To be one of a few minds at a discussion table, it is difficult to shy away from taking up idea-sharing space. To be one of a few minds called to come to a consensus on delicate and complex human rights issues, it feels almost irresponsible to refrain from sharing one’s voice. At the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), I have often been called to be one such mind amongst a group of brilliant others. 

Due to my limited time at the organization and the urgency of the matters on which the organization wishes to advocate, working against my personal dispositions was sometimes a necessity. Rather than taking the time to silently observe the ins and outs of the organization as I naturally would, I was encouraged to suggest stances to the CCLA on the likes of anti-Black racism in human rights commissions, stringent bail law reforms, and religious accommodations in Quebec public schools, within my first weeks on the job. This work, while exciting and meaningful, prompted some personal confusion. Lacking familiarity with how the CCLA comes to its conclusions on pressing issues, I often questioned whether I should subtract my personal experiences and principles from the opinions I shared with the organization. A more foundational question followed: is this self-compartmentalization possible? Somehow, one of my intro to political theory readings from back in the day guided me to some consolation while figuring out these questions.

Plato’s conception of the ‘just man’ involved the abstract definition and harmonization of four principles within one body: temperance, wisdom, courage, and justice.[1] This being was not drawn as having flesh and bone. An ideal form, the features of the ‘just man’ are not conceptualized within a particular person, but as a coat that all people can aspire to wear. This coat has the potential to drape the unique characteristics and life experiences of every person who takes on the task of pursuing pure ‘goodness’. 

When CCLA staff members discuss the organization’s stances on current issues, their language alludes to a similar Platonic craftsmanship. The organization’s mandate, vision, and values are the core principles that its leaders commit to harmonizing in their attempt to cultivate the organization’s ideal form. 

I recall a conversation with a CCLA staff member in one of my first days at the organization. In response to my curiosity about how the CCLA balances its commitments to equality and fundamental freedoms, a staff member highlighted the organization’s historic commitment to freedom of expression for all, regardless of political leaning or palatability of opinion. He noted that Alan Borovoy, a long-time CCLA general counsel, was steadfast in “representing principles, not individuals”. Borovoy’s commitment withstood several tests of personal strife. In one, Borovoy, himself Jewish, admitted to feeling remorse for the pain he may have inflicted on Holocaust survivors by advocating for the free expression of the infamous Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel.[2]

Still, a commitment to principles could not completely prevent the hues of Borovoy’s personality from painting the CCLA’s image. After Zundel voiced praises of Borovoy’s advocacy, Borovoy retorted that while he supported Zundel’s right to free expression, he was not required to respect him.[3] Beyond this, Borovoy made the CCLA’s direct collaboration with Zundel’s counsel, Douglas Christie, contingent upon whether Christie politically aligned with his client.[4] Borovoy sent Christie a letter calling him to be transparent about his stance, or else the CCLA’s counsel would not “cooperate with him in any way with respect to the case”.[5] It was imperative to Borovoy’s integrity that his potential collaborator would solely defend Zundel’s rights and not his ideas.

If the CCLA’s current programs are to be deemed the fabric of its visionary coat, it would be stitched from patches of ‘equality’, ‘fundamental freedoms’, ‘privacy’ and ‘criminal justice’. In many cases, these patches easily overlap. Advocacy against excessively stringent bail conditions is advocacy against a criminal justice system that unequally imprisons and punishes Indigenous peoples and racialized minorities. In other contexts, this patchwork may appear distorted and unseemly, competing for thread and tearing away at the integrity of their shapes. An unadulterated advocacy for freedoms of religion and expression can eat away at the principle of non-discrimination of 2SLGBTQIA+ individuals and communities. One disappointing example is a recent decision delivered by the Supreme Court of the United States which allows individuals to withhold services from 2SLGBTQIA+ couples in the name of their First Amendement rights. 

For the CCLA, the safekeeping of these patches requires a human touch; a conscious harmonization of principles which recognizes that the untempered pursuit of all is an impossible objective. Just as Plato’s ‘just man’ cannot blindly commit to courage without the restraining value of wisdom, the CCLA must choose when certain principles restrain others. The CCLA’s bonding threads are its abstract principles, but these threads are continuously stitched by the many hands of the CCLA’s leadership. The CCLA is not a fabricated being separate from the people who work on its behalf; its body was formed from the day of its conception by the collective conscious of all its unique, but principle-guided leaders.

Thinking this way, I’ve come to terms with two realizations. The first is the fact that there will be times when my principles will inevitably bleed into my work. Like Borovoy’s refusal to shake Zundel’s hands, there may be times where I will have to act as myself before I act as a representative of the CCLA’s ideals. The second is the fact that my voice will be significantly honed and refined through my collaboration with the rest of the CCLA. It is for this reason that the CCLA has encouraged me to air out all my perspectives; we will work together to filter out which ideas, if any, best reflect the CCLA’s ideal form. I thank the CCLA’s leadership for having the humility and open-mindedness to welcome my hands in the crafting of the organization’s collective consciousness. 

The profound truth is you cannot be human on your own …

And that is fantastic because it says we are really made for this delicate network of interdependence.

I need you, in order for me to be me. I need you to be you to the fullest.

 – Bishop Desmond Tutu speaking on the philosophy of ubuntu

[1] Plato, The Republic, translated by Alan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1968) at 410.

[2] A Alan Borovoy, At the Barricades (Toronto: Irwin Law Inc, 2013) at 130.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid at 131.

[5] Ibid at 132.