The HRREC Celebrates 40 Years of Supporting Human Rights Research and Education.
Established in September 1981 at the University of Ottawa, the Human Rights Research and Education Centre (HRREC) was a pioneer of its time in Canada and North America. Throughout the 2021–2022 academic year, it will celebrate four decades of engagement in human rights (HR) research, outreach, training and advocacy.
Led by Professor John Packer with the support of Assistant Director Viviana Fernandez since 2014, the HRREC has a roadmap and ambitions that reflect its commitment to strengthening humanist and democratic values within Canadian society and around the world. The Centre fosters a collaborative approach and focuses on issues that align with the interests of its members, making sure to put words into action,” said Professor Packer. “The HRREC is an increasingly prominent and respected player in the HR community.”
The Centre’s Origins
The brainchild of Yvon Beaulne, Canada’s Ambassador to the UN at the time, and Gordon Fairweather, the first Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC), this innovative bijuridical and bilingual human rights research and training centre was initially a think tank. Its mission: to analyze and comment on various sections of the new Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the Charter), to be adopted in 1982.
Under the leadership of the HRREC’ first Directors, the Honourable Senator Gérald-A. Beaudoin and Justice Walter Tarnopolsky, 15 academics and prominent constitutional and human rights scholars produced “The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms: A Commentary” in 1982. The publication became a reference to the Supreme Court of Canada in interpreting the Charter and was republished by the HRREC in 1985 and 1993. It places the HRREC firmly in the history of the Charter.
On a Mission to Raise Awareness of Human Rights
The HRREC became a networking platform for civil society groups, helping strengthen the synergies of the HR movement in Canada. “All these feminist, Indigenous and ethnocultural groups wanted to test out section 15-2728 of the Charter on equality rights before it came into force in 1985,” said Magda Seydegart, the Centre’s first Executive Director.
The driving force behind the HRREC for a decade, she and Professor Tarnopolsky (1981–1983) helped secure HRREC start-up funding from the Donner Canadian Foundation and worked alongside Directors Ed Ratushny (1983–1985), Gérald-A. Beaudoin (1985–1988), William F. Pentney (1988–1989) and William W. Black (1989–1993) in fulfilling the Centre’s mission of raising awareness of HR issues.
A Path Inextricably Linked to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms
Since 1983, the Centre has helped train close to 100 Human Rights Commission of Canada (CHRC) employees and assisted in drafting HR codes for the Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan and Yukon.
The HRREC began publishing yearbooks comprising, among other things, complete periodical bibliographies on the Charter, including one produced specifically at the request of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Brian Dixon. Serving as a reference tool for practitioners and academics, these annual reviews—archived at the HRREC’s first Documentation Centre in the days before the Internet by documentalist Ivana Caccia—have been revived by Professor John Packer in recent years.
The Gordon Henderson Chair
During his mandate, Professor Ed Ratushny laid the groundwork for the Gordon Henderson Chair in Human Rights, which was inaugurated in 1995.
Designed as a sanctuary for scholars who are at times threatened in expressing their academic freedom, the Chair continues to play a key role in the Centre’s research community. It is also in some ways the forerunner to the Scholars at Risk (SAR) uOttawa program developed by the HRREC in partnership with the international SAR Network to document violations of academic freedoms and provide academic refuge to victims in such situations.
HRREC Builds Its Network
Each HRREC Director brought their own imprimatur and fields of expertise, thus expanding the multidisciplinary component of the Centre as well as its reach among legal and social academic communities in Canada and internationally.
The HRREC grew through forging a network of close relationships with the university’s faculties, institutional partners such as the CHRC, the Department of Justice, Global Affairs Canada, the Canadian Red Cross, as well as a increasing number of NGOs, international and community academic partners, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, members of the Canadian Association of Human Rights Institutes and Human Rights Internet.
The Centre organized a number of events befitting the global reputation it had gained over the years, including a lecture series attracting internationally renowned figures such as Simone Veil, President of the European Parliament, and Andrei Sakharov, winner of the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize, as well as the 35th and 50th anniversaries of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)
Held at the National Arts Centre in 1998 under the theme “The Artist and Human Rights,” the UDHR 50th Anniversary Symposium was masterminded by Professor Errol Mendes (1993–2001) with sponsorship from Canadian Heritage. “The Nobel laureate in chemistry, John Polanyi, Noble laureates in literature Wole Soyinka and Adrienne Clarkson, who was then touted to become Governor General, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson Raj Mohan Gandhi, feminist writer Taslima Nasreen and numerous others answered the call and came to discuss the role of artistic engagement in the field of HRs,” said Professor Mendes. “It was a memorable event!”
Professor Mendes’s mandate as Director was notable for the progress made in HR diplomacy with China, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Brazil as well as the publication of three reference books on the Canada-China HR dialogue.
Moving into the New Millennium
The 21st century marked the arrival of the Centre’s first female Director. Professor Constance Backhouse (2001–2003) committed to expanding the Indigenous rights components through a survey of Labrador Innu for the CHRC and promoting women’s rights by creating the Shirley E. Greenberg Chair for Women and the Legal Profession.
Her successors were Professors Sheila McIntyre (2003–2005), Karen Eltis (2005–2006) and then Marie-Claude Roberge (2006–2007). The latter spearheaded the creation of the Interdisciplinary Research Laboratory on the Rights of the Child and a summer course in international humanitarian law in collaboration with the Canadian Red Cross. Now in its 14th year, this highly sought-after course continues to train cohorts of participants on regulations intended to protect civilians from the effects of war conflicts on humanitarian grounds.
Professors Joanne St. Lewis (2007–2009) and Lucie Lamarche (2009–2014) were next to carry the torch. Supported by Executive Director Sonya Nigam, Professor Lamarche launched a ground-breaking digital shift by developing a communications lab and online course modules with funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). “The CFI funding allowed us to expand the physical space dedicated to students and create new avenues for exchanges and dialogue, such as those with groups linked to the Arab Spring movement,” said Professor Lamarche. During this time, the HRREC also inaugurated the Fulbright Chair in Human Rights and Social Justice and launched the Human Rights Film Festival.
Creation of the Human Rights Clinic
When John Packer took over as Director of the HRREC, his mandate was to launch the first Human Rights Clinic in Canada—mission accomplished! “I thought it was vital to bring a practical element to HR training to enable new generations of students to not only study and understand the world, but to be able to influence and engage in it,” said Professor Packer. The Clinic, led by Professor Salvador Herencia Carrasco, offers students real-world projects with partners such as the United Nations Special Rapporteurs, giving them the opportunity to make a real impact.
Looking ahead to its 50th
Building on its 40 years of commitment to HRs advocacy and its leadership’s ongoing efforts to inform public policy development through its humanist vision, the HRREC team is now preparing to face the challenges of the decade ahead with the support of all the partner networks and aspiring HR professionals it trains each year at the University of Ottawa.