Human Rights Booklist

To mark the occasion of the official opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, library staff  put together a list of human rights resources for adults. These books and films are narratives — true or fictional — about the human rights and dignities we all share, and the struggle to assert them in all times and places. We strove to make the list as inclusive as possible, from older classics to the latest titles, while still maintaining a special focus on Canadian writers and topics. While they’re grouped by broad theme, of course many of these books have messages about more than one aspect of human rights.

Gender & Sexual Orientation

cereusCereus Blooms at Night, Shani Mootoo
An exquisite cross-generational history set on a fictional Caribbean island that unveils the mystery surrounding Mala, an aging, notoriously crazy woman suspected of murdering her father. In luminous, sensual prose, it explores identity, gender, and violence in a celebration of our capacity to love despite cruelty and despair.

The Complete Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
The poignant story of a girl’s coming of age within a large and loving family in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution of the late 1970s, and of the contradictions between private life and public life in a country plagued by political upheaval.

En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule, Édouard Louis
Elevé dans une famille ouvrière de Picardie, Eddy ne ressemble pas aux autres enfants. Sa manière de se tenir, son élocution, sa délicatesse lui valent de nombreuses humiliations et injures, tant par ses camarades de classe que par son père alcoolique et sa mère revêche. Lui-même finit par s’interroger sur cette homosexualité dont on le taxe avant même qu’il en éprouve le désir.  Un récit d’apprentissage dur et poignant.

For Today I Am a Boy, Kim Fu
At birth, Peter Huang is given the Chinese name juan chaun, meaning powerful king. He is the exalted only son in a family of daughters, the one who will finally fulfill his father’s dreams of Western masculinity. But Peter has different dreams: he knows that he is a girl.

handmaidThe Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
This is the story of Offred, one of the unfortunate Handmaids under the new social order who have only one purpose: to breed. In Gilead, where women are prohibited from holding jobs, reading, and forming friendships, Offred’s persistent memories of life in the “time before” and her will to survive are acts of rebellion.

Je suis une bacha posh, Ukmina Manoori
En Afghanistan, depuis toujours, certaines petites filles jouent le rôle d’un fils. On les appelle les « bacha posh » : les « filles habillées en garçons ». Un choix familial qui permet aux parents d’avoir une personne autonome pour faire les courses, travailler ou, dans certains cas, les sauver du déshonneur de n’avoir pas eu d’héritier mâle. Mais, à l’adolescence, les religieux rétablissent la loi naturelle. Les fillettes doivent alors se marier, enfanter et renoncer à leur liberté. Ukmina a décidé d’affronter la pression sociale et familiale en gardant ses vêtements d’homme. Un choix qui lui a ouvert la voie d’un destin extraordinaire.  Mais la liberté a toujours un prix. Pour « Ukmina la guerrière », ce fut sa vie de femme.

Physical & Mental Disabilities

Enabling Technology: Disabled People, Work and New Technology, Alan Roulstone
Disabled people are less likely to be afforded the same rights as able-bodied workers in access to the workplace. Enabling Technology looks at the role of new technology in reducing the barriers disabled people have commonly faced in the field of employment.

The Goode Life: Memoirs of Disability Rights Activist Barb Goode, Barb Goode
The inspiring story of one of Canada’s most remarkable and humble citizens who, in her mission of giving voice to those who had no voice, travelled the globe to meet some of our greatest leaders and some of our most vulnerable citizens.

livesHidden Lives: Coming Out on Mental Illness, edited by Lenore Ruth Rowntree
Evocative essays by writers who live with, or have close family members diagnosed with, a wide range of mental illnesses from depression to schizophrenia aim to break down the stigma that surrounds these conditions.

Immigrants & Refugees

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
Oscar is a sweet ghetto nerd who dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien. But Oscar may never get what he wants, thanks to the fukú—a curse that has haunted his family for generations, following them on their epic journey from Santo Domingo to the United States.

differencesCes différences et coutumes qui dérangent, Blandine Soulmana
Blandine Soulmana, elle-même immigrante, s’interroge… Les immigrants ont-ils tous les droits? Devant certains constats aberrants, je me pose de sérieuses questions. Est-ce que les gens qui choisissent de venir s’établir au Québec sont suffisamment informés qu’ils vivront dans une société laïque qui prône l’égalité entre les sexes? Est-ce qu’ils sont au courant qu’ici, pour la majorité des Québécois, voiler les femmes est perçu comme une attitude machiste, d’emprise et de supériorité de la part des hommes? Est-ce qu’ils sont informés que c’est aux nouveaux arrivants de s’adapter à la culture de leur pays d’accueil et non le contraire? Les immigrants sont-ils au courant que quitter leur pays inclut forcément un renoncement et qu’ils ne peuvent pas prendre juste ce qui fait leur affaire dans leur pays d’accueil? Un pays libre se donne la liberté d’avoir ses règles et de poser ses limites. Je considère que le Québec fait partie des rares endroits qui acceptent tout et n’importe quoi au nom de la tolérance.

nowhereCitizens of Nowhere: From Refugee Camp to Canadian Campus, Debi Goodwin
A poignant look at the lives of young men and women who experienced firsthand the horrors of civil war and exile from their homeland, and who now have renewed hope for their futures.

Safe Haven: The Refugee Experience of Five Families
An intimate introduction to five families who came to Canada from the former Czechoslovakia, Chile, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Somalia, with personal glimpses of their hopes and fears, losses mourned and futures planned.

hopeKeeping Hope Alive: One Woman, 90,000 Lives Changed, Hawa Abdi
Dr. Hawa Abdi is the founder of a massive camp for internally displaced people located a few miles from war-torn Mogadishu, Somalia. Since 1991, when the Somali government collapsed, famine struck, and aid groups fled, she has dedicated herself to providing help for people whose lives have been shattered by violence and poverty, ignoring the clan lines that have often served to divide the country.

The Lucky Ones: African Refugees’ Stories of Incredible Courage, Anne Mahon
In their own words, men and women ranging in age from four to 73 and representing a variety of African countries and backgrounds tell their compelling life stories and how they came to their new home in Manitoba.


Beloved, Toni Morrison
Sethe was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe’s new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.

negroesThe Book of Negroes, Lawrence Hill
Abducted as an eleven-year-old child from her village in West Africa, enslaved on the sea islands of South Carolina, Aminata escapes during the chaos of the American Revolution. In Manhattan she becomes a scribe for the British, recording the names of blacks who have served the King and earned their freedom in Nova Scotia. But the hardship and prejudice of the new colony prompt her to travel back to Africa, then on to London, where she bears witness to the injustices of slavery and its toll on her life and a whole people.

Enslaved: True Stories of Modern Day Slavery, edited by Jesse Sage
From poverty-stricken countries to affluent American suburbs, modern-day slaves toil as sweatshop workers, sex slaves, migrant workers, domestic servants, and chattel slaves. This heartbreaking, eye-opening collection includes accounts written by ten former slaves and slaveholders.

War & Genocide

cellistThe Cellist of Sarajevo, Steven Galloway [Français]
From his window, a musician sees twenty-two of his friends and neighbours killed by a mortar attack. In an act of defiance, the man picks up his cello and decides to play at the site of the shelling for twenty-two days to honour their memory. Inspired by a true story, The Cellist of Sarajevo explores how war can change one’s definition of humanity.

Death and the Maiden, Ariel Dorfman
This provocative, award-winning play is set in a country that has only recently returned to democracy. Gerardo Escobar has just been chosen to head the commission that will investigate the crimes of the old regime when his car breaks down and he is picked up by a doctor Roberto Miranda. But in his voice, Gerardo’s wife Paulina thinks she recognizes another man—the one who tortured her as she lay blindfolded in a detention center years before.

Le dernier train d’Hiroshima : Les survivants racontent, Charles Pellegrino
En s’appuyant sur le témoignage des survivants des bombes d’Hiroshima et de Nagasaki, Charles Pellegrino retrace les événements des deux jours d’août 1945 durant lesquels des engins atomiques ont explosé sur le Japon, changeant à jamais la vie sur Terre. Au coeur de ce récit, la voix de ceux qui ont vécu les premiers les explosions atomiques : les civils japonais et les aviateurs américains.

Notre-Dame du Nil, Scholastique Mukasonga
Perché sur la crête Congo-Nil, Notre-Dame du Nil est un lycée de jeunes filles.  Encerclées par les nervis du pouvoir hutu, c’est un microcosme existentiel, un prélude exemplaire au génocide rwandais.

Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, Roméo Dallaire [Français]
When General Dallaire was called on to serve as commander of the UN mission to Rwanda, he believed that his assignment was to help two warring parties achieve peace. Instead, he witnessed the killings of more than eight hundred thousand Rwandans. With only a few troops, Dallaire rescued thousands, but his call for more support from the global community fell on deaf ears.

rainWhite Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki [DVD], directed by Steven Okazaki
Through the powerful recollections of survivors of the atomic bombs that leveled two Japanese cities in 1945, this film presents a deeply moving look at the painful legacy of the first – and hopefully last – uses of thermonuclear weapons in war.


girls4 Little Girls [DVD], directed by Spike Lee
When a bomb tore through the basement of a black Baptist church on September 15, 1963, it took the lives of four young girls. This racially motivated crime sparked outrage and helped fuel the civil rights movement sweeping across the United States.

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Adam Hochschild
In the 1880s, as the European powers were carving up Africa, King Leopold II of Belgium seized for himself the vast territory surrounding the Congo River. Carrying out a genocidal plundering of the Congo, he looted its rubber and brutalized its people, while cultivating his reputation as a great humanitarian. Heroic efforts to expose these crimes eventually led to one of the first mass human rights movement of the 20th century.

Obasan, Joy Kogawa
A powerful and passionate novel that tells the story of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War through the eyes of a child. Naomi is a sheltered and beloved five-year-old when Pearl Harbor changes her life. Separated from her mother, she watches bewildered as she and her family become enemy aliens, persecuted in their own land.

placeA Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid
A brilliant look at colonialism and its effects in Antigua, the ten-by-twelve-mile island in the British West Indies where Kincaid grew up. Lyrical, sardonic, and forthright by turns, A Small Place amplifies our vision of one small place and all that it signifies.

things Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
This classic novel follows the life of Okonkwo, “strong man” of an Ibo village in Nigeria, before and after his land’s colonization by Great Britain and the arrival of aggressive, proselytizing European missionaries.


Indigenous Peoples

rightsAboriginal Rights are Not Human Rights: In Defense of Indigenous Struggles, Peter Kulchyski
A provocative argument that the category of “human rights” may not accurately reflect the particular rights of Aboriginal peoples as the author looks at Aboriginal peoples’ struggles to protect their traditional lands.

Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, James W. Daschuk
“[A] great work of history… This is excavation of an authentically Canadian past from under layers of colonial myth, performed with a scalpel, and illuminated by searing prose” (Globe and Mail).

Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence, Leanne Simpson
First Nations activist and educator Simpson explores collective acts of resurgence and the regeneration of Indigenous languages and traditions as a means to changing the relationship Indigenous peoples have with the Canadian state.

L’éveil des survivants : Récit des abus sexuels dans les pensionnats amérindiens du Québec, Daniel Tremblay
Daniel Tremblay a entrepris la tâche délicate d’explorer les zones obscures de l’histoire de ces pensionnats.  Grace à une recherche rigoureuse, il a rédigé cet imposant essai, non seulement pour décrire, mais aussi pour expliquer les traumatismes et les blessures qu’ont subis les communautés autochtones, de même que leur processus de guérison.

indianThe Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America, Thomas King [Français]
A history book with a conscience and sense of humour which explores the image of the Indian in popular culture and looks at the many attempts at cultural assimilation by Canadian and American institutions.

Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance [DVD], directed by Alanis Obomsawin
In 1990, a confrontation propelled issues in Kanehsatake and the village of Oka, Quebec, into the international spotlight. Obomsawin spent 78 days and nights filming the armed stand-off between the Mohawks, the Quebec police and the Canadian army. This powerful documentary takes you into the midst of an age-old struggle, showing how the Mohawk community was fighting not just against the expansion of a golf course, but for autonomy and the future of their culture.

Kiss of the Fur Queen, Tomson Highway
Born in northern Manitoba, Champion and Ooneemeetoo Okimasis are all too soon torn from their family and thrust into the hostile world of a residential school. Their language is forbidden, their names are changed to Jeremiah and Gabriel, and both boys are abused. As young men, estranged from their own people and alienated from the culture imposed upon them, the brothers fight to survive. Highway fuses Indigenous story-telling techniques with European narrative form to create an engaging, funny, passionate, and triumphant novel.

oneThey Called Me Number One, Bev Sellars
Written by a residential school survivor and Chief of the Xat’sull First Nation, this book is a memoir of living through state mandated residential school. Sellars documents the abuse she experienced at the hands of the school staff and the lifelong effects of living with the trauma of this experience.

Rabbit Proof Fence [DVD], directed by Philip Noyce
Based on a true story, this feature film shows the impact of Australia’s “Stolen Generation” — the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families. Three young girls are taken by government agents and sent to a camp 1500 miles away.  After they escape, they must elude the authorities on a dangerous journey along the rabbit-proof fence that bisects the continent and will lead them home.


Stickin’ to the Union: Local 2224 vs. John Buhler, Doug Smith
When John Buhler bought Versatile Tractor he provoked a strike by demanding a gutting of benefits and seniority provisions. The union surprised everyone by charging Buhler with bargaining in bad faith – and winning.

When the State Trembled: How A.J. Andrews and the Citizens’ Committee Broke the Winnipeg General Strike, Reinhold Kramer & Tom Mitchell
The Citizens’ Committee was formed by Winnipeg’s business elite to break the General Strike of 1919. They strategized with the government of the time to portray the strike as a criminal action and later prosecute its leaders on charges of sedition.

Political & Legal Freedoms

leguinThe Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin [Français]
Shevek, a brilliant physicist, is striving to reunite two civilizations that have been separated by hatred since long before he was born. The Dispossessed is a penetrating examination of society and humanity — and one man’s undertaking to question the unquestionable.

Escape From Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, Blaine Harden [Français]
No one born and raised in North Korea’s political prison camps is known to have escaped –  except Shin Dong-hyuk. Escape From Camp 14 unlocks the secrets of the world’s most repressive totalitarian state through the story of Shin’s imprisonment and his astounding getaway.

Guantanamo’s Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr, Michelle Shephard
A prize-winning journalist tells the troubling story of Omar Khadr, who spent half of his young life growing up in Guantanamo Bay’s military prison and now remains in federal prison in Canada. His story illustrates how the lack of due process can create victims and lead to retribution instead of justice. An essential read for those wanting to understand how the world changed after 9/11 and how fear has trumped fundamental rights.

weiweiAi Weiwei: Never Sorry [DVD], directed by Alison Klayman
This documentary chronicles artist and activist Ai Weiwei as he prepares for a series of exhibitions and gets into an increasing number of clashes with the Chinese government, from the close of the 2008 Beijing Olympics (for which he helped design the acclaimed “Bird’s Nest” stadium) to his arrest and 81-day detention in 2011.

The Holocaust

C’est arrivé, Piera Sonnino
En 2004, un manuscrit, tapé à la machine en 1960, conservé pendant près d’un demi-siècle, a été retrouvé par une des filles de P. Sonnino. C’est le témoignage personnel de l’auteure, seule survivante d’une famille de 8 (père, mère et enfants) qui tous périrent dans les camps de concentration nazis. C’est aussi le récit bouleversant d’une famille, unie dans l’adversité.

mausMaus: A Survivor’s Tale, Art Spiegelman
The Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel approaches the unspeakable through the diminutive, shocking us out of any lingering sense of familiarity. A haunting tale within a tale, Vladek Spiegelman’s harrowing story of survival is woven into the author’s account of his strained relationship with his aging father.

Night, Elie Wiesel [Français]
A candid, horrific, and deeply poignant account of Wiesel’s survival as a teenager in the Nazi death camps. Night offers much more than a litany of the daily terrors, everyday perversions, and rampant sadism at Auschwitz and Buchenwald; it also eloquently addresses many of the philosophical as well as personal questions implicit in any serious consideration of the Holocaust.

History of the Human Rights Movement

canadaA History of Human Rights in Canada: Essential Issues, edited by Janet Miron
Human rights, equality, and social justice are at the forefront of public concern and political debate in Canada.  Global events, especially the ‘war on terrorism,’ have fostered further interest in the abuse of human rights, especially when sanctioned or perpetuated by democratic governments.

Steps in the Rights Direction: Human Rights Celebrations & Tragedies That Inspired Canada and the World, Steven Hammond
You will be amazed, horrified, delighted and inspired by what you discover as you read about a human rights event for every day of the year. Even the acts of discrimination and worse will encourage you to try to do your part to make Canada and the world a better place.

Taking Liberties: A History of Human Rights in Canada, edited by Stephen Heathorn & David Goutor
Universal human rights are now considered a fundamental aspect of Canadian legal culture. However, Canada was surprisingly slow to adopt the rights revolution that followed the Second World War, and even when Canada did sign up, these rights were not all automatically put into practice. This collection sheds new lights on the bumpy road toward universal human rights in our diverse and complex country.

Interested in reading further? Ask at your local library branch, or take a look at this list of Teen Books on Human Rights, which has a lot to offer older readers as well.

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