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The Rights Revolution

by Michael Ignatieff

Michael Ignatieff’s The Rights Revolution, the latest in CBC’s Massey Lectures series, probes the international growth of rights consciousness, with particular reference to Canada. The book was written during a sojourn in Banff and appears, perhaps fittingly, soon after the death of Pierre Trudeau, the Charter of Rights champion. Ignatieff’s Canadian sensibility and predilections urge balance, sharing, dialogue, and respect.

Ignatieff has that wonderful gift of conveying, in an accessible and engaging style, the theoretically complex issues that engage academic philosophers. The book thus appeals to a more general audience, one its subject well deserves. Its focal point is the emergence, since the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, of individual and group rights as the dominant issues in public and political discourse.

Ignatieff examines this “rights revolution” to try to clarify and reconcile a balance between group rights and individual freedoms and responsibilities. In Canada, he sees these conflicts played out in the battle for language rights and sovereignty in Quebec, and the nationwide struggle for aboriginal rights. An irony he encounters is that, amidst burgeoning rights assertions, the right to economic security has been weakened. He also explores the destabilizing by-products of living in an age of abundance: individualism and self-indulgent behaviour feed divorce and consumerism.

In spite of these tensions, Ignatieff argues that the rights revolution has deepened and strengthened Canadian democracy. The last chapter asks: how do we balance ethnic heterogeneity and cultural diversities with national unity? The old Canada that people knew is now gone, hopelessly fragmented. Can we work things out? An optimist, Ignatieff tells us we must.