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Leading Equitas as a Hub for International Human Rights Education  

RUTH SELWYN– Montreal, Canada


This story is part of the series We are human rights changemakers to celebrate Equitas’ 50th anniversary (#Equitas50). All through 2017, we invite you to discover stories of 50 inspiring human rights changemakers. These are but a few of the hundreds who have changed lives around the world through human rights education with Equitas’ support.



Ruth Selwyn’s long and impressive career was built on a desire to contribute to the advancement of social justice in a fair and empowered workplace. She has made a valuable contribution to social justice and equality in Canada and worldwide, and never more so than in her role as Executive Director of Equitas (formerly known as the Canadian Human Rights Foundation, or CHRF).

Where did it all begin? Ruth’s concern for social justice came from family values and way of life. At a young age, she volunteered at a seniors’ home (then called an “old age home”) and became involved in anti-apartheid activities in London, England where she was born.

Later, she worked for a Labour Member of Parliament.  In 1957 she decided to emigrate to Canada, where she met her husband. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Ruth, her husband and their three children lived in Antigua, West Indies and Tanzania. “These were wonderful, life-changing experiences. I lived and learned through the generosity of local people, and I particularly valued sharing skills with women.”

When she returned to Montreal in 1972, Ruth worked at the Consulate General of Japan. Her job was to assist the Consul General and to organize logistics when prominent visitors and cultural groups came to Montreal.

Ruth then joined the staff of the Montreal Women’s Y, of whose Board of Directors she had been a member. As she described it, her mandate was “to develop ‘feminist’, revenue-producing programs”. After considerable consultation, Ruth developed pilot courses and skill-building workshops for the workplace. This grew into the Management Centre for Women, a widely esteemed program that received awards and recognition for its innovativeness and effectiveness. This experience, she said, was particularly formative: “During my eight years at the “Y”, we developed over 60 courses and seminars in French and English, led by women, for women, using a participatory formula. When I look back, I realize that this was a great training for me for my work at Equitas.”

In 1992 Ruth was hired as Executive Director of CHRF (now Equitas). She was charged with overhauling and renewing its programming and activities and securing long-term funding. At that time, there was one full-time and one part-time employee and a pile of boxes in the office. Undaunted, Ruth applied her skill in turning something small into something great!

Since its establishment 25 years earlier, the CHRF programming approach was a traditional one. The annual human rights training program was designed for Canadian law students and consisted of three weeks of lectures. At that time law faculties were not teaching international human rights law, and the CHRF’s programs were appropriate.

Ruth spearheaded the transformation of the educational methodology from the traditional approach into a participant-centred one, and this became the CHRF’s core program, the International Human Rights Training Program (IHRTP), in Montreal, Canada. The IHRTP was offered to human rights educators around the world, and by the end of the 1990s it was attracting 120 participants per year from over 60 countries. Another of Ruth’s initiatives was an annual program where Canadian families hosted dinners with the IHRTP participants, who came from all over the world, to extend a typical Canadian welcome, and to exchange ideas.

In addition, Ruth started a conversation with the City of Montreal that culminated in a partnership between the City and Equitas. This partnership led to the development of Play It Fair!, an innovative program that encourages children aged 6 to 12 to better understand human rights, respect for diversity and peaceful conflict resolution. She also sought partnerships with First Nations communities, women’s organizations; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex rights groups; adult education organizations; schools and universities; unions; international human rights NGOs; and community groups.

Ruth talks about the significant contribution of a vibrant, dedicated and empowering Board of Directors, headed by its president, Pearl Eliadis, from 1990 to 1995, which contributed in every possible way to the success of the organization.

“It was an adventure of some magnitude, inspired by the firm belief that people coming together to achieve social change can be a powerful force.”

Ruth brought a collegial management style to Equitas. She is quick to give credit for the success of the education program to the talented people she recruited and to whom she entrusted decision-making power. “I believe that an effective team is one in which everyone has an important role to play. Even though I was the ‘boss’, I wasn’t the boss of everything”.

“When I started the job at Equitas, I dreamed we would develop and foster the growth of a worldwide network of human rights educators. Now, a decade after my retirement, I can state with pride that Equitas is the hub of an international human rights education network and is a valued practitioner at home and abroad.”

Ruth’s legacy is honoured by the Ruth Selwyn Bursary for Achievement in Empowering Women and Girls. The annual bursary supports a woman whose area of work is women’s rights (sex workers, gender-based violence, etc.) to attend the IHRTP in Montreal, Canada.


Ruth Selwyn – Montreal, Canada
Executive Director, Equitas, 1992-2004

Story prepared with the contribution of Patricia Post, Postwrites Personal Histories : postwrites@rogers.com 
Member of the Association of Personal Historians.


Equitas’ International Human Rights Training Program is undertaken in part with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada.

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