UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Liberty and authority : civil liberties in Toronto, 1929-1935. Skebo, Suzanne Michello


This thesis examines the practical implications of the acceptance of "traditional British liberties" in a particular Canadian city and period. The city of Toronto was chosen because it was here that one found the loudest professions of admiration and reverence for "things British." The period, 1929-1935, the early years of the Great Depression, commended itself because the economic chaos and social tension of these years brought to the fore questions as to the meaning and relative value of liberty and authority. Consideration of the problem of liberty and authority from 1929-1935 also enables one to examine the less statistical, less tangible impact of the Great Depression on a segment of Canadian society. An attempt is made to examine the attitudes toward liberty and authority among particular groups in Toronto, and to analyse the basic assumptions and thought patterns that their attitudes appear to express. The thesis makes no attempt to consider specific issues from a purely legalistic or judicial point of view. Certain problems are endemic in an undertaking of this kind. The chief problem is the absence of any precise technique for evaluating objectively the impact of ideas.as motivating forces in history. An attempt is made to calculate the degree of support for particular opinions, such as those presented by the major newspapers, but only in a general fashion. What appear to be of more value and interest to the historian are the underlying assumptions behind the ideas expressed, in so far as they reflect the social, political and economic attutudes of a particular period. Thus, the main emphasis is upon the representative quality of the opinions expressed, rather than upon the discovery of the attitude of every sector of the city. Four specific cases involving the respective limits of liberty and authority are examined--the policy of the Toronto Board of Police Commissioners in prohibiting certain kinds of meetings in the streets, parks and halls of the city, 1929-1933; Section 98 of the Criminal Code, and the conviction in Toronto, under Section 98, of eight Communist leaders in November, 1931; the sedition trial of A. E. Smith, secretary of the Canadian Labor Defence League in March, 1934; and the response to the Regina Riot of July, 1935. The reaction to these controversies was complex and diverse within Toronto. Large and important sectors of the city, of which the Globe, the Telegram, and the Mail and Empire were the chief spokesmen, saw no question of the invasion of "traditional British liberties," but only the need for authority in the face of disorder and instability. The soap-box controversialists of Hyde Park might be acceptable in England, a country with thousands of years of tradition, but not in Canada, a new country in the midst of economic chaos—a new country with "foreign" elements in the midst of its population. For much smaller numbers of Torontonians, of whom the Star, the Canadian Forum and the C. C. F. Party were the chief representatives, the cases examined clearly raised questions about the liberty of the individual in the face of the authority of the state. In fact, the attitudes expressed by different sectors of the population reflected contradictory views of the potency and quality of the Russian Communist threat to Canadian society, of the needs dictated by the economic dislocation of the Great Depression, of the possibility and desirability of change and readaptation in the Canadian economic, political and social structure. Further, the attitudes expressed on liberty and authority revealed assumptions about the position of the intellectual in public affairs and the changing nature of government activity in the life of the nation. Even among those who could at least agree that an invasion of the rights of the individual had occurred, there was little consensus as to the precise methods to be employed so as to effect a change in governmental policy. Close examination of the problem of civil liberties in Toronto reveals that no real consensus existed as to the precise meaning and implications of "traditional British liberties," and the issue failed to emerge as a black-and-white political question. In part, the phrase "traditional British liberties" served as an umbrella term for the expression of class attitudes toward liberty and authority, but its use was far more complex than a simple class interpretation would imply. The phrase "traditional British liberties" served to express particular attitudes and assumptions towards liberty and authority that reflected peculiarly Canadian needs and conditions. In effect, both sides of the controversy were attempting to define "Canadianism." Examination of the question of liberty and authority in Toronto further reveals that the major Canadian response to the Great Depression weighted the scales heavily on the side of authority; however, a critical spirit, characteristic of modern urban communities did gain momentum during the Depression, and through its assertion on such occasions as the sedition trial of A. E. Smith and the conviction of the eight Communist leaders, it served to widen the practical limits of liberty in Canada.

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