As a child growing up in Winnipeg’s Tuxedo neighbourhood, Isha (pronounced "Eye-sha") Khan didn’t dream about becoming a human rights champion.

No, her dreams were more along the lines of becoming the next Barbara Frum, the pioneering Canadian broadcaster.

About Isha Khan

Since last October, Khan has worked to review conditions of confinement of incarcerated persons in segregation at 14 federal penitentiaries across Canada. She directed the release of people from segregation and issued recommendations to alter conditions of confinement, including providing better access to mental health services, spiritual programming and other interventions.

She served as executive director and senior counsel of the Manitoba Human Rights Commission from 2015 to 2019, overseeing its operations and administering a statutory complaints mechanism. While in this role, she led the development of a strategic plan to improve the agency through various initiatives including creation of an elders’ council and a comprehensive wait‐time reduction strategy. She also promoted equality and educated the public about human rights and inclusion at public events, consultations and conferences, and organized the Manitoba Human Rights Awards. From 2010 to 2015, Khan was senior counsel for the Commission.

Since last October, Khan has worked to review conditions of confinement of incarcerated persons in segregation at 14 federal penitentiaries across Canada. She directed the release of people from segregation and issued recommendations to alter conditions of confinement, including providing better access to mental health services, spiritual programming and other interventions.

She served as executive director and senior counsel of the Manitoba Human Rights Commission from 2015 to 2019, overseeing its operations and administering a statutory complaints mechanism. While in this role, she led the development of a strategic plan to improve the agency through various initiatives including creation of an elders’ council and a comprehensive wait‐time reduction strategy. She also promoted equality and educated the public about human rights and inclusion at public events, consultations and conferences, and organized the Manitoba Human Rights Awards. From 2010 to 2015, Khan was senior counsel for the Commission.

She is a member of the Law Society of Manitoba’s Equity Committee.

Khan is the board chair of the United Way Winnipeg, where she worked as director of organizational development from 2007 to 2010, creating sound human resources and organizational development practices, and leading policy development and change management initiatives.

She currently sits on the executive committee of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women (Winnipeg Chapter), directing its operations and delivering workshops on Canadian family law, family violence and racism. She also built community connections through social services, youth and inter‐faith consultation.

In 2018 and 2019, Khan was an executive member on the board of the Manitoba Council of Administrative Tribunals, where she oversaw the general operations of this volunteer non‐profit that provides training for government‐appointment members of boards and tribunals on issues such as governance and decision writing.

She was a session instructor and lecturer at the University of Winnipeg’s Global College in 2016, teaching an undergraduate course on human rights perspectives in Canada.

Khan is the past chair of the Manitoba Community Services Council board of directors, where she served from 2011 to 2016, reviewing applications for funding of community‐based projects.

From 2000 to 2007, she managed an active litigation practice in Calgary (Borden Ladner Gervais) focused on labour and employment issues, including advice on corporate mergers and acquisitions.

She has also served with the Canada Pension Plan Review Tribunals, chairing administrative hearings across southern Alberta under the Canada Pension Plan and the Old Age Security Act.

Khan is a graduate of the University of Manitoba and the University of Victoria.

Source: CMHR website

"I wanted to be a broadcaster. I wanted to be on TV. I wanted to be like Barbara Frum or something back then," Khan, 47, recalled with a laugh earlier this week over a lunch of the turkey-pot-pie special in Smith Restaurant at The Forks.

"Then my dad said you have to go to journalism school. I remember him saying you can’t just be the face and be reading the news. You need to go to school and learn. I looked at journalism, but decided to go into law. I thought law would be a stepping stone to do something else; I never thought I’d actually practice."

Today, the Winnipeg-born lawyer and married mother of three daughters is almost two months into that "something else" — on Aug. 17 she began a five-year term as the new president and CEO of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

The first person of colour in the job and the first woman to hold the post on a permanent basis, Khan is charged with leading the beleaguered museum out of the darkest chapter in its short history since opening its doors in 2014.

When federal Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault announced in mid-August that Khan would be taking over, the museum was making headlines for all the wrong reasons, facing allegations of racism, homophobia, sexual harassment and censorship.

After the museum posted images of a Justice for Black Lives rally in June, stories from employees were posted online by a group called CMHR Stop Lying. Current and former staff said it was hypocritical of the museum to bring up the rally because of racism staff faced at work.

On Aug. 17 Isha Khan began a five-year term as the new president and CEO of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / FREE PRESS FILES

On Aug. 17 Isha Khan began a five-year term as the new president and CEO of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

The museum was forced to issue an apology after it was revealed staff were sometimes ordered to hide content regarding the rights of the LGBTTQ+ community at the request of certain guests, including religious school groups. Other allegations included sexism and racist hiring and payment practices.

The museum apologized again after an independent report concluded the federal institution suffered from a culture burdened by "pervasive and systemic" racism, along with discriminatory attitudes.

The steady stream of accusations and negative news reports led to the resignation in June of then-CEO John Young, who had already planned to step down when his term finished at the end of of August.

If the new boss, Khan, is feeling stressed about the magnitude of the task she is facing — rebuilding trust with employees and the community — it certainly doesn’t show.

"I was alarmed. I was reading every news article, every social media post trying to figure out what was actually going on. Because I didn’t know. I didn’t know when I applied. I didn’t know when the stories were coming out." – Isha Khan

Throughout a 90-minute lunch with a Free Press columnist, the human rights lawyer and former executive director of the Manitoba Human Rights Commission laughed easily and often, and answered questions — even those intended to be silly — openly and directly.

Khan, who submitted her resume when there was still snow on the ground and before the museum’s ugly secrets had been exposed, conceded she had some serious second thoughts when the scandal erupted.

"I had interviewed already," she recalled. "I was waiting to hear what would happen. I was alarmed. I was reading every news article, every social media post trying to figure out what was actually going on. Because I didn’t know. I didn’t know when I applied. I didn’t know when the stories were coming out. To me, I thought a lot about is this what I want to do? Is this the kind of place I want to go?

Khan, who submitted her resume when there was still snow on the ground and before the museum’s ugly secrets had been exposed, conceded she had some serious second thoughts when the scandal erupted.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / FREE PRESS FILES

Khan, who submitted her resume when there was still snow on the ground and before the museum’s ugly secrets had been exposed, conceded she had some serious second thoughts when the scandal erupted.

"To be honest, it motivated me to want to work there even more … I always wanted to go in there and say, ‘OK, we’ve got potential. What’s our mandate. What are we doing here? Who can we be to the world?’ I’ve watched this museum in our community being built, I’ve been in the human rights community and I wanted to help it open its doors to the community in a way that perhaps it hadn’t done as effectively as it could. When I saw that stuff happening, I thought, ‘OK, and we need to make sure the people who work there also believe in that mission and are also working together towards that purpose.’"

It’s a challenge that Khan has been working toward for decades. Visions of replacing the late Barbara Frum aside, it was always in the back of her mind that she wanted to be a difference-maker, to stand up for the rights of people who are unable to stand up for themselves.

The youngest of three children — she has two older brothers — Khan’s parents, father Tasadduq Ali and mother Aliya, both of whom are doctors and emigrated from Pakistan in 1970, instilled in her the importance of family values and hard work.

In between bites, she laughs and then struggles when asked to describe herself. "Whenever I’ve done those personality tests, I’m one of those mixture people … Extroverted but introverted, feeling but logical. I think I’m a mix of a bunch of things. I like people, I like talking to people, I derive energy from other people, but I also need time to myself.

"People talk to me. I wouldn’t say I’m super organized, but I think I can be pretty tough, especially if I’m in a situation where I need to advocate for someone else. I think I can be pretty strong. I’d like to think I’m empathetic. When I talk to people, they seem to tell me stuff."

What you don’t know about Isha Khan?

Age: 47, born Sept. 13

Husband: Married since 2001 to Dr. Paul Ratana, ER doctor at St. Boniface Hospital.

Pets: A guinea pig named Zuzu.

Children: Three girls — Safiya, 16; Zehra, 14; Lina, 11.

Her name: It’s pronounced ‘Eye-sha.’ “No one has ever said my name right the first time around,” she says.

Age: 47, born Sept. 13

Husband: Married since 2001 to Dr. Paul Ratana, ER doctor at St. Boniface Hospital.

Pets: A guinea pig named Zuzu.

Children: Three girls — Safiya, 16; Zehra, 14; Lina, 11.

Her name: It’s pronounced ‘Eye-sha.’ “No one has ever said my name right the first time around,” she says.

Favourite food: “I really like burgers, to be honest. I had a Big Mac while I was still in hospital after the delivery of each of my children. My mom delivered me a Big Mac. That’s all I wanted.”

Favourite movie: “This might seem too contrived, but American History X was a great movie. I remember being super impacted by that.”

Favourite song: “I grew up with lots of classic rock like the Beatles. That’s still the music I go to. I feel like my musical taste stopped in the Nineties somewhere. I like In My Life. I’d say that was probably my favourite.”

Favourite TV show: “I don’t have a favourite show. Netflix has made it easier to binge watch. I’m caught in the world of some teen drama because watching TV is now something I do with my kids, when they let me. So I’ve watched Gossip Girl like four times.”

Hobbies: “I like camping, I like being outside. We have a cabin at Lake of the Woods, so I grew up going there. We used to spend a lot of time canoeing and hiking. I love eating. I like doing outdoorsy stuff. I like hanging out with my people and driving around. Most of my hobbies these days as a middle-aged woman with three younger kids is driving around.”

Q: If an elephant walked in the room, and you couldn’t sell it or give it away, what would you do with it?

A: “I couldn’t sell it or give it away? I would take the elephant home. Or I would find a home for the elephant. It may not be my home, but I would find a home for that elephant (laughing).”

Q: You’re a new addition to the crayon box: what colour are you and why?

A: “It’s so hard. I have such bad memories of those crayon boxes. I really do. On a serious level, I hated the skin colour crayon even when I was a kid, because it was peach. But I also loved the deluxe crayon boxes. My mom would only buy the 12 pack and not the 24 pack with the built-in sharpener. The deluxe box had so many options.”

Despite holding a number of high-profile posts — she’s also the current board chair of United Way Winnipeg — Khan has largely flown under the public radar. There’s a lot that Winnipeggers, including her staff, don’t know about her.

For instance, just like their mom, all three of her daughters — Safiya, 16; Zehra, 14; and Lina, 11 — were enrolled in kindergarten class at Ecole Tuxedo Park. Khan has been married since 2001 to Paul Ratana, a St. Boniface Hospital ER doctor who used to be a lawyer, and they are proud owners of a single pet — a guinea pig named Zuzu.

"The guinea pig is actually a little depressed," she confided. "The guinea pig lost his partner. Earlier this year, the companion guinea pig passed away. It was super sad. He gets depressed and mopes around."

She was mildly flummoxed when asked to reveal one thing about her that others don’t know. "I always struggle with that question, because I don’t have a tattoo and I don’t have a hidden talent that I don’t tell anyone about," Khan replied, laughing. "I don’t know. I’m pretty open. People who know me know me well."

After a brief pause, she smiled and added: "I snooze my alarm probably about 15 times before I get out of bed every morning. I don’t share that very often. I set my alarm purposely more than an hour before I should get up, because I need to slowly think about getting up. It’s just a bizarre habit."

There was no single major event that put her on the path to becoming a human rights crusader. Instead, it was a series of smaller incidents. Yes, she’s experienced racism, but feels it wasn’t as traumatic as that faced by others.

“I remember riding my bike in Assiniboine Park on the monkey trails, and I remember someone calling us ‘Pakis.’ I just remember how it felt. I think about those things now. So they obviously shaped my desire to do these things, but it wasn’t like at that moment things crystallized.” – Isha Khan

"I remember the first time I was driving," she recalled. "I just had a learner’s (permit) or just got my licence. I was driving with my mom on Portage Avenue and I must have cut someone off and someone yelled at me from the other car and told me to go back to my country. I was devastated. Devastated. I was frazzled and super upset. I was crying.

"I remember riding my bike in Assiniboine Park on the monkey trails, and I remember someone calling us ‘Pakis.’ I just remember how it felt. I think about those things now. So they obviously shaped my desire to do these things, but it wasn’t like at that moment things crystallized."

She got her BA in philosophy at the University of Manitoba, a law degree from the University of Victoria, and spent a year articling in Vancouver, before practising in Calgary for about eight years. "I did litigation. I’ve always done litigation, and within that labour and employment law, workplace issues. It’s where I first started doing human rights stuff," she noted.

In 2007, the young family moved back to Winnipeg, where Khan spent three years working with the United Way, until a chance meeting landed her a job focused on human rights.

Khan says she’s experienced racism, but feels it wasn’t as traumatic as that faced by others.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / FREE PRESS FILES

Khan says she’s experienced racism, but feels it wasn’t as traumatic as that faced by others.

"I met a woman at my children’s skating lessons one day who said, ‘What do you?’ And she said she worked at the human rights commission and she was leaving and that I should apply. I met her for all of a couple of minutes. We were talking about our kids. She was a lawyer. I said I always wanted to be involved in human rights work. Then I ran into her a couple of lessons later. She actually ran by me and gave me a little piece of paper and said ‘they’re hiring you should apply,’ and so I did."

She was senior counsel for the commission for five years, then became executive director in 2015. "Every day, every story, every case I would get involved in, I loved it and cared about it and thought, ‘Yes, I can actually do something here.’ I found this vehicle for making change ... that’s when I realized I can use my skills."

Khan, who sits on the executive of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women’s Winnipeg chapter, is not defined by her ethnic or religious background, but acknowledges it is an important part of who she is.

"I’m Muslim ... some people put their ethnicity first. They say I’m Pakistani-Canadian, I am Muslim-Canadian. I certainly am those things, but I have never done that. I’m very proud of it. I tell people. It’s important to me in a spiritual sense. That’s how I was raised. It’s very much tied to my culture.

“I’m Muslim ... some people put their ethnicity first. They say I’m Pakistani–Canadian, I am Muslim–Canadian. I certainly am those things, but I have never done that. I’m very proud of it. I tell people. It’s important to me in a spiritual sense. That’s how I was raised. It’s very much tied to my culture." – Isha Khan

"It’s just very much about understanding where you come from and having confidence. I’ve always said to my kids ... we have a blended family in the sense my husband is also born in Canada, but his dad is from Thailand and his mom is French-American. Then we’ve got these kids and they’re all mixed up. We’ve always said we need to teach them where they come from, the culture and faith that is their background. Not to say you have to be this, you have to practise in this way, but you should understand."

It is also dawning on her the importance others place on seeing a woman and a person of colour in charge of one of the two national museums outside Ottawa (the other is in Halifax).

"It’s important to me because I think it’s breaking down some barriers … I think it sends a message to other people ... Some people I didn’t know would make a comment on social media that said, ‘You know, it made me feel so good to see a face like mine in a position like yours.’That’s when I kind of stopped and said maybe it does matter more than I give it play. I think that’s because a lot of people of colour, children of immigrants, you struggle to always be seen for your work and your education, not what you look like."

Khan is determined to write a new chapter for the beleaguered museum, but knows it’s not something she can do alone. Her job is largely to get employees and Winnipeggers pulling in the same direction.

Khan was senior counsel for the Manitoba Human Rights Commission for five years, then became executive director in 2015.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / FREE PRESS FILES

Khan was senior counsel for the Manitoba Human Rights Commission for five years, then became executive director in 2015.

"It’s absolutely clear to me now ... it’s all about me having a team of people doing some work together," she explained. "I can’t be the solution to systemic issues. I can help guide, I can try to mobilize people to do things. It does feel some days like there’s a lot of expectation. So I’m trying to kind of work on things like the workplace culture so people feel some ownership in change and it becomes more what are we going to do together ... I think that’s how you build a team back up."

She knows a lot of people are watching her next steps, but believes that’s a good thing. And change of this magnitude, restoring faith in the sign over the door, is going to take time.

"This kind of systemic change requires time," she said. "It has to be deliberate, thoughtful, purposeful work. But I can tell you just in the time that I’m there — and I do talk to a lot of people to ask how they’re feeling — I feel optimism. I feel a lot of optimism that if we are strong within the museum and work together better and we have the community support around us to inform us, advise us, check us and call us out, I feel really optimistic about this museum.

"I believe in the premise it was founded on and I believe it can be so much more to us. I think we need this right now, a place to talk about these issues. Look at what happened (last) week, look at the presidential debate in the States. Look at the story about the young woman (who died in hospital) in Quebec ... we’ve got to talk about this stuff. We’ve got to do better, and the museum can be part of that."

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Doug Speirs

Doug Speirs
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Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.

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