Canada was on edge when the B.C. Civil Liberties Association had its defining moment, says author Herschel Hardin.
It was October 1970. The Front de libération du Québec kidnapped a British trade commissioner, James Cross, and a provincial cabinet minister, Pierre Laporte. The separatist group later killed Laporte. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, suspending civil liberties in Quebec. Police arrested and detained hundreds without warrants.
Even though the nation wasn’t at war, Canadians overwhelmingly supported the federal government’s action. But the BCCLA protested and declared that invocation wrong.
“I underline how courageous this was because there was such massive public opinion in favour of what Trudeau had done,” Hardin told the Georgia Straight on the eve of the organization’s 50th anniversary. “The BCCLA wasn’t intimidated by this and did point out that this was an unjustified infringement of people’s liberties.”
Hardin, a BCCLA board member from 1965 to 1974, was recounting some of the early years of the country’s premier human-rights organization during an interview in his West Vancouver home.
Founded in 1962, the BCCLA marks its golden anniversary this year.
According to Hardin, during the 1960s people weren’t used to an organization taking positions on principle, especially in ways that might have been contrary to public thinking. “When the BCCLA took a civil-liberties position to defend the liberties of an unpopular group or unpopular cause, it had a jolt it may not have today because people are used to hearing from the BCCLA,” he said.
The formative years weren’t easy.Novelist William Deverell came onboard as executive director shortly after the BCCLA was incorporated. Then a law student, he ran it from the basement of his rented home in North Vancouver. “I remember we were constantly being ridiculed, if not harassed, by judges,” Deverell told the Straight in a phone interview from Pender Island.
The courts then were housed at the police station at 312 Main Street in Vancouver. Deverell said that these were actually called police courts, and that there was no real division between them and the police.
As a lawyer, Deverell got himself in trouble after commenting on TV that judges tended to take the side of the police. “I got my ass hauled in court the next day by one of the provincial judges who called me up,” he related. “And [he] said I should be cited for contempt of court but what I said on television was beneath the judge’s contempt, so he decided not to.”
Deverell also recalled defending the Georgia Straight against obscenity cases aimed at shutting down this independent paper that started in 1967. “The Georgia Straight, to give it credit, was at the forefront in the fight for freedom of expression,” he said.
Years later, in 1994, the BCCLA joined Vancouver’s Little Sister’s Book & Art Emporium in launching an epic legal battle against the censorship of allegedly obscene printed materials by Canada Customs. In December 2000, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that customs agents must prove that the publications they are going to seize are obscene in advance of confiscating them.
When the BCCLA was just a fledgling organization, vagrancy laws gave police a lot of power, legal muscle that they flexed against young people and so-called hippies in particular. Then there were court fights over prison sentences for the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The animosity between young people and police boiled over one summer when cops violently stormed a peaceful downtown public gathering to protest restrictive drug laws and police raids. The clash, which took place on August 7, 1971, has since become known as the Gastown Riot. During the inquiry that followed, the BCCLA focused on police accountability. It’s an issue the association has focused its attention on throughout the years.
David Eby wasn’t yet born at the time of the Gastown Riot, but during his second year as executive director of the BCCLA, in 2010, the provincial government announced that it would scrap the controversial practice of police investigating misconduct among their own ranks.
“That was a big victory,” the 35-year-old lawyer told the Straight in a phone interview. “It was a sustained campaign [by the BCCLA], and it was hard to believe when it actually happened.”
The Independent Investigations Office—established by legislation which will conduct criminal investigations into incidents involving B.C. police that result in death or serious harm—is expected to set up shop mid 2012.
In the case of Paul Boyd, a bipolar man shot dead by Vancouver police in 2007, the BCCLA persisted in demanding a thorough investigation into the incident. Recently, an eyewitness video surfaced showing the already wounded man crawling on the street before the last shot was fired.
With an institutional memory reaching back to its founding to defend the rights of the Sons of Freedom, a radical wing of the Doukhobor religious sect that engaged in acts such as arson, the BCCLA is watching with concern the federal government’s rhetoric about environmental groups. Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver has characterized environmentalists opposed to a planned pipeline from Alberta’s tar sands to B.C.’s west coast as radicals. “It looks very familiar to us,” Eby said. “It looks a lot like what we used to see in relation to people labelled as potential terrorists. It looks similar to language used in Quebec to round up activists around the War Measures Act.”
According to Eby, the BCCLA is also watching with disappointment the federal government’s introduction of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offences. “We’re following the failed path of the United States in building a huge potentially privatized prison-industrial complex in Canada,” Eby said.
Hardin noted that in the early days, a lot of the work BCCLA did was prosaic but very important. It dealt with cases of discrimination by landlords against visible minorities. “Cases of discrimination were very much in our mind and a very basic part of the BCCLA’s work,” he said.
In addition to civil-liberties principles like free speech, antidiscrimination, and government accountability, the BCCLA also holds that personal autonomy is important.
Hardin recalled that during his time on the board, a male baggage handler at Pacific Western Airlines was fired by the regional carrier because he wore his hair down to his shoulders. The BCCLA put out a poster that had an image of Prime Minister Trudeau with his long hair. The poster asked a question along the lines of: “Would you hire this man to handle your baggage?”
“Civil liberties are pretty fundamental,” Hardin said about why BCCLA has endured through the years. “And important enough that people who believe in them will give it their time and their money and will make an effort to see that civil liberties of Canadians, of British Columbians, are protected. It’s a kind of ongoing cause that is inherently compelling, inherently moving.”
The BCCLA celebrates its 50th anniversary with a symposium on Friday (June 1) and a gala dinner on Saturday (June 2). Details are at bccla.org/.