EDMONTON – There’s not much that seems to faze Alan Borovoy when it comes to his infallible belief in a person’s right to free speech in Canada.
Groups that bash gays, women or religious organizations may be repugnant, but democracies must allow them to speak freely, insists Borovoy, the general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association who will give a speech in Edmonton on Wednesday.
But even for a 40-year veteran of the civil liberties movement, the ideals of free speech can occasionally clash with the realities of one’s heart. For Borovoy, such a clash occurred when the CCLA defended Holocaust-denier Ernst Zundel’s right not to be muzzled.
“I was bothered by the number of Holocaust survivors I knew who would be hurt by what I was saying,” says Borovoy, 75.
“To know the things I was saying were so hurtful to people who had suffered so much already — that bothered me.”
But that’s still no reason not to support Zundel’s rights, he says, immediately afterwards.
As the longtime public voice of the CCLA, Borovoy speaks persuasively and passionately about contemporary attacks on civil liberties in Canada. He has written a handful of books on the topic and lectures widely across the country. And he is funny.
“Do you know why cold weather makes for political stability?” he quips. “Because it’s too cold to demonstrate.”
In the 1960s, Borovoy started working for the Jewish Labour Committee to fight racism against minority groups in Toronto. In the four decades since, critics of his work have shifted along with the country’s political winds.
“At one time, I got it from the right because my stance might have been seen as helping the communists and Trotskyists,” he says.
“If you live long enough, you have the opportunity to experience (criticism) every which way.”
These days, he is likely to be eyed with suspicion by some members of the left who condemn his support for the rights of right-wing political commentators to express their views.
Borovoy has been particularly vocal in denouncing what he views as misuse of the country’s human rights commissions.
He notes two Alberta cases that have attracted media attention — that of Ezra Levant, who is appearing this month before the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission for publishing the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, and that of Rev. Stephen Boissoin, who wrote to a Red Deer newspaper claiming that gays, among other things, are “just as immoral” as pedophiles, drug dealers and pimps.
Levant and Boissoin are accused of promoting hatred towards Muslims and gays, respectively.
Borovoy believes neither case belongs in front of a human rights commission. He speaks from a position of intimacy on the issue, since he helped establish the commissions in the 1960s to stop discrimination against minority groups in the employment and housing sectors.
“Nobody ever thought the commissions would have anything to do with expressions of opinion or the dissemination of news reports. That wasn’t on the table,” he says.
“I think it’s awful that a law could be used to muzzle that kind of expression. That’s the stuff of what democratic polemics are about.”
In his 40 years at the helm of the country’s civil liberties movement, Borovoy has seen other changes, too, in how the Canadian public perceives civil rights issues. During the FLQ crisis, the CCLA spoke out against the invocation of the War Measures Act, and Borovoy recalls a stream of angry phone calls slamming the organization’s stance.
Fast-forward 31 years to government actions taken after 9/11, and reactions were very different, says Borovoy. Most calls to the CCLA supported their position against heavy-handed government intrusion on Canadians’ liberties.
“I can only speculate, but I suspect that it’s probably increased urbanization, increased immigration and communities that have become more heterogeneous (that) has brought with it a greater willingness to question government,” he says.
“And yes, it is positive. It’s important in a democracy.”