Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Dominique Clément

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Dominique Clément

The 1970s were a unique time in Canada, and a critical point in the history of human rights in our country. In Human Rights in Canada: A History (Wilfrid Laurier University Press), Dominique Clément discusses how conversations around human rights became the driving force for social change in Canada. As our political culture and foreign policy evolved to reflect changing attitudes in society, we as a country moved away from religious motivations for our human rights policies and towards an independent system of uniquely Canadian values.

Today we're speaking with Dominique as part of our Lucky Seven series, where we talk to authors about their new books, their writing process and more.

Dominique tells us how Canada has some of the most sophisticated human rights statutes in the world, how he deals with bad writing days, and most importantly, he reminds us that "history never stands still".

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book Human Rights in Canada: A History.

Dominique Clément:

I had the great privilege of participating in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights’ National Advisory Council, which inspired me to write a history of human rights in Canada. I’ve always thought that Canadians know far too little of their own human rights history. While many Canadians are aware of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, for example, I often marvel how little aware they are that this country also has among the most sophisticated human rights statutes in the world.

In many ways, the book is the product of almost twenty years of study. It began with an honours thesis in 1997 on the Gouzenko Affair. It is both a history of human rights in Canada and an attempt to better understand our rights culture. The timing for a debate in Canada on our rights culture, I think, is propitious. A new national museum dedicated to human rights opened in Winnipeg in 2014. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is forcing us to think concretely about the nature of our rights culture. In addition to funding national human rights institutions around the world, Canada provides extensive resources to domestic and transnational human rights advocacy organizations. We have, in essence, been exporting our rights culture for years. Yet there seems to be some ambivalence about what constitutes our rights culture. Canadians’ ideas of rights have expanded so quickly — and in such a short period of time — that even human rights agencies are struggling to adapt to a host of new grievances. It is essential that we develop a better understanding of our rights culture if we are to adequately confront new rights claims at home while promoting human rights abroad. An essential beginning to such an endeavour is understanding our own human rights history.

OB:

Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?

DC:

The central theme in my book can be captured in one question: Does Canada have a unique rights culture? I knew from the beginning that this was the question that would guide the entire book. When we think of human rights, we think of universal abstract principles that transcend states. And, of course, they are. But human rights as a principle is very different than putting human rights into practice. Each society has its own unique rights culture in the way they choose to make human rights a reality.

OB:

Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?

DC

Writing this book become a passion of mine. Whereas my previous book had taken five years to write, this book took only three years. For a comprehensive study of human rights in Canadian history, that is fast! Although the overall structure of the book never changed, many of the ideas did evolve over time. Defining a list of rights that are specific to Canadian culture is a controversial task to the say the least, and many people challenged me during the writing process to reconsider some of my ideas.

OB:

What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?

DC:

I know many writers who enjoy working in cafés, coffee shops and all manner of public spaces. Not me. I am at my best when I’m locked away in a room with no distractions with only myself, my books and my iMac. I am fortunate in that I can write about things that I am passionate about. It is not uncommon at all for me to lose track of time, and even miss a meal as I write at my desk.

OB:

What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?

DC:

I walk away. Not from the project — I always go back to the book — but I walk away from writing for that day. The only thing worse than not being able to write is knowing that I’ve spent a day producing some really bad writing. If I hit a block, it usually signals that I need a break.

OB:

What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.

DC:

A great book has great characters, a bit of history and finds a way for the reader to relate to the story. For a book on history, the best ones remind us that learning history is a highly subjective process that is constantly reinterpreted — history never stands still, and we carry it with us always, even if we were not directly a part of it. We carry our history in the way that we inherit genes from our parents. I’ve often enjoyed reading Niall Ferguson’s books on history — his writing style make history available to a broad range of people. One of my favourite Canadian history books is Constance Backhouse’ Petticoats and Prejudice. This book is an amazing account of how women in nineteenth century Canada faced discrimination in the law. The extent to which the law has historically disadvantaged women and reinforced male privilege is astounding.

OB:

What are you working on now?

DC:

I’m writing a controversial essay/book on the idea of ‘rights inflation’. As my current book demonstrates, the idea of framing our grievances as human rights is a historically new phenomenon. As late the mid-twentieth century, people were more likely to frame racism or inequality or poverty as violations of Christian principles or British justice than human rights. But we’ve reached the point where virtually every grievance, from bullying at school to the environment, is framed as human rights violation. Which begs the questions — what are the implications for the transformative power of ‘rights-talk’ when it becomes the catch-all phrase for anything we feel is unfair?


Dominique Clément is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Alberta. He is the author of Canada’s Rights Revolution as well as Equality Deferred and is also the co-editor for Alberta’s Human Rights Story and Debating Dissent. His website, http://www.HistoryOfRights.ca, serves as a research and teaching portal on human rights.

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