting the vote to status Indians and standing firm against institutionalized racism in South Africa.

The roots of Mr. Diefenbaker's commitment to justice can be traced to his days as a defence counsel in Saskatchewan. Many of his clients were victims of the abuses of authority.

This inclination toward recognizing and respecting universal rights heightened in the early months of the Cold War, when 14 Canadians were detained for secret interrogation. Imagine, a Star Chamber in Canada. That incident would spur John Diefenbaker to challenge Parliament to pass legislation to safeguard our fundamental freedoms, a challenge that Mr. Diefenbaker would one day meet with the Canadian Bill of Rights.