The Canadian Historical Review 87.2 (2006) 265-292
'I would suggest, Mr Speaker, that this is perhaps the most important bill that ever came before this house … in importance, it will rank with the British North America Act.' With these words Attorney General J.W. Corman introduced the Saskatchewan Bill of Rights Act in the provincial legislature in March 1947. The bill, the first of its kind enacted in Canada, was designed to protect a broad range of civil liberties and human rights. It reaffirmed freedom of religion, speech, association, and assembly, freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, and the right to exercise the franchise in regularly held elections – freedoms its framers believed to be implicitly protected by the principles of British common law. It also affirmed, for the first time, the right of every person in the province, without discrimination on racial and religious grounds, to obtain employment, to engage in any occupation or business or enterprise, to membership in any professional or trade association, to rent or purchase any property, to service in public places such as hotels and restaurants, and to education in schools and universities. The act also guaranteed freedom from group libel and slander by way of publication or broadcasting of material that tended to restrict the rights of citizens as set out in the act.
At a time when denial of employment, refusal to sell or rent housing and provide service in restaurants and hotel accommodation, on religious or racial grounds, were all legal elsewhere in Canada, the significance of Saskatchewan's enactment of a bill with such a comprehensive list of rights appears undisputable. Only two other provinces, Manitoba and Ontario, had legislated against racial discrimination, and their statutes were much more limited in scope. A 1934 amendment to the Manitoba Libel Act provided for an injunction to prevent 'the publication of a libel against a race or creed likely to expose persons belonging to the race or professing the creed to hatred, contempt or ridicule, and tending to raise unrest or disorder among the people.' Ontario's 1944 Racial Discrimination Act prohibited the publication or display of signs, symbols, or other representations expressing racial or religious discrimination. Premier Drew's Conservative government rejected all proposals to expand the act to cover discrimination in employment or the provision of services. At the federal level, a Senate committee pondered the introduction of a Canadian Bill of Rights in the late 1940s, but action was not taken until 1960.
Yet scholars and subsequent generations of Canadians have not agreed with Attorney General Corman's assessment of the significance of the Saskatchewan Bill of Rights. S.M. Lipset's Agrarian Socialism, the best-known analysis of the first socialist government in North America, for example, makes no mention of the Bill of Rights. Dissertations about the policies of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) government of Saskatchewan concentrate on its economic and educational policies. Dream No Little Dreams, A.W. Johnson's recent study of the first CCF government in Saskatchewan, mentions the bill only in passing. Studies of constitutional and legal history note the pioneering role of Saskatchewan in introducing human rights legislation in Canada, but do not explore the origins, nature, or significance of the legislation.
There are three main reasons for this neglect. First, scholars deem the Saskatchewan bill too ineffectual to warrant detailed historical analysis, because very few cases were tried under it, and because instead of following the precedent it set, other provincial governments decided in the 1950s to use fair practices legislation to combat discrimination. Second, unlike subsequent fair practices acts in other provinces, the Saskatchewan Bill of Rights was state-initiated, not the result of broad social initiatives. Scholars therefore depict it as having sprung fully formed from the provincial attorney general's office, like Athena from the head of Zeus, paying scant attention to its origins. Finally, precisely because no public campaign preceded the bill's enactment, sources documenting its origins, its application, and the intentions of its authors are scarce, fragmented, and difficult to assemble.
The recent donation of the papers of the author of the Saskatchewan Bill of Rights, Morris Shumiatcher...