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Law Professor Karen Busby

A Legacy of Human Rights Research

Karen Busby bids farewell as Director of Centre for Human Rights Research

June 15, 2020 — 

When the Canadian Museum for Human Rights broke ground in 2009, Prof. Karen Busby was tasked with helping make the University of Manitoba a top choice for students and scholars of human rights.

She agreed to spend six months consulting across campuses to come up with a plan. Eleven years later, Busby is stepping down as founding director of the university’s Centre for Human Rights Research, formally established in 2012.

She will continue to teach and research full-time in the Faculty of Law while supporting the centre’s new director Dr. Adele Perry, whose term starts July 1.

The Centre for Human Rights Research co-ordinated proposals that brought the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation to the University of Manitoba in 2015 and established Canada’s first interdisciplinary Master of Human Rights program in 2019. Busby also co-edited the first book inspired by the museum.

No wonder she has a reputation for getting things done.

The Centre for Human Rights Research, started by the faculties of Law, Arts, Education and Social Work, fosters the kind of interdisciplinary research that is too complex for individual professors to manage. Its most ambitious research project has been on the human right to drinking water and safe wastewater disposal in First Nations. Busby brought together Indigenous and non-Indigenous scientists, social scientists and community partners who raised almost $2 million from Canada’s three main research granting agencies.

“We were really instrumental in keeping the issue on the table – not letting it get lost,” she says. “At the same time, we helped build capacity in non-Indigenous scholars to work with Indigenous scholars and community workers and vice versa.”

Psychology professor Dr. Kathryn Starzyk’s research explored which types of advocacy messages are most likely to encourage Canadians to care about First Nations water issues. She believes she wouldn’t have been able to progress with that research nearly as quickly without Busby’s support. “The university is so lucky to have had her in this role,” Starzyk says.

“She provides people an opportunity to do work that has relevance outside of academia – to connect people to their community. It’s exactly what a university should be.”

Busby is thrilled that the centre’s research on surrogate mothers and water rights is now being used to help prepare court cases that may advance human rights.

“You don’t publish research and suddenly the law changes,” she says. “You publish an opinion column and that gets an idea out there and other people are attracted to the idea and then other people coalesce around it and come up with new strategies.”

She also recently co-authored a guidebook on how to handle campus sexual violence complaints.

Most years, the Centre for Human Rights Research hires half a dozen part-time student research assistants, while other students volunteer through the centre’s Student Speakers Bureau to deliver human rights presentations in high schools.

“I think we helped train a lot of students,” Busby says.

The centre’s first research assistant, Dayna Steinfeld, is now a lawyer at one of Winnipeg’s top firms. She puts Busby’s human rights training into practice in employment law and with sexual assault complainants, as well as teaching a course on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms at the Faculty of Law.

“Karen really took the time when I was her research assistant to talk through her thinking with me,” Steinfeld says. “She has just done so much to make an impact for me and I think for so many others at the university.”

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It’s no surprise that former University of Manitoba provost Dr. Joanne Keselman turned to Busby for advice in 2009 on how to co-ordinate and grow the university’s human rights expertise.

She already had a national reputation as a human rights scholar and advocate.

Busby’s passion for justice was born in a Winnipeg junior high school where she was streamed into non-academic classes because of assumptions based on her family’s circumstances. Her mother had moved the family from Edmonton to Winnipeg to avoid schoolyard bullying after Busby’s father was charged with armed robbery.

The mistaken belief that Busby had little academic potential “made me really aware of systemic inequalities from the tender age of 13 and it also made me a fighter,” she says.

Busby worked part-time to pay for university, including in research assistant positions that were “super influential.”

While in Ottawa clerking for federal Court of Appeal judges, Busby volunteered for the rape crisis centre, giving talks about sexual assault law reform to high schools, Rotary clubs and nursing associations.

She learned how to explain legal concepts in plain language – a skill that keeps her in high demand as a media commentator.

“I think we have an obligation as academics to get our work out there in the public domain,” Busby says, encouraging other researchers to get media training if they’re nervous.

After she became a law professor in 1988, Busby developed a taste for strategic litigation by helping with a feminist intervention in an obscenity case. That set the direction for a career pursuing law reform on emerging and controversial human rights issues.

In 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada quoted Busby’s research on discriminatory use of complainants’ personal records in sexual violence cases. That same year, she argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of a feminist organization challenging censorship of queer literature. Busby then helped win the fights for same-sex marriage in Canada and broad legal recognition of same-sex partners in Manitoba. Those achievements have been recognized by a string of awards.

Starzyk says Busby is a role model for how to be both assertive and graceful in academic spaces that are not always welcoming to women. “I just really admire her.”

Busby is leaving her position as director of the Centre for Human Rights Research before the end of her term to focus on teaching and completing her own research. She is a co-investigator on three large grants funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, including one on why so few sexual assault cases result in convictions. Her energy level has diminished since she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease about a decade ago, so she decided to hand over the idea-generating and network-building work of running the research centre.

Busby is pleased to see the Centre for Human Rights Research taken over by another feminist who already has strong relationships with Indigenous communities and scholars. She expects more Arts students will become involved under Perry’s leadership.

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