Labour Studies Index

Updated: 2019-04-26

A Different Perspective on the “Labor Rights as Human Rights” Debate Organized Labor and Human Rights Activism in Canada, 1939-1952

Document type Article
Author Goutor, David
Journal Labor Studies Journal
Volume 36
Date 2011-09-01
ISSN 0160-449X, 1538-9758
Pages 408-427


This article brings further historical and international perspective to the “labor rights as human rights” debate. It particularly contends that these perspectives need to be explored further in order to appreciate the extent to which the definitions and political implications of key ideologies behind labor and human rights activism are flexible and dependent on their context. It explores Canada in the 1940s and early 1950s, when there was major activity on the labor and human rights fronts. Although many Canadian organizations, legal systems, and campaigns were modeled on—or formally affiliated with—American ones in these years, the progress of labor and human rights activism followed a distinct path, and particularly unfolded at a distinct pace. This distinct pace, the relatively small size of ethnic and racialized minority populations, the basic political and legal structure, and rise of a leftist third party in the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation all helped labor and human rights activism fit together comfortably to a notable extent in Canada. This article will particularly show why the relationship between human rights and labor was significantly less fraught with potential downsides for Canadian labor leaders. It also highlights another important impact of context: the particular combination of conditions and forces in Canada produced a number of unexpected results.