The recent passing of Alan Borovoy has prompted a flood of reminiscence from those in the Jewish – and wider – community who knew and respected him for the work that he did to promote and defend civil rights in Canada. This is only proper, for Alan was a pathfinder who followed his own internal compass and recognized that what was right was not always what was popular. That Alan often took the “road less travelled” is not nearly as remarkable as the manner in which he helped to break ground for roads that are now travelled by others, frequently and almost without thought.
I met Alan in 1995 when I joined the community relations committee of Canadian Jewish Congress as a volunteer. I was already a human rights case-law nerd so his name was very familiar to me but I remember walking into the room and thinking “There’s Alan Borovoy! I am in the same room as Alan Borovoy!” And there sat the dean of civil rights in Canada, with his chin resting in the palm of his right hand, watching, listening and grinning. I remember that grin…a combination of “you’ve got to be kidding,” and “oh boy this is gonna be fun.”
By 1995, Alan had already been at the CRC table for almost 45 years, so it would have been understandable if he had been overwhelmed by déjà vu and used his experience to bludgeon those with whom he disagreed. But that wasn’t his style. When occasion arose, Alan used his knowledge to teach us about rights and responsibilities. The CRC was a rowdy classroom, though, and while the students may not always have been appreciative or attentive, Alan was always gracious. A thorough skewering would invariably end with an impish grin and an affectionate, “as always, respectfully submitted.”
When Alan said that, he meant it. He was always passionate, but he cared deeply about his friends and his colleagues. During the time of Ernst Zundel's criminal trial in the 1980s, he was saddened at the thought that his defence of Zundel’s rights would cause pain to Holocaust survivors. Alan’s ability to separate personalities from issues came clear in a comment he made in 1985: “While I feel obliged to defend Mr. Zundel’s legal rights, I have no comparable obligation to treat him with respect.”
I can only imagine what a difficult balancing act that must have been. Over the course of many lunchtime conversations, I learned that Alan was an admirer of the American philosopher Sidney Hook and Hook’s concept of the tragic sense of life. As I prepared to do an interview about Alan on CBC, I found something in his first book, When Freedoms Collide, that explains the challenge simply: “we are fated to suffer the pain of knowingly having to surrender the things we value in order to acquire things we may value even more.”
I think Alan understood, both feelingly and intellectually that it would be easy to give in to the temptation of shutting down the anti-Semites, homophobes, Islamophobes and others, but that the unintended consequences of such action might prove to be unpalatable. Or to phrase it as Alan might have, we may have to surrender some emotional comfort in order to acquire the security of a robust system of civil rights.
We may never accurately measure Alan’s impact on civil rights in this country: as an activist he did so much; as a teacher he taught so many; and as a thinker he provoked thought in those who read his work and heard him speak. Alan did all of these things, but to me he was also the guy with an inextinguishable grin who always greeted me with a “vas machst du yid?” and left me with “so long sport.” Civil rights champion he may have been (I can just see him rolling his eyes at the thought!) but he was also prankster, a gentleman, and a man possessed with a wicked sense of humour. He was respected by many, loved by many and will be missed by many.
Respectfully submitted. Rest in peace my friend.