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Human Rights in Canada: An Historical Perspective

The Red Threat: Part 2

53 1/2 Park Avenue
Montreal, Quebec
February 5, 1948

John Switzman, Max Bailey, and Freda Elbling never expected to make it in the history books. Three very different people, they all had one thing in common: a house at 53 1/2 Park Avenue, Montreal. Freda, owned it but didn't want to live in it; Max Bailey lived in it but didn't own it; and John Switzman didn't own it or live in it - but he wanted to.

One might ask: "Why didn't Max assign his lease to John?" He did. The problem arose when Freda discovered John was a follower of Karl Marx who wanted to make 53 1/2 Park Avenue the communist hub of Montreal. Freda didn't necessarily fear John Switzman or Karl Marx; she feared the Province of Quebec.

In 1948, Premier Maurice Duplessis ruled Quebec. He had very set ideas about what was good and what was bad for Quebec. Jehovah's Witnesses, Unions, and Communists, he believed, weren't good. To address these "negative influences", the province passed the infamous "Padlock Law" or the Act to protect the Province Against Communistic Propaganda. The act made it illegal to do the following:

  • "use [a house] or allow any person to make use of it to propagate communism or bolshevism by any means whatsoever."
  • "print, publish or distribute any newspaper, periodical, pamphlet, circular, document or writing, propagating communism or bolshevism."

Just like laws passed in the Soviet Union, the act gave the government the power to close down a house for up to a year, and to confiscate and destroy any materials therein. As the owner of the house, Freda Elbling didn't relish the thought of being thrown in jail and having her house confiscated. To insure this never happened, Freda Elbling took John Switzman to court to have the lease nullified.

Switzman understood Elbling's concerns since he also feared the "Padlock Law". So he challenged it. He argued that the law was beyond the province's jurisdiction and limited his freedom of expression. He lost his case - twice.

Supreme Court of Canada Building

Undaunted, John Switzman took his case to the Supreme Court of Canada. On March 8 1957, 8 of the 9 judges agreed with Switzman in finding that the law went beyond the province's jurisdiction in limiting his freedom of expression.

Justice Rand summed up: " The object of the legislation here, as expressed by the title, is admittedly to prevent the propagation of communism and bolshevism, but it could just as properly have been the suppression of any other political, economic or social doctrine or theory."

On value of free speech - and the provincial government's ability to limit it - he added: " Liberty in this is little less vital to man's mind and spirit than breathing is to his physical existence. As such an inherence in the individual it is embodied in his status of citizenship. Outlawry, for example, divesting civil standing and destroying citizenship, is a matter of Dominion concern."

Justice Taschereau's was the lone dissenting voice. He argued that the law was a property law, not a criminal law, designed to regulate property use, not criminal behaviour. His words didn't carry the day.

In the end, the Act to protect the Province Against Communistic Propaganda was struck down; John Switzman kept his lease, Freda Elbling never went to jail; and Max Bailey washed his hands of the whole thing.

Want to Know More?

Read Switzman v. Elbling
Check out An Act to Protect the Province against Communistic Propaganda