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Archival clip – John Peters Humphrey
I suppose the most important decision that I took was the decision to include to economic and social rights in the draft Declaration. You know, 1948, economic and social rights were considered as being pure socialism

Angela Misri: That’s the voice of Canadian lawyer John Peters Humphrey. In 1947, Humphrey worked with other members of the Commission on Human Rights to write the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On December 10, 1948, it was adopted by the UN General Assembly in Paris. It’s been over 75 years since this definitive moment…one in which world leaders pledged to do everything in their power to prevent the horrors of World War Two from happening again. The Declaration consists of 30 Articles declaring everyone’s equal rights, including those of life, liberty, freedom of movement, and freedom of expression. While there’s a lot to celebrate on this anniversary, it’s also an opportunity to have an honest conversation about the current state of human rights…both around the world, and here at home.

Welcome to Canadian Time Machine, a podcast that unpacks key milestones in our country’s history. This podcast receives funding from the Government of Canada and is created by The Walrus Lab. I’m Angela Misri.

In today’s episode, human rights historian Dr. Jennifer Tunnicliffe will help us understand more about the impacts of the Declaration…one that’s been translated into over 500 languages and inspired over 70 human rights treaties at global and regional levels . But first, an Indigenous leader and land defender will share his thoughts on Canada’s approach to human rights.

Chief Na’Moks: I am Hereditary Chief Na’Moks of the Wet’suwet’en Nation. I am a Hereditary chief, not an elected chief. The name that I carry is thousands of years old, and it has been in our bloodline for that long. And we look after 22,000 square kilometres of unceded, undefeated territory.
Angela Misri: Last November, Chief Na’Moks travelled to the United Nations in Geneva with a delegation from Amnesty International Canada. They went for Canada’s Universal Periodic Review, or UPR. It’s a process the country goes through approximately four and a half years, and it requires Canada to report on the actions it’s taken to improve human rights in the country since its last review. Canada then receives recommendations from other UN Member States. Some civil society groups — like Amnesty International — also submit reports with their own recommendations to the UN. Amnesty’s report is extremely personal to Chief Na’Moks because it calls out the government for criminalizing land defenders on Wet’suwet’en territory.

Chief Na’Moks: We’ve never signed a treaty. We’ve never signed any form of agreement stating that we are not the authority on the land. We also went to court and on, uh, December 11th, 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada stated the exact same thing, that we exist, that we have never ceded nor surrendered, and that we are to be reckoned with.

Angela Misri: Amnesty International reports that since 2019, the RCMP has arrested and detained more than 80 people — including Hereditary Chiefs, matriarchs, and legal observers — for protesting the construction of the Coastal GasLink Pipeline, which divides the territory in two.

Chief Na’Moks: They had put an injunction in and saying we were not allowed on our territory in certain areas. And if we cross it, we would be charged and put in jail. So a number of our people and our supporters over the years have been charged and they put restrictions on them because, you know, they do put in, put an injunction and they’re stating, well, ‘do not enter here, whether it’s your territory or not, we’re more important.’ And this project is far too important. And so they arrest our people, they remove them, they lock them up. And that’s another reason why I went to the UPR is because of the human rights abuses of the arrests, the amount of violence that our people and our supporters have had to face.

Angela Misri: Coastal GasLink has said that the project is fully permitted by the government and has the support of all the elected band councils affected by it. But Wet’suwet’en Hereditary chiefs say band councils do not have the authority over land beyond reserve boundaries, because their authority comes only from the Indian Act. According to Amnesty International, The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has now sent three letters to the government of Canada asking it to cease construction of the TransMountain and Coastal GasLink pipelines until free, prior, informed consent is obtained. The letters also ask the government to investigate allegations of surveillance, arbitrary detention, and excessive use of force against defenders by RCMP and private security firms.” But Canada has yet to implement their recommendations. It was thus unsurprising for Chief Na’Moks [nah-MOX] to hear what Canada had to say during its latest UPR presentation.

Chief Na’Moks: They have a script, they’ve stuck to it for a very long time. We knew exactly what they were going to say. I was asked previously to me going, what would I expect? I said, ‘I have set a very low bar. And I don’t expect Canada to exceed that bar.’ And I was right.. They talked about reports, murdered missing women, uh, Indigenous rights, human rights, um, the reports they’ve done, and the recommendations that were put forward by the United Nations previously.

Angela Misri: Chief Na’Moks’ hopes that the recent UPR serves as a wake up call to others about Canada’s human rights track record … particularly as it pertains to the treatment of Indigenous peoples.

Chief Na’Moks: The world has to know that Canada is not this great place to be put on a pedestal to look up to for human rights, because it is not currently happening. And if you think about residential schools, which my late mother went to, you think about the scoop of the 60s. Where’s the humanity in this country?

Angela Misri: Many thanks to Chief Na’Moks for sharing his experiences and perspectives with us. I’d now like to welcome Dr. Jennifer Tunnicliffe. She’s a human rights historian with a particular interest in how domestic and transnational activism shapes cultural attitudes and legislative approaches to rights and freedoms. She’s also an Assistant Professor at Toronto Metropolitan University. Welcome, Dr. Tunnicliffe.

Dr. Jennifer Tunnicliffe: Thank you for having me.

Angela Misri: Well, it’s wonderful to have you here. So, I’d like to ask you about Canada’s contributions to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But first, can you please share any thoughts you might have with regards to what Chief Na’Moks told us about the treatment of land offenders on Wet’suwet’en Territory?

Dr. Jennifer Tunnicliffe: Sure. I think that he has a very important message and I have a lot of respect for both his words and for his actions when it comes to calling the Canadian government, um, to task a little for its history in regards to, uh, the promotion and protection of, of human rights. I think that the message that he’s getting across is important because we need, as Canadians, to be aware that the history of Canada in regards to human rights, both in Canada and internationally, is not what we think that it is, and that that bleeds over into our present day treatment, in this case, specifically of Indigenous populations.
And also, I think that his message showcases another important aspect of our history, and that is the tremendous history we have of Indigenous individuals in groups going to international organizations and demanding that the international community also think about issues of sovereignty when it comes to Indigenous populations, and also think about Canada and its legislation in regards to Indigenous populations.
So for those reasons, I think his message is really important.

Angela Misri: And I understand that Canada is also a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. So what is that relationship between this declaration and the Declaration of Human Rights?

Dr. Jennifer Tunnicliffe: Yeah, it’s complicated. The UN Declaration of Human Rights was the first of the UN’s human rights instruments.
It was adopted in 1948, right after the end of the Second World War, and it, along with the two international covenants on human rights, make up what’s referred to as our International Bill of Rights. Those are the foundation of what we would consider to be international human rights law. And from those have emerged a number of different other declarations, covenants, and conventions that relate either to rights in specific contexts around specific groups, such as women, or children, or refugees, or specific geographic regions, such as Africa.

And so here in the late 70s and 80s, there was a push to develop an instrument that would reflect Indigenous rights. So, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples asserts that Indigenous populations, First Peoples, have both the human rights that we all have by the nature of the fact that we’re human, but there are other inherent rights in their history.

So these are treaty rights and other traditional rights and, and issues around self determination and sovereignty. And so it is building off of the foundational documents like the UDHR, but expressing this in specifically light of the needs of Indigenous populations.

Angela Misri: So just so I understand how things lead from one to the other, so foundational you mean that it’s, does it apply to us? Does it apply to Canada? The UDHR?

Dr. Jennifer Tunnicliffe: It’s complicated, again, by the fact that the UN has different types of instruments. So a declaration is a statement in principle. It’s an aspirational document. And so countries will vote either to support, oppose, or abstain from the document. And then, you know, they will become in what we might refer to as signatories of the document, but they’re not legally binding documents. And so they don’t need to be brought back to a home country and ratified. And so that’s all to say that when it comes to things like the Declaration, it is an aspirational document for the world, and whether a country supported it, or didn’t support it as something that’s noted and that’s talked about and that is used to try to influence that country to try to uphold the principles or the articles in that declaration.

But we don’t, we’re not signatories to it in the way that it’s not legally binding on us. And, and so, you know, that’s, you know, that’s the nature of the United Nations and international law.

Angela Misri: So let’s go back to the origins of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I understand that a Canadian lawyer, John Humphrey, was instrumental in writing that declaration. Can you tell us more, a little more about this, about Canada’s involvement?

Dr. Jennifer Tunnicliffe: Sure. So John Peters Humphrey was a lawyer and a, legal scholar and a professor at McGill University who, after the Second World War, was invited to join the United Nations to work for the United Nations as their first director of human rights, which he did.
And in that capacity, he sat on the United Nations Commission of Human Rights that was developed in 1946, and that was tasked with drafting the United Nations first human rights instruments. And so, John Peters Humphrey helped to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, at the McGill Archives in Montreal, you can find the very first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in John Humphrey’s handwriting. And he worked with the other members of the UN Commission on Human Rights, members like Eleanor Roosevelt, or Charles Malik, or René Cassin who all represented different countries that were sitting on the commission, that were there to decide what would be in this document so they could present it more broadly to members of the United Nations. John Humphrey worked for the United Nations, so he wasn’t the Canadian representative. In fact, he wasn’t privy to, or even part of, the Canadian government’s policy toward the UDHR, which is very important. And it’s important because he was an extreme, he was extremely supportive of the idea of international human rights.

And he worked at the United Nations for 20 years, long beyond the UDHR, working in the field of human rights, and he was an advocate internationally and at home for strong promotion of UN documents. But the Canadian government’s history with this document is actually very different. The Canadian government wasn’t supportive in the 1940s of international human rights.

Yet, John Humphrey’s role in the drafting of the UDHR has, is now used as evidence of Canada’s central role in the development of that document, which really is a, um, it isn’t an accurate portrayal of the history of Canada’s role.

Angela Misri: Because John Humphrey was basically a Canadian who was tapped by the UN to work on this document.

Dr. Jennifer Tunnicliffe: Absolutely. He worked for the UN and in his diaries, which are also at the McGill University archives and actually have been published as well, in his diaries you can see his reaction to the way in which the Canadian government and other governments respond to and how they vote uh, in regards to the UDHR. And you can see that he’s, he’s worked, he’s, it’s in his capacity as a strong advocate and someone who works for the UN, not as a representative of the Canadian government.

Angela: We found this clip of John Peters Humphrey discussing this with Peter Gzowski on CBC Radio in 1992. Have a listen:

Archival Clip – CBC:
Peter Gzowski: Where was Canada on its support of the Declaration altogether? We abstained on that vote. John Peters Humphrey: Could hardly have been more negative! I know when I say this it doesn’t make me very popular in Ottawa.

Angela Misri: But going back to that question we left on the table, why was the Canadian government not in support of it initially?

Dr. Jennifer Tunnicliffe: So. It’s important to understand that Canada’s history, Canada’s tradition when it comes to law generally comes from the British tradition, which tends to support unwritten laws. So we don’t have a history in Canada of the codification of rights and freedoms.

If you look at the British North America Act, which helped to create the Dominion of Canada in 1867, you won’t see, for example, a bill of rights in that document. In fact, rights are very rarely mentioned. And so if we fast forward to the period of the 1930s and 1940s, there’s very little legislation in Canada that explicitly protects people from discrimination in this time period.

So the Canadian government was nervous about international laws around human rights that might conflict with the Canadian tradition, and that might also demonstrate the extent to which the Canadian government wasn’t practicing or upholding these rights.

And so, you know, I’ve looked at the exchange, the communication, between different, uh, policy makers in Ottawa in this time period. And they’re very aware, for example, that immigration policy, uh, voting policies, some policies around, uh, property ownership, rights around immigration. you know, Indigenous populations, that these would go against some of the articles that were proposed, the very expansive idea of universal human rights that was coming through the UDHR.

And so for that reason, the government was very hesitant to support it. But the official reason why the government said that they didn’t support the UDHR was because as a federal state, because some of the articles in the UDHR fell under provincial jurisdiction, that they couldn’t commit to those.

Although there are many federal governments, uh, in the UN that didn’t have those issues, that was the official justification given by the government. However, if you look at the documentation, you can see that policymakers were very nervous about this expansive definition of universal human rights and how that might reflect on Canada.

And so they decided in 1948 to abstain. They didn’t outright oppose, but they abstained from supporting the UDHR. In the initial votes on December 6th, there’s a vote in the general assembly of all nations, and Canada is one of only a handful of states that choose to abstain and not support the UDHR. And here I’m talking about the Soviet Union and its allies, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, countries with which Canada does not really want to be aligned. And so Lester Pearson, who at that point was the head of our Department of External Affairs, was at the United Nations, writes quickly to the government and says, you know, this is not a company that we want to be found in. I think we ought to change our position.

And in addition to that, the British and the American governments were very supportive of these documents, and they were putting a lot of pressure on Canada. And so. Canada changed its vote from December 6 to vote to support the UDHR on December 10th.

Angela Misri: It reminds me, there’s this uh, quote from the West Wing, I don’t know if you watch it, but um, it says we campaign in poetry and we, we govern in prose, and that reminds me a little bit of the UN’s ideals and idealistic views and then the prose that the Canadians were trying to work within because they knew they couldn’t meet some of these requirements that they would have to sign on to.

Dr. Jennifer Tunnicliffe: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And it demonstrates the, you know, the extent to which ideas about human rights and how we would articulate these are always deeply contested. And so when you read about the UDHR and the history of the UDHR, you will see a statement that says the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted unanimously by the United Nations in 1948.

And that’s misleading because, you know, there were a number of states that continued to abstain, even on the final vote. They didn’t vote in opposition, but they abstained. And there were a lot of questions and concerns around this document at the time. So it doesn’t really show the history of the way in which these ideas really were still in flux.
Angela Misri: And we still had residential schools at that point, correct?

Dr. Jennifer Tunnicliffe: Absolutely.

Angela Misri: What would you say the impact of the declaration has been on a global scale? I understand there’s been many pieces of legislation based on the declaration. Has this had a tangible effect on the people that the declaration set out to protect?

Dr. Jennifer Tunnicliffe: This is a great question. In fact, very similar to a question that I assigned to my students at the end of my course, where I asked them, given its history, what is the significance of the UDHR today? Their work… I hope they’re working on that project right now.

Angela Misri: They better not be listening and get any answer from you.

Dr. Jennifer Tunnicliffe: It’s a complicated question because if you actually look at the Declaration, if you look at the 30 articles and you read what it has to say, it’s very hard not to recognize the extent to which many people around the world don’t have access to those rights.

At the same time, I think we have to understand what the purpose of this document was. It was the UN’s very first human rights document. It was a declaration of principle, an aspirational document to which nations around the world ought to aspire. And so from that perspective, it has been used since 1948 to develop many other examples of human rights, uh, protections around the globe.

So. at the United Nations, I believe that the UN UDHR is the foundation of over 70 other human rights, covenants and declarations. And on a national scale, many nations around the world in their own constitutions or in their own human rights laws, either directly reference the principles of the UDHR or pull in and shape their document around these.

If you look, for example, at Canada’s own Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which didn’t come until 1982. If you look at that document and you put that document beside the, the, uh, UDHR, you’ll see striking similarities between the two. And you’ll recognize the way in which this document has had an influence on the way nations write their own documents.
And I think that we have to recognize the way in which rights and freedoms have changed since 1948. The way in which many people have had access to expanded rights, are able to enjoy rights and freedoms today that they weren’t able to enjoy previously. And we may not be able to draw a direct line between this and the UDHR, because many people see their own domestic –whether in Canada, it’s provincial or federal legislation — they see that as having more meaning. But in reality, if that is very affected by the UDHR, I think that we can say it has had a significant impact. And I think as well, the power of the UDHR is in the power of its message, of its aspiration, of its goal.

And so I think that it still remains extremely significant today. I mean, if you look around the world and we see all of the conflict that’s going on, we see the way in which rights themselves have become weapons that are used to justify the violation of rights. I think maybe more than ever, documents like the UDHR are important.

We could look back to these documents to help reaffirm our common humanity, to reassert the idea that all people, regardless of, you know, where they’re from or their different characteristics, have access to rights. And if we could use that to maybe reaffirm this, it may be a way forward for us. Because I think that to a certain extent, these days, the rhetoric of human rights has been lost a little.

It’s being used as a tool in a way that, um, that is not surprising, um, but something that we really need to think about and be critical about.

Angela Misri: You wrote a book called “Resisting Rights, Canada and the International Bill of Rights, 1947 – 76.” And I understand that it challenges the narrative of Canada as a historical advocate for international human rights, which we’ve talked about a bit.

But can you tell us more about the concept behind the book? Share some of the key takeaways.

Dr. Jennifer Tunnicliffe: Absolutely. Before I started working as a university professor, I was a high school teacher, and I taught about Canada and its history of human rights. When I went back to grad school, and I began to study and learn more about Canada’s opposition to the UDHR, and then later, It’s opposition to other human rights documents, I looked back at what I taught, and I wondered why the narrative was so strong that Canada has been a historic advocate for human rights. I mean, if you look at the current Canadian government’s website, you’ll see that it says that Canada has been consistently a strong voice in the protection of human rights, back to its central role in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

So I became really interested in this question of what was the history of Canada’s relationship to international human rights and how has the narrative developed. And what I found that I’ve already discussed is that Canada was opposed and very only reluctantly signed on to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that through the 1950s and 1960s, the Canadian government continued to oppose the development of the International Covenants on Human Rights.

And again, in 1966, really only decided to support those documents because they realize that with the growth of the United Nations and a broad support for the covenants that they would be adopted and that Canada did not want to be seen as a country that opposed them. But even when you look at the final votes for those documents, you can see continued resistance.

And so the one thrust of the book is tracing this history and demonstrating that this comes out of a history in Canada, a legal tradition in Canada that didn’t really support human rights and a history in Canada in which many different groups were discriminated against for a lot of different reasons.

And then I look at the sort of transition and my argument is that If you want to look for why Canada changed its position, you can look at the influence of the international community, but you also have to look at the growth in Canada of human rights activism, grassroots individuals and groups who increasingly from the 40s to the 60s and 70s began to really pressure the Canadian government. Write letters, have campaigns to push for better human rights protections in Canada and began to expect the Canadian government to be supporting and respecting international human rights.

And so, you know, there’s two main arguments to the book. One is that Canada has not been a leader in the history of international human rights, and that where the real push for the expansion of human rights in Canada comes from is from grassroots activism and people, a lot of people who were experiencing discrimination and who didn’t have rights or who were oppressed.

Angela Misri: You know, if you just look at the recent history, you think we’re so, you know, on the ball and so ahead, and, uh, you just have to look back 20 years.

Dr. Jennifer Tunnicliffe: Absolutely, and I can remember when Stephen Harper’s government was in power, and in 2007, you referenced earlier the, the UN declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Canadian government actually opposed that declaration when it first came to the United Nations in 2007. So not just abstaining, but they opposed, along with the United States, New Zealand, Australia, settler uh, colonies that had a history of settler colonialism. They opposed it, and there was a lot of pressure on the Harper government, and it did eventually move to support that document.

But if you look at the arguments that the Harper government used in 2007, they’re strikingly similar to the same arguments that were used in 1948. And so I think it’s really useful for us to recognize, at the time, that was promoted as being very out of step with Canada’s longer history of support for human rights.

Even human rights organizations like Amnesty talked about how that government wasn’t respecting Canada’s longer history as an advocate for international human rights. But I would argue that actually that was quite in step with Canada’s history, and that many of the same arguments were used in 1948.

They were used in 2007. And then even today, when we look at things like the periodic reviews that the United Nations does of countries, when they come back and they point out the, the many policies that exist, particularly relating to Indigenous populations in Canada that don’t meet the, the global standards.

We still have this argument about we’re a federal nation and we have provincial and federal jurisdictional issues to think about and therefore it makes us harder to deal with these documents. I mean, it’s the same argument. So I think the history really demonstrates that this is something that have been a longstanding excuse for the government to justify its resistance to these documents.

Angela Misri: Thank you so much for your time, Dr. Tunnicliffe.

Dr. Jennifer Tunnicliffe: Oh, you’re very welcome. Thank you for having me.

Angela Misri: Thank you for listening to Canadian Time Machine. This podcast receives funding from the Government of Canada and is created by the Walrus Lab. The archival audio clips in this episode are courtesy of CBC licensing. Like all our episodes, the transcripts will be available in both English and French. To read the transcripts, please visit

This episode was produced by Caro Rolando and edited by Nathara Imenes. Amanda Cupido is the executive producer.

Teaser Clip – PEI Episode – Dr. Edward MacDonald
There’s a mythology, well it’s not quite a mythology because it’s partly true, that we conceived our nation in a haze of intoxication. Um, And that literally isn’t true. Probably we were hungover when we did it. But the Canadians, uh, brought down supplies, champagne and, and all kinds of foods. And the Islanders were very, very fine hosts.

Angela Misri: That’s next time on Canadian Time Machine. For more stories about historic Canadian milestones, visit

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