The Law-Abiding Rabble Rouser

Alan Borovoy has changed the way Canadians think about civil rights.

Alan Borovoy grew up on Toronto’s Grace Street in the late 1930s and ’40s. He was, in his own opinion, an excellent Al Jolson imitator and, later, a translator of Elvis Presley’s songs—into Yiddish (well, one song—Love Me Tender). Not poverty stricken, he saw the poverty and material hardship nearby. He lived with his parents and extended family, whose members enjoyed a rich sense of humour. His parents did not demand from him conformity in political matters, social issues, religious practice or career choice. Alan decided to study law at the University of Toronto and during the summer he was a “singing” counsellor at Camp Ogama, a Jewish summer camp in Muskoka.

But Borovoy did not receive the Order of Canada for his Jolson impersonations, or a doctor of laws, honoris causa, from Queen’s and York universities for his Yiddish translation of Elvis. Neither did the University of Toronto offer him an honourary doctorate for his stand-up comedy or for leading campers in song at Ogama. Borovoy received those honours because, according to Harry Arthurs, he is the “iconic face of civil liberties in Canada,” having led the Canadian Civil Liberties Association as its general counsel for 41 years. Before “At the Barricades”: A Memoir, Borovoy’s previous books presented his non-dogmatic, pragmatic approach to civil liberties. He worked as a political impresario, through petitions, demonstrations and legal briefs and through utilizing the press and media to change the culture of civil liberties and human rights in Canada. He was instrumental in the passage of fair housing legislation in Ontario (leading a delegation to the provincial parliament after gathering evidence and publicly exposing discrimination by landlords); he helped change public attitudes toward gays in relation to the bath house raids and surveillance in men’s washrooms (poking fun at and ridiculing authority—complaining about the “gratuitous voyeurism” of the police and their concern with “innocent excretions”); he campaigned for the abolition of capital punishment (organizing newsworthy gatherings with the most prominent religious, labour, political, communal and juridical leaders). And he had a great deal of fun in orchestrating all of it.

In “At the Barricades,” we are introduced to his personal recollections, the major influences on him, the important political and public figures with whom he interacted and the individuals who helped him think his way through the issues that he took up in the Labour Committee for Human Rights and then in the CCLA. Based on his early encounters with anti-Semitism, poverty and social injustice and combined with his keen attention to foreign affairs, he became a hawkish, social democratic (but not uncritical) defender of Pax Americana during the Cold War. For Borovoy, America was definitely less bad than the Soviet Union.

But no picture of Alan Borovoy, the mensch, would be complete without considering his deep admiration for and love of his childhood friend, Louis Goldstein, to whom he dedicates the memoir. Louis, an orphan, raised in a foster home on Grace Street, had suffered from polio as a young child and, burdened with a brace, was frequently bullied. It was Louis’s courage and pluck in the face of severe adversity that so moved Borovoy and remained one of the significant factors in his championing the less fortunate.

I am a friend of Alan Borovoy’s (an alleged friend as he would put it). I worked with him in my youth on a subcommittee of a joint committee of the Canadian Jewish Congress and B’nai Brith and on various election campaigns, and since the 1980s we have maintained a continuous friendship. And I have served as a member of the board of the CCLA on his watch. But in spite of this close relationship with Alan, I believe that I can still say something nice about his memoir. (This is an example of Borovoyan humour.)

The book engagingly takes us behind the scenes to Borovoy’s thoughts and feelings concerning the numerous campaigns for civil liberties and human rights in his more than 60 years of political, social and legal activism. A member of a civil liberties club and the CCF at the University of Toronto, he also worked within Hillel. After graduating, he mounted his fight against “racial, religious and ethnic discrimination” in his columns for the Jewish Standard and with the Labour Committee for Human Rights, organizing actions and publicity campaigns against discrimination in housing and employment, and championing indigenous peoples in Northern Ontario, where he collaborated with his long-time friend and colleague Dan G. Hill, sociologist and later director of the Human Rights Commission. It is perhaps a measure of how the climate around such issues has changed—largely thanks to Borovoy’s work—that a protest march of Native peoples in Kenora in 1965 with Borovoy and Hill at the head of it was headlined in the Winnipeg Tribune: “Negro and Jew Spearheaded March of Indians.” He also challenged religious education (read: indoctrination) in the public schools, as a prelude to his work as general counsel of the CCLA, which commenced on May 1, 1968.

An admirer of Sidney Hook and John Dewey, Borovoy understood that there were no absolutes in politics and the law, even as he contested postmodernist radical relativism. We cannot make the world a perfect or even a good place; we can, perhaps, make it somewhat less bad. This is Borovoy’s message and guiding principle.

“At the Barricades” is full of humour. Borovoy loves bon mots. When he ran (once) as a candidate for the NDP in a provincial election because he saw it as a good way to educate his constituents on the issues, he was shocked to learn that the polls had actually put him ahead of his main opponent, Vern Singer. “There were two very frightened people at the end of that campaign,” he comments. “Singer, because he thought he was going to lose, and me because I thought I was going to win.” When Borovoy debated Allan Bloom at the University of Toronto, Bloom congratulated him on a fine point that he had just made. Whereupon Borovoy pointed to the audience and said to Bloom: “So, tell them that.” And consider his response to the official surveillance of the Trotskyist movement: It is important to distinguish “a threat to the state from a pain in the ass.”

A retirement banquet in Borovoy’s honour was held at the Royal York Hotel on April 28, 2009. He was duly roasted by the master of ceremonies, Eddie Greenspan, by John McCamus, chair of the board of the CCLA, Justice Robert Sharpe of the Ontario Court of Appeal and Justice Ian Binnie of the Supreme Court of Canada, stand-up comedians all. “At the Barricades” shares the same humorous spirit as that banquet, but also reminds readers of Borovoy’s valuable work as a tactician of lawful disruption, a law-abiding shit disturber, a master of “uncivil obedience” who has helped change the way Canadians think about civil liberties and human rights.