CCLA fights for the civil liberties, human rights, and democratic freedoms of all people across Canada. Founded in 1964, we are an independent, national, nongovernmental organization, working in the courts, before legislative committees, in the classrooms, and in the streets, protecting the rights and freedoms cherished by Canadians and entrenched in our Constitution.
For over 50 years, CCLA has been Canada’s national civil liberties organisation. Working with dedicated pro-bono lawyers from across the country, CCLA has intervened in courts at all levels, been vocal in the press and broadcast media, and advocated strategically and effectively to protect the rights and freedoms of all persons in Canada. CCLA has been at the forefront of all of the cutting edge civil liberties debates since our founding in 1964. CCLA has been a leader in protecting rights, and has earned widespread respect for its principled stand on such issues as national security, censorship, capital punishment, and police and state accountability.
The history of CCLA is the history of the Canadian civil liberties movement itself. In 1964 a group of citizens, who were alarmed by a proposal of the Ontario government to drastically increase police powers saw a need for an ongoing watchdog group to guard against threats to democratic rights. The bill was eventually withdrawn after extensive protest and CCLA was born. (Read the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s Constitution here.)
From a small office in downtown Toronto, CCLA’s staff organized court interventions, presentations of briefs to legislative committees, rallies and demonstrations, and a program to educate students on the value of civil liberties. CCLA cut its teeth on one of the most severe restrictions of liberty in Canadian history, the invocation of the War Measures Act during the Quebec crisis of 1970. CCLA was one of the few groups to protest against the imposition of martial law and the unlawful arrest of hundreds of Canadians. CCLA’s stand and analysis on rights, freedoms, and lessons learned during the FLQ crisis remains relevant in the post 9/11 era.
CCLA’s early fights spanned such issues as religious instruction in the public schools and the push for independent investigation of complaints against police forces, which is still an important issue decades later. CCLA was also active in publicizing the difficulties of citizens seeking access to justice.
In the 1970s, CCLA became one of the first groups to document the under-representation of visible minority groups in parts of the job market. In one of the Association’s most 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, setting 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 wire-tapped by police should be informed of the fact once the surveillance has ended.Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, CCLA spoke 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 (CSIS). CCLA has consistently upheld the right of Canadians to associate freely and dissent politically without unwarranted surveillance and harassment from the authorities.
CCLA has long been an advocate for freedom of speech even when the speech has been deplorable, and has engaged with speech issues ranging 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 regardless of the merits of the speech in question.
CCLA has spent its energy and resources on promoting equality and non-discrimination while also pushing for freedoms. As former General Counsel Alan Borovoy has said, “I think we have raised the consciousness of government and citizens to the centrality of civil liberties in Canadian democracy.”
A meticulously detailed and engaging account of CCLA’s history is contained in Acting for Freedom: Fifty Years of Civil Liberties in Canada. This book, written by Marian Botsford Fraser with Sukanya Pillay and Kent Roach, documents CCLA’s five decades working to protect the democratic rights of Canadian, and looks ahead to the next 50 years as we carry on the fight.
In its half century at the forefront of the fight for civil liberties, CCLA has had three talented and passionate leaders. A. Alan Borovoy, joined CCLA in 1968 and served as the public and very outspoken face of CCLA for forty years before retiring as General Counsel in 2009. His contributions are too numerable to list, as his work laid the foundations for the strong and active organisation the CCLA is today. Borovoy, however, is the first to note that the work of CCLA never ends: fundamental liberties must always be defended because there are so many temptations to restrict them.
In 2009 Nathalie Des Rosiers took over leadership of CCLA. “The work of a watchdog such as the CCLA,” Des Rosiers stated, “is to maintain its vigilance to ensure that our democracy continues to function and that abuses of power are denounced and stopped.” During her tenure, CCLA worked towards the aim of building a vibrant and strong culture of human rights and civil liberties, where the promises of law are realized, are lived and not only written. She ensured CCLA had monitors on the ground during the 2010 G20 mass arrests and led the organization’s groundbreaking accountability campaigns which continue to this day.
After joining CCLA in 2009 as the Director of the National Security Program, Sukanya Pillay became General Counsel and Executive Director in February 2014. Sukanya has a proven track record of leadership at CCLA and in similar organizations, and a thorough understanding of the civil liberties challenges facing Canada today. Her extensive experience in Canadian and international legal jurisdictions has been instrumental in responding to Canada’s national security bills, and in ensuring Canada’s binding international legal commitments are met. Under her, CCLA has launched cases fighting for the privacy rights of Canadians by challenging PIPEDA, fighting to end the practice of segregation in prisons by challenging CRC, and fighting for state accountability. Sukanya and Nathalie began the CCLA annual civil liberties awards in 2011.
In 2015 and beyond CCLA will continue 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. From our PIPEDA challenge to protect Canadian’s privacy rights, to our work on right to bail and segregation; from our stand for equality for LGBTQ persons, to our interventions in the debate over national security legislation, to our vibrant education program, CCLA continues to passionately and effectively defend the liberties that define Canada.
CCLA has primarily been backed financially only by its members, supporters, and non-governmental . It has neither sought nor received any government money.
Over the years, CCLA has drawn some of Canada’s most well-known names in law, journalism, politics, the arts, labour, business and beyond as members and supporters. 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. Current board members, led by our current president, Richard Pound, and our Chair John D. McCamus, include lawyers, authors, filmmakers, journalists, and academics from across the country, who bring a wealth of experience and a range of perspectives to our organisation’s work.
CCLA also reaches out to the community to recognise the contributions of visionaries who are leading the way towards a fair, free and democratic future through our Human Rights Awards, presented annually at a gala event. Pasts recipients have included Lawrence Hill, Robert Lepage, Michael H. Posner, the Very Rev. Lois Wilson, Alex Neve, Deepa Mehta, Rohinton Mistry, Roberta Bondar, Irwin Cotler, and Tina Keeper. The complete list of our honorees may be viewed here.