Opinion-Policy Nexus

Rhoda Howard-Hassmann is Canada Research Chair in International Human Rights (Tier 1) and a Professor in the Department of Global Studies and the Balsillie School of International Affairs at Wilfrid Laurier University.  According to her bio, “she holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from McGill University (1976), and as of 1993 is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. In 2006 she was named the first Distinguished Scholar of Human Rights by the Human Rights Section, American Political Science Association.”

Dr. Howard-Hassmann has written many books, including “Colonialism and Underdevelopment in Ghana (1978), Human Rights in Commonwealth Africa (1986), Human Rights and the Search for Community (1995), Compassionate Canadians: Civic Leaders Discuss Human Rights (2003), Reparations to Africa (2008), and Can Globalization Promote Human Rights? (2010). She is also co-editor of an International Handbook of Human Rights (1987); Economic Rights in Canada and the United States (2006); and The Age of Apology: Facing up to the Past (2008).” Several of her books have won major awards: “Compassionate Canadians was named 2004 Outstanding Book in Human Rights by the Human Rights Section, American Political Science Association; Economic Rights in Canada and the United States was named a notable book for 2008 by the United States Human Rights Network, a coalition of 200 non-governmental organizations.”

“From 1987 to 1992 Professor Howard-Hassmann was Editor or Co-Editor of the Canadian Journal of African Studies, and she remains on its Editorial Board. She is also a member of the Editorial Boards of Citizenship Studies, Human Rights and the Global Economy, Human Rights and Human Welfare, Human Rights Quarterly, Human Rights Review, Journal of Human Rights, and Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights. She established and remains editor of a website on political apologies, which can be visited at http://www.political-apologies.wlu.ca. She maintains a blog, Rights&Rightlessness, which can be accessed at http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.com.”

Dr. Howard-Hassmann is one of the world’s leading experts on international human rights and has been an important mentor for me since I arrived at WLU in 2008.  She is what every junior faculty member needs when they start their career: a senior scholar who is willing to not only give you advice about how to establish an international research trajectory and profile, but also someone who is willing to advocate and work on your behalf.  I have nothing but good things to say about Dr. Howard-Hassmann and I am very happy to have had the chance to interview her for this blog.


I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career

Well, someone did tell me but I didn’t listen. In 1966 Jane Jenson was in her third year at McGill and I was in my second. We both lived in the women’s residence, Royal Victoria College. Jane told me I should do both political science and economics, and I didn’t listen, only doing a degree in political science (international relations). I really regret not having a better background in economics.

The other thing I wish someone had told me was how utterly parochial Canadian sociology would become over the decades. I foolishly switched from political science to graduate work in sociology.  My supervisor (also at McGill) was Immanuel Wallerstein, who devised world systems theory, so I thought of sociology as a way to explain more deeply some of the processes of underdevelopment, my interest at the time. I worked in a sociology department from 1976 until I took up my Canada Research Chair in International Human Rights at Wilfrid Laurier in 2003.  Over the course of my 27 years in Sociology, I noticed the discipline becoming more and more parochial, focusing on matters such as health, gender, and education in Canada. There was very little interest in the wider world. I was really glad to join Global Studies and later the Balsillie School of International Affairs at Laurier, where all my colleagues share my interests in international politics.

The individual I admire the most academically

Hannah Arendt: I was really taken with her Origins of Totalitarianism when I was a graduate student. After her, the brilliant scholar of comparative genocide studies, Helen Fein. Also the scholar-activists who not only study genocide but try to prevent it, such as Eric Reeves and Sam Totten in the US, who have campaigned for years against genocide in Sudan, or Frank Chalk in the Department of History at Concordia, who works with Senator Roméo Dallaire on genocide prevention.

My best research project during my career

I can’t really say, but I am very glad I went into human rights. At the time I started, around 1980, this was not a field in political science; now there are hundreds of members of the human rights sections at the ISA and APSA. I am also very grateful for the principle of tenure, which protected me when I started in this new and interdisciplinary field.

My worst research project during my career

An attempt to compare human rights in Nigeria and Indonesia, thinking it would be useful two compare two oil-rich, predominantly Muslim countries in two different regions of the world.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research

Probably the interviews I conducted for both my Compassionate Canadians (2003) and my Reparations to Africa (2008).  For both books, I had long, semi-structured conversations with Canadians/Africans.  It was interesting, moving, and humbling to hear how Canadian civic leaders in Hamilton thought about matters such as their obligations to Aboriginal people, or how their views on gay marriage were changing.  It was also interesting to learn what Africans thought about the West, about slavery and colonialism, etc.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance

A fellow member of the Royal Society of Canada once asked us to contribute stories for a book he was compiling about the best teacher we had ever had, and I didn’t.  I wish I had. The best teacher I ever had was my mother, Mary Howard (née Byrne).  My mother was an artist who taught art at St. Thomas High School in Pointe Claire, Quebec, for 13 years after my sister and I grew up. She viewed the world through the lens of art history, and I spent many hours as a child browsing through her art books. She was Scottish (I was born in Scotland), the daughter of two members of the Left Book Club, so I got a good dose of leftish politics from her as well. Scotland had a long tradition of education for women, so my mother took it for granted that my sister and I would go to university, whereas many native-born Canadian women of my generation were discouraged from higher education.

A research project I wish I had done

In 1974 I was conducting research in the Ghana National Archives in Accra for my PhD (published in 1978 as Colonialism and Underdevelopment in Ghana). I came across a file about a 1933 legal case. Some Ghanaian brothers were suing for their half-siblings’ share of their father’s estate, on the grounds that the half-siblings were the children of a slave mother and therefore had no inheritance rights. Of course, the British colonialists had abolished slavery in Ghana, but this didn’t mean that the locals didn’t know who had slave ancestry and who didn’t. I wish I’d known enough to write up this file as an article, even though it wasn’t part of my Ph.D. research. I heard a few years later that the Ghana National Archives had deteriorated and that there were snakes in the basement where many of the files were kept, so I don’t know if anyone else ever saw the file and wrote it up.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be

Brushing up on my creative writing skills.  I have been a member of poetry workshops in Oakville and Hamilton since 1979, and have published about 70 poems, mostly locally, as I haven’t had time or energy to submit them to national or international journals (when I used to do this, my rejection rate was about 15:1). I would like to know more about formal poetry styles, and should also read more poets. I’d also like to take classes in how to write creative non-fiction, which would be useful for my blog, Rights&Rightlessness: Rhoda Hassmann on Human Rights, http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.com

I would also be working with immigrants. One of the most rewarding experiences of my life was the year (1999-2000) I spent teaching citizenship classes to immigrants preparing for their citizenship exam. Of course this was before the Harper government revised the citizenship manual to stress the monarchy (which I don’t support) and the military. During my time teaching, the most important phrase was “the fur trade” and the most important word was “multiculturalism” (a word that Spanish speakers from Central America had trouble pronouncing).  My most memorable experience was asking a Pakistani immigrant who had to have an oral exam as he could not read or write English, what he would say when the judge asked him why he wanted to be a Canadian.  His answer was “I like no fighting, I like everyone the same.”

And finally, I would like to work with small children and hope someday to be a “story lady” at a library or school.

The biggest challenge in Canadian politics in the next 10 years will be

I am not an expert on Canadian politics but I think it will be uniting the centre and centre-left so that the Conservatives are defeated. If the Liberals and the New Democrats don’t face reality the Conservatives may stay in power for a long time.

The biggest challenge in Canadian political science in the next 10 years will be

Sorry, I don’t know enough about Canadian political science to answer this, but I think a big challenge will be justifying having so many doctoral programs when so many young PhDs can’t get jobs and when the best advice you can give to a prospective doctoral student is to study at one of the top institutions in the US.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is

Think very carefully about whether you really want to do a PhD.  If you haven’t had your nose in a book since the day you started to read, and if you are not extremely self-disciplined, it is probably not worth it.  Even if you are a reader and self-disciplined, what else could you do?  There are many jobs for which a Ph.D. is not required, an MA is enough, and you can get on with your life without wasting four to six years studying for a doctorate.

In the last 20 years I have seen too many younger Ph.D.s teaching on short-term contracts, or one course at a time, some living at or below the poverty level. This includes people with quite impressive publications lists. Even if you get an academic job, the pressure is tremendous, what with the demands of students, more and more committee work, and higher publishing standards. I don’t see how any younger person can do all this and still have a decent private life.

I did a PhD because I couldn’t think of any other way to earn a decent living after my BA. I didn’t want to be a nurse, teacher, librarian or secretary, pretty well the only jobs for women in those days. I did want to be a lawyer but lost my self-confidence; I’ve always loved the law and still regret that at the time, so few women went to law school. If I were starting out today, I’d go to law school.


Wednesday, July 24, 2013 - 15:30