Slowly but steadily, Canadians have developed a country that enshrines the value that whatever our race, religion, colour or sexual preference, Canadians are to be equally treated.
The 1763 Royal Proclamation recognized aboriginal peoples as Nations; the 1774 Quebec Act granted unprecedented protection to a conquered people; in 1807 Ezekiel Hart, a Jew elected to the Legislature, challenged the "Christian only" oath and by 1832 the Legislature passed a bill allowing Jews, for the first time in the British Empire, to hold public office.
In 1916, Wilfrid Laurier campaigned for a "regime of tolerance" for francophones in Ontario and John Diefenbaker later did the same for the religious rights of Jehovah's Witnesses. Angus MacInnis defended Japanese Canadians during World War II when nobody else would. John Humphrey drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Great judges like Ivan Rand, Emmett Hall and Thomas Berger have pushed freedom forward inch by inch.
Building such a "regime of tolerance" is one of Canada's greatest achievements. It is recognized around the world as politicians and scholars flock to study our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But it is hardly noticed at home.
The Asper family of Winnipeg wants to change this by creating a National Museum for Human Rights so that every Canadian will know who, why and how we have built this edifice of civility. At a time when Parliament is again debating a crucial human rights issue, the government should give this museum its full support. To have a "respectful" debate on human rights, we need the memory of what has gone before. Parliamentarians should especially recall the wisdom of Frank Scott, one of our great civil libertarians who wrote, "No citizen's right can be greater than that of the least protected group."
Thomas S. Axworthy is chairman of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, Queen's University.