Remembering A. Alan Borovoy, Civil Liberties Champion
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Remembering A. Alan Borovoy, Civil Liberties Champion

Memories of working with one of Canada's leading advocates for rights and freedoms.

A. Alan Borovoy. Photo courtesy of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

For nearly 50 years, A. Alan Borovoy was one of Canada’s most prolific defenders of civil liberties, rights, and freedoms. His death, at age 83, was announced today.

In 1968, Alan became the general counsel of the non-profit Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA). For the next four decades, he was the organization’s leader, its voice, its face, its mind. And he did some incredible things.

In 1970, he was one of the few people to speak out publicly against Pierre Trudeau’s rights-quashing invocation of the War Measures Act. He intervened in court on behalf of abortion-rights pioneer Dr. Henry Morgentaler, and continued to vocally defend the right to choose, well into his 80s. He protested anti-panhandling laws and rallied for better accountability of law enforcement and CSIS.

He received the Order of Canada for his contributions and, for most of his life, was a go-to media source on civil liberties, but still went out of his way to visit high schools and talk to kids about the importance of standing up for rights and freedoms.

The point is, Borovoy was by many measures a great man, even if that label doesn’t mean much anymore. Whether or not you agreed with his ideals (a phrase that comes up a lot in conversations about him), he had an undeniable impact on the discussion of human rights and civil liberties in Canada.

I got to know Alan over the course of a year, from 2013 to 2014, while I worked in communications for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. Alan had retired from the general counsel role in 2009, but he still kept a desk in CCLA’s space at 215 Spadina Ave., to work on what turned out to be the last of his several books, At the Barricades: A Memoir.

I was assigned the cubicle next his. I had read about Alan, and thought I knew what to expect of an octogenarian lawyer. But I was wrong.

Talking to Alan was like fencing. You had always to be on your guard for some parry or thrust.

My first day at CCLA an office manager introduced me to Alan by saying my salary was paid for with a grant from Royal Bank of Canada.

“You took money from a bank?” he squinted at her. “You have no morals.”

And slowly his face slid into a wide, sly smile—one which I would come to know quite well over the following 12 months.

He was erudite and dignified, and still somehow puckish. Through the thin wall between our desks I’d hear him make jocular, profane calls to old law buddies, social-justice advocates, retired judges, and professors.

“I regret that I’m not happier to know you” was a greeting I heard more than once.

“You old prick” was a sign-off I heard much more often.

While writing, he’d occasionally sing very loudly along to vaudeville songs. He’d frequently get up and go chat with CCLA’s legal interns about school, their dream jobs, and how they liked the place.

Even in casual conversation, Alan had the cadence and intonations of a cleric. He had a very deliberate way of talking, in which each word was well measured, and each sentence was constructed with purpose.

He had a way of talking to a person like they were his best friend, his co-conspirator. Most of our interactions were in the form of a few exchanged quips, but on the rare occasion I ran down some bit research for him, or fielded one of his interview requests, he made it seem as if what I was doing for him was of the utmost importance.

By virtue of his work, Alan was the type of person who becomes a known historical figure. By the time I met him he was already, literally, a textbook case of civil liberties in Canada.

But he was also, quite simply, a kind, quick, funny man—a model for anyone who aspires to his level of influence.