Winnipeg’s role as a civil liberties hub has expanded, with the launch of Canada’s first interdisciplinary master of human rights program.
"The field of human rights has become so legal, technical and really dominated by lawyers that introducing other perspectives — social sciences, education and social work — offers a broad perspective and is unique," said University of Manitoba Prof. Kjell Anderson, the program’s first director.
The program is run out of the U of M law school’s Robson Hall and includes the faculties of graduate studies, law, arts, education and social work — with the first batch of 21 students from five countries, including Canada.
"Because of the relative scarcity of human rights programs in Canada, especially at the graduate level, many Canadians study overseas," Anderson said Monday. "That’s what I did. There were a lot of Canadians in the places I studied, including the Netherlands and Ireland."
Now he’s running one in Winnipeg — which, in academic circles, has been compared to Geneva, Switzerland, as a hub for human rights activities.
"What’s particular to Winnipeg at this moment is the constellation of institutions like the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, our program, the bachelor of human rights program at the University of Winnipeg, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, the Centre for Human Rights Research and other institutions like the Manitoba Human Rights Commission," Anderson said.
"There’s no other city in Canada that has that kind of grouping of institutions."
And no other school has a master’s degree like the U of M’s, he said.
"What’s been lacking in Canada is an institution that looks at all facets of human rights and draws from an international group of students," Anderson said. "I hope the program stops that trend."
It lured American Mia Bastien to pursue a master of human rights in Winnipeg.
"When I saw this program come up, it was a dream come true," said Bastien, 28.
"I’d seen lots of programs outside of Canada," said the woman who left California nine years ago to study history at Brandon University. After graduating, she worked as a program facilitator for Westman Immigrant Services for three years and got to know many newcomers, including a wave of young Syrian refugees.
"It was my first experience (working with refugees) and very eye-opening about what it means to be a refugee and what it means to settle in Canada and the implications of that," Bastien said. "I’m hoping to learn much more and re-enter the world of human rights advocacy and help in the international community — when I have the tools to do that much more effectively."
The program’s broad scope and practicum will help her reach her goals, she said. "I see myself on the front lines advocating for refugee rights, for those in Canada and those who aren’t yet settled."
She’d love to work with UN one day, but wants to be "on the ground, and hands on. I do believe that’s where policy change happens. You can’t make policy decisions about people in the abstract. You have to know what they’re going through."
Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.