Lawyer and Leading Canadian Human Rights Advocate
A lawyer and man of learning born in January 1948 in Wroclaw, Poland, Julius Grey speaks English, French, Polish and Russian. He has been a leading advocate of human rights for decades, including serving as president of the Canadian Human Rights Foundation from 1985 to 1988. Admitted to the Bar of Quebec in 1974, he’s known for his in-depth expertise on personal freedoms. Julius—who works on criminal law, administrative law, constitutional law and immigration law cases—is one of the few Canadian lawyers who has appeared in front of the Supreme Court of Canada more than 50 times!
Espousing a humanist vision for Canada in the 21st century, he’s a former Journal de Montréal columnist, a lecturer and a participant in public debates on issues of personal freedoms and human rights. His hard work doesn’t end there: he has also written a book, Capitalism and the Alternatives, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2019, in which he outlines the framework for a democratic society enriched by respect for freedoms, a shared culture and universal values. The author believes that the way forward lies in reducing social, economic and political inequalities, along with liberation from the dictates and consequences of neoliberal ideology.
Our interview takes place in Julius’s living room, whose walls are lined with books and musical recordings. The latter reveal his love for classical music, from the great baroque composers to those of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. He’s also a devotee of English, French and Russian literature and likes to unwind by playing the piano. Describing himself as an avid reader, he devours novels, short stories and history books, not to mention reading the newspaper every day. A lover of opera and cinema, he particularly appreciates the movies of François Truffaut, Federico Fellini and Woody Allen—all of them astute observers of human nature and society.
Having arrived in Montreal as an immigrant from Poland in 1957, Julius began to show his interest in public affairs and intellectual pursuits as a child. The son of an accountant, he studied law at McGill University. He also completed a master’s degree in Russian literature at McGill and obtained a master’s degree in law from Oxford University in England. From 1978 to 2003, he was a member of McGill’s Faculty of Law, in addition to teaching classes at the Université de Montréal.
A father of three, Julius was affiliated with Canada’s New Democratic Party, taking part in the election campaigns of Charles Taylor (a professor of philosophy at McGill) in 1963, 1965 and 1968. Through his involvement in the political ecosystem, he met Tommy Douglas (d. 1986) and other leaders and officials, including Desmond Morton (d. 2019), David Lewis (d. 1981), Ed Broadbent, Jack Layton (d. 2011), Audrey McLaughlin and Thomas Mulcair. Undoubtedly influenced by these architects of Canadian social policy, his reading and writing cover major social issues as well as topics such as power and romantic love. “During my student days,” he remarks, “I was an aspiring fiction writer.”
In the books and articles that Julius has published, the social-democratic value system serves as the foundation. They address equality among individuals, personal freedoms and access to public programs. The provisions of the Canadian (1982) and Quebec (1975) charters of rights and freedoms protect fundamental rights and freedoms, such as thought, expression, conscience, religion, association and dissent. In the view of this thinker, there are various corollaries associated with the recognition and practice of these values: for instance, the right to quality of life or decent economic conditions, or the right to a healthy environment—one of the key issues in the modern world, as stated by Rachel Carson in her 1962 work Silent Spring. As someone who grew up in a Jewish family on the left of the political spectrum, he believes the government’s decisions should strongly reflect the gains made by Canadian society, including respect for workers’ rights, access to healthcare and social programs, access to a decent pension, non-militarism and the promotion of world peace.
Having defended the rights of numerous minority groups before the highest court in the land, he favours the integration of immigrants into a shared culture, meaning the merging of different individuals and cultural groups into a single, united society. This is what he has advocated in his writings and many interviews. Respect for the rights of linguistic minorities, such as those of anglophones in Quebec or francophones outside of Quebec, is not an issue for negotiation but a protected right.
Julius has also expressed his beliefs with regards to respecting freedom of religion during the hearings on the Act Respecting the Laicity of the State (Bill 21). As reported by the Canadian Press in December 2020, while representing the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the Quebec Community Groups Network, he argued that the provisions of the bill contravened Article 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by prohibiting English schools from hiring any teacher they wanted to without religious discrimination. Bill 21, which is now in effect, prohibits police officers and teachers from wearing religious symbols.
The news agency also mentioned that Julius advocated the basic principle of gender equality (Article 28 of the Canadian Charter). By imposing a ban on religious symbols for certain workers, Bill 21 is not “liberating women” but instead passing judgement on their religion. In his view as a lawyer, the prohibitions on wearing religious symbols clearly violate the freedoms of religion and conscience protected by the Canadian Charter. “The laicity of the state absolutely cannot be imposed by force,” he says. “What’s more, wearing a scarf, hijab, kippah or kirpan causes no harm to anyone. Are we to believe that the state will one day regulate its citizens’ dress code?!”
When asked about societies or places he knows little about but would like to discover, he mentions the cultures and peoples of the Canadian North. In closing, what advice does he have for young people? “Keep learning for your entire life,” he responds. “Cherish love in your personal relationships. Make it a priority to respect personal freedoms. Help those around you to learn French and English.”