The Power of Perspectives

The Canadian Bar Association

Kim Covert

Obit: Alan Borovoy (1932-2015)

May 12 2015 12 May 2015

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear,” the novelist and essayist George Orwell wrote.

That was a sentiment by which noted civil liberties lawyer Alan Borovoy lived.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association said in a release on Monday that Borovoy had died at the age of 82. He is best known for serving as the CCLA’s general counsel, a post he held from 1968 until he retired in 2009. He remained with the group as general counsel emeritus after his retirement.

Anyone who’s paid attention to the field of human rights and civil liberties over the past half-century knows his name, and likely has had the opportunity to form an opinion about his actions – not necessarily favourable. That’s because Borovoy was a man of principle – and his guiding principle was that if there is to be free speech, everyone has to have the right to it, no matter how hateful others find that speech. And that was all well and good when he was on your side, slightly harder to take when he was not.

He applied that principle to his own views as well – a Jew, he defended both Holocaust-denier Ernst Zundel and anti-Semitic schoolteacher Jim Keegstra. The fact that he knew Holocaust survivors who would be hurt by his defence of these men was no reason not to defend their rights, he said in a 2008 interview.

In a review of Borovoy’s memoir At the Barricades, Carol Goar quotes him as advising young activists to keep their senses of humour. “It’s fun to kick the ass of the establishment. You don’t have to go through life so dedicated to the cause that you get uptight and develop a bad digestive system.”

In the same article, she added a second message from him. “A lot can be done by a very few people on a small budget. I don’t ever remember having more than a shoestring but we changed hundreds of statutes.”

Sukanya Pillay, CCLA executive director and general counsel, said in a release:

For over 40 years, he made countless contributions to civil liberties in Canada–we will never forget him. We will strive to honour his life’s work by continuing to fight for fundamental freedoms and human rights. We will greatly miss him – his brilliance, his generosity, his irreverent humour, and the passion and dedication to equality and justice that was his life’s work. Canada and the CCLA owe Alan Borovoy an immense debt.

News of Borovoy’s death came a day after a CBC news report that the Conservative government was considering using hate speech laws against those who boycotted Israel (a suggestion that the Conservative government has denied). It also follows weeks of criticism that, as proposed, provisions in the Conservatives anti-terrorism Bill C-51 could stifle or chill legitimate dissent because of their over-reaching and vague language. Makes you wonder what he might have said about these things when he was still an active voice in the civil liberties field.

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