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Human Rights and refugee scholar Shauna Labman appointed to prestigious position at University of Winnipeg

By MYRON LOVE According to Dr. Shauna Labman, the newly-appointed executive director of the University of Winnipeg’s Global College (as of January 1), her appointment to her new position is an “interesting opportunity” which builds on her work over the past nearly 20 years as an advocate for refugees and immigrants locally and beyond. 

The Global College, explains Labman, who has been a faculty member at the University of Winnipeg since 2019, was established in 2004 by then University of Winnipeg President Lloyd Axworthy as the Global College and Dialogue Centre.  The College built its academic offerings focused on human rights. 

Human Rights, where Labman has been teaching, was recognized as a formal academic unit in 2018.  The College has now grown to house a BA in Human Rights, an MA in Development Practice: Indigenous Development, an MA in Development Practice and Indigenous Development, a joint MA (with the University of Manitoba) in Peace and  Conflict Studies and, most recently, a BA in Indigenous Languages.

 “The really beautiful thing about Global College,” the new executive director observes, “is that we offer interdisciplinary programs which provides practical knowledge and the opportunity to work with communities in a local, national and international context.”

Labman, a graduate of Ramah Hebrew School and Balmoral Hall – and eldest daughter of Cyril and Jean Labman – left Winnipeg right after high school for UBC and, later, the University of Victoria.  While studying law at the University of Victoria, Labman was exposed through a Co-operative Law program to the work of the now defunct Law Commission of Canada which dealt with issues such as  Residential Schools cases, same sex marriage, workers’ rights and human rights and discrimination.

After graduation, she began her legal career at the Federal Court of Appeal working on issues ranging from immigration to tax and patent law. “I soon realized,” she said in that earlier interview, “that I wasn’t interested in working in a traditional law practice. I had done some work in Ottawa with refugees.  So I applied to the United Nations and I was posted to India for a six-month consultancy with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).”

 Her life-changing work with UNHCR involved conducting refugee status determinations of Burmese asylum seekers and preparing resettlement referrals for Afghan refugees. Labman was struck by the reality that most refugees never make it to countries such as Canada that are willing to offer permanent protection, and instead remain in protracted states of limbo.

Following a stint at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing where she gained an appreciation of Canadian diplomacy and policy considerations, she returned to Canada with a clear cause and career goal. Using the academic avenues open to her, she began exploring how the voluntary programs of government resettlement and private sponsorship operate alongside Canada’s obligations in international law to refugees who claim asylum. Her research examined, analyzed, and advocated for the protection needs of the refugees she left behind in India, as well as those of other refugees who wait patiently, but powerlessly, around the world.

In her new position, Labman notes, she will have less time for teaching – although for a time, she will also be serving as acting director for the Human Rights program as well as appearing in the classroom as a guest lecturer on occasion.

“As executive director, I will be engaging with students in a different way,” she explains.  “I am, for example, working with the Global College’s Student Advisory Council and participating in some of their programs.

“This is also an interesting time to be stepping into this role,” she adds, “as after two years of teaching largely online due to the pandemic restrictions, we are back to in-person learning and interaction.  For example, my partner and I  attended a bowling party last week that was organized by our student council  in support of a Zambia non-profit where a Human Rights student will be conducting her international practicum this term.

“With online learning, you miss the sense of community, social connections and outreach.”

In a project close to her heart, Labman notes that she is leading an effort to bring an Afghan scholar-at-risk  to be hosted teaching at  Global College.

She also is continuing her own refugee research and advocacy with a focus these days on Canada’s response to Afghan refugees as well as Ukrainian nationals welcomed to Canada on temporary visas. 

In the earlier interview with her four years ago, she expressed concern about the Federal Government’s shift in refugee policy in recent years more to private sponsorships.  It used to be, she says, that government took responsibility for two-thirds of refugee sponsorships with private sponsors the remaining third. Currently, private sponsors account for two-thirds of refugees coming to Canada.

“There is a danger on becoming overly reliant on individual Canadians, she asserts.

She added at that time that her family and several friends in their Wolseley neighbourhood had privately sponsored a family from Colombia.

Labman is the author of  “Crossing Law’s Border: Canada’s Refugee Resettlement Program,”, a book she published in 2019 which received the K.D. Srivastava Prize for Excellence in Scholarly Publishing. The book, she notes,  examines the intersection of international rights, responsibility and obligation in the absence of a legal scheme for refugee resettlement.

“Crossing Law’s Borders” grew out of the author’s Ph.D. thesis which she completed in 2013.

“My book,” she reports, “was very well received and has helped raise awareness of who refugees are, why it’s important to protect them and the different ways that  refugees seek protection through resettlement and asylum.” 

Three years ago, she put out a second book – “Strangers to Neighbours: Refugee Sponsorship in Context” – an edited collection that offers the first dedicated study of refugee sponsorship policy.  She notes that one of the chapters was written by Madison Pearlman (who this writer profiled in the December 7, 2016, issue of the JP&N).   

Pearlman’s contribution was a chapter describing Operation Ezra, our Jewish community’s  effort to sponsor  Yazidi refugees and reunite them  with family here.

Both books were consecutively named in The Hill Times’ list of 100 Best Books in 2019 and 2020.

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