Hamilton human rights scholar receives Order of Canada

Sept 2023
Abigail Cukier

Rhoda Howard-Hassmann was recently named a member of the Order of Canada, recognized for her scholarly contributions and commitment to the advancement of international human rights.

“I was extremely surprised when they told me,” Howard-Hassmann say. “I was delighted. I found out in mid-May and had to keep quiet about it until the end of June when it was announced. I am very pleased to have the honour.”

Howard-Hassmann attributes much of her interest in human rights to her father’s background, which included escaping from Germany in 1938 because the Gestapo was looking for him after he criticized Hitler at a company banquet.  

Born Helmut Hassmann in Germany, he forged his passport and went on a journey that included stays in prisons in Yugoslavia and Italy and an encounter with a Swiss Quaker who protected him from deportation and helped him go to England. He married a Scottish woman, Mary Byrne, and they eventually immigrated to Canada.

In Britain, Hassmann changed his name to Michael Howard. Hassmann had been a German transliteration of his grandfather’s Russian-Jewish name, something like Chazman. Michael Howard was half Jewish but this was something he hid for the rest of his life. “My mother told me and my sister that there were some Jews in our father’s family, but instructed us never to let him know that we knew,” Howard-Hassmann wrote on her blog in 2014. “Our father’s past was a taboo subject. My parents made a few Jewish friends: my mother would whisper to us that so-and-so was Jewish, so that we knew we could trust her.  But at dinner parties we all had to pretend that no one at the dining room table was Jewish.” 

When she was 15, her father told her he was half Jewish. But the family was still under strict instructions to hide it. Howard-Hassmann says it was only when she attended McGill University that she met Jews who were open about their identity.  

Howard-Hassmann has lived in Hamilton for almost 50 years and is a member of Temple Anshe Sholom. She converted to Judaism in 2002 after changing her name from Rhoda Howard to Rhoda Hassmann in 1999.

She had wanted to change her name back for many years but could not while her father was alive, as she believes he would have been angry and afraid. On her blog in 2014 she wrote, “The profound effects of the Holocaust on my attitudes, thinking and scholarship at last have some tangible expression. I no longer bear a name adopted because of fear. It’s a bit late in the game, after 51 years with the other name: what if I die young, I asked myself last September, after all this hassle of making the change?  But I decided that if I do die young, I want to die as who I am.”

Howard-Hassmann earned her PhD in sociology at McGill. Her thesis on colonialism and underdevelopment in Ghana was published as a book in 1978 and reissued this year for its 45th anniversary. When she wanted to investigate why people became refugees, she moved into human rights. She wrote a book, Human Rights in Commonwealth Africa and then many more books, including Reparations to Africa (and Can Globalization Promote Human Rights?  

From 1976 to 2003, Howard-Hassmann was a professor in the Department of Sociology at McMaster University, originating and directing its now-defunct undergraduate minor Theme School on International Justice and Human Rights, one of the world’s first undergraduate non-law programs in human rights. 

From 2003 to 2016, Howard-Hassmann held a Canada Research Chair in International Human Rights at Wilfrid Laurier University. There she held a joint appointment in the Department of Global Studies and the Balsillie School of International Affairs until 2014, when her appointment changed to the School of International Policy and Governance and the Department of Political Science. She retired in 2017.

“I’m known for defending universal human rights,” Howard-Hassmann. “A lot of people say human rights is a Western colonial imposition and it’s just absolutely not true. A lot of people say that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 was a Western colonial thing. And in fact, colonial powers opposed the universality of human rights. They didn’t want people in the colonies to have them, but they were voted down. Fifty-six countries took part in in devising that document. It wasn’t just colonial powers. It was Latin America, countries like India and China, countries that were independent. I am known for defending the universality against these claims.

“As a tenured university professor in Canada, if I’m not willing to speak my mind, in a democratic country, where they defend freedom of speech, then I have no business being in my job. Other people all over the world when they say things like what I say get thrown in jail.”