The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is a national organization that was constituted to promote respect for and observance of fundamental human rights and civil liberties, and to defend, extend, and foster recognition of these rights and liberties.
The fight against abuse of state authority has not always won popularity contests for CCLA, but the Association has been a leader in protecting our fundamental freedoms, and has earned widespread respect for its principled stands on such issues as censorship, capital punishment, and police powers.
The Association is sustained by several thousand paid supporters drawn from all walks of life.
CCLA was formed in 1964 by a group of citizens, primarily based in Toronto, who were alarmed about a proposal by the Ontario government to drastically increase police powers. While the police bill was withdrawn after extensive protest, civil libertarians saw a need for an ongoing watchdog group to guard against threats to democratic rights. (Read the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s Constitution here.)
While CCLA has operated with a volunteer board of directors made up of prominent citizens, its chief public spokesperson from 1968 to July 2009 has been lawyer Alan Borovoy. From a small office in downtown Toronto, Borovoy and the rest of CCLA’s small staff have organized court interventions, presentations of briefs to legislative committees, and rallies, as well as a program to educate students on the value of civil liberties. “Our strategy has always been to raise hell without breaking the law,” Borovoy often said.
Within a few years of its founding, CCLA spoke out vigourously against one of the most severe restrictions of liberty in Canadian history, the invocation of the War Measures Act during the Quebec crisis of 1970. At the time, CCLA was one of the few groups to protest against the imposition of martial law and the arrest of hundreds of Canadians even though no charges were laid against them.
Other early campaigns by CCLA included the fight against religious instruction in the public schools, and the push for independent investigation of complaints against police forces, an issue that is still alive today. CCLA was also active in publicizing the difficulties accused citizens were having consulting lawyers.
In the 1970s, CCLA became more active on human rights related questions, and was one of the first groups to document under-representation of visible minority groups in parts of the job market. In one of the Association’s more well publicized actions, CCLA activists called employment agencies posing as employers but specifying they wanted only white workers. Such surveys found a widespread willingness to discriminate. Its unique research enabled CCLA to document its argument that existing human rights legislation was not strong enough. This set the stage for the ensuing employment equity campaigns.
In its early years, the Association challenged the infamous “spouse in the house rule” that treated women welfare recipients unfairly. CCLA was also the first group to propose that citizens who had been wiretapped by police should be informed of the fact once the bugging has ended.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, CCLA was one of the most prominent groups speaking out against “dirty tricks” and other wrongdoings by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and against excesses in the government’s legislation creating the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. CCLA has consistently upheld the right of Canadians to associate freely and dissent politically without unwarranted surveillance and harassment from the authorities.
Restrictions on freedom of speech have often drawn CCLA’s attention – from movie censorship to obscenity laws and banning of hate propaganda, to university speech codes and curtailment of picketing. In courts and at legislative committees, CCLA has fought for the right of Canadians to express themselves freely, even if the thoughts and opinions being expressed are offensive to most.
CCLA is proud of the contribution it has made in pushing for freedoms while at the same time promoting equality and non-discrimination. “I think we have raised the consciousness of government and citizens to the centrality of civil liberties in Canadian democracy,” Borovoy said.
The Road Ahead
While CCLA has accomplished a great deal, our work is far from complete. As Borovoy notes, fundamental liberties must always be defended because there are so many temptations to restrict them. “If we lose our freedoms in this country, the job will be done to us not by malevolent autocrats seeking to do bad but by parochial bureaucrats seeking to do good,” Borovoy said.
In 2009, Nathalie Des Rosiers became CCLA’s General Counsel. ” The work of a watchdog such as the CCLA is to maintain its vigilance to ensure that our democracy continues to function and that abuses of power are denounced and stopped,” Des Rosiers says.
CCLA continues to focus on its four programs – fundamental freedoms, public safety, national security, and equality – while remaining agile enough to respond to noteworthy and timely issues that involve an interplay of these key areas. As our expertise deepens and our various strategies are honed, CCLA will continue to passionately and effectively defend the liberties that define Canada.
CCLA has always been backed financially only by its members and supporters. It has neither sought nor received any government money.
Over the years, active CCLA members have included some of Canada’s most well-known names in law, journalism, politics, the arts, labour, business and other fields. Our founding president was former Ontario judge and Lieutenant-Governor J. Keiller MacKay, and early activists included prominent journalists Pierre Berton, June Callwood and Barbara Frum. Political leaders such as Allan Blakeney and Dalton Camp have been active, as have top names in the legal field, such as Louise Arbour and Edward Greenspan. (Read more about our board and our supporters.)