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Gail J. Cohen

Editorial: A great Canadian

Last month Canada lost one of its most important and influential voices when Alan Borovoy died of heart failure at the age of 83.

Unlike many of our readers, I never really knew him personally but I did interview him a few times. What I will say about this staunch defender of free speech and civil liberties, is that when I was a girl, not really knowing much about anything, I knew who Alan Borovoy was and what he stood for. He was perhaps the first person I ever realized was a “lawyer” and one “who could change things.” He is probably the person who engendered in me a respect for the profession that I have now spent 18 years working in and with.

His influence was far and wide and he touched the lives and careers of many lawyers in his 40 years as the general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. Nathalie Des Rosiers, now the University of Ottawa dean of common law, worked with Borovoy and replaced him at the CCLA. She recalled his love of legal and intellectual challenges: “He was a master in finding the flaw in someone else’s argument — he had a way with finding the perfect expression,” she told Legal Feeds. “On privacy, for example, he said ‘if you have nothing to hide what kind of boring life are you leading?’”

He was unrelenting in his positions on issues such as capital punishment, national security, and hate speech — even when he disagreed with those whose rights he was fighting for such as Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel. He gave lectures, wrote books, and testified before committees to shine the public spotlight on issues he felt needed it. But he was also remembered by many friends and colleagues for his humour, charisma, and commitment. “His intelligence and his dedication to the fight for civil liberties were matched by his charm, his charisma, and his sense of humour. He had such presence — he was a giant, yet he did not make others feel small,” litigator Jasmine Akbarali recalled of working with him on a case in 2008.

Even those who didn’t always agree with his points of view always respected him. Journalist George Jonas wrote in the National Post: “Alan’s life was the epitome of pure triumph, it seemed to me. . . . [H]e derived his satisfaction entirely from defending civil liberties against encroachments from the right of the political spectrum. It never occurred to him that civil liberties can be threatened from the left, or more precisely he never let it occur to him, and resisted others trying to point it out. Consequently our association consisted of little except sharp debates. . . . We agreed on virtually nothing except the importance of liberty. It was enough for a lifetime of friendship.”

As others have said before, many of the fundamental freedoms and human rights Borovoy worked for his whole life still need defending. Sukanya Pillay, CCLA’s current executive director and GC has vowed that she and others will honour him by continuing the fight. That is the most fitting memorial to this great Canadian.


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