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Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation seeks to strengthen ties with the broader community

Scholars praise the foundation for its “risk taking” and commitment to addressing timely public issues.

By PATRICIA HLUCHY | AUG 03 2016

“Life is hard here because people stigmatize us,” 14-year-old Beatrice, who lives in rural northern Uganda, told her interviewers. “In my family, they hate the three of us who were born in captivity [of the Lord’s Resistance Army]. My uncle beats us and said he would kill us. He doesn’t want rebel children, Kony children, at home,” she says, in reference to LRA leader Joseph Kony.

Beatrice – the name is a pseudonym to protect her identity – is one of 60 northern Ugandan children born of wartime rape, aged 10 to 19, who spoke last year with McGill University professor Myriam Denov and her research partners in Watye Ki Gen (We Have Hope), a collective of women who had been abducted as adolescents by the LRA. They had been forced into marriage and sex slavery, producing multiple children born of rape.

Dr. Denov, an author of five books who holds the Canada Research Chair in Youth, Gender and Armed Conflict at McGill’s School of Social Work, has focused her career on children and youth in adversity, especially because of war and political violence. Her work on the fallout from northern Uganda’s brutal LRA insurgency, which lasted from 1987 to 2006, looks at how children born of wartime rape are now subject to prejudice, violence and social exclusion, often within their own families as well as in the community.

McGill professor Myriam Denov was named a Foundation research fellow in 2014. Photo by Alexi Hobbs.
McGill professor Myriam Denov was named a Foundation research fellow in 2014. Photo by Alexi Hobbs.

Dr. Denov’s northern Uganda work is supported by the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, which chose her as one of three research fellows in 2014, each receiving $225,000 over three years. The foundation, a non-partisan commemorative charity created in 2001 by family, friends and colleagues of the former prime minister – and funded by the Advanced Research in the Humanities and Human Sciences Fund and private donors – typically awards five research fellowships and 15 doctoral scholarships, and appoints mentors (one for each doctoral scholar), every year. Through those programs, as well as various public events, it encourages inquiry into, and action in, four areas: human rights and dignity, responsible citizenship, Canada’s role in the world, and people and their natural environment.

For Dr. Denov, being a Trudeau fellow – it is a lifetime appointment for the 58 researchers who’ve been appointed to date – has been an extraordinarily positive experience despite the fact her topic is neither easy nor glamorous. “There is genuine interest [by the foundation] in how the project is going, a commitment to supportive follow-up, encouragement and feedback, which I haven’t experienced with other funding bodies.”

scholarly “risk taking”

She has particularly high praise for the foundation’s willingness to stand behind what she calls scholarly “risk taking.” For one thing, it fully supported her initiative to include children born of wartime rape as members of her research team, engaging them in study design and data collection. And she is in discussions with the foundation about ways to use her findings to try to make life better for these children, their families and their communities.

The foundation’s president, Morris Rosenberg, said he believes the organization is unique in the support it offers. “It’s not just a question of, ‘Here’s a bunch of money; go do your research,’” he says. Mr. Rosenberg, who took up his position in 2014, is trying to strengthen the links between the foundation’s growing community of scholars, mentors, and fellows and leaders outside the academy by creating more opportunities for outreach and public engagement.

William Hébert got to experience that outreach when he attended this year’s summer institute in Whitehorse. Every year, the foundation organizes a week-long retreat somewhere in Canada for fellows, scholars and mentors. Mr. Hébert, who last year received a three-year scholar-ship of $40,000 a year (with a travel allowance of up to $20,000 annually and the possibility of a fourth-year extension) to complete his PhD at the University of Toronto, was one of the attendees. “This year, a lot of the events that were organized – roundtable discussions, field visits and so on – were heavily invested in creating spaces for local community actors, from community-based groups to local politicians including First Nations leaders, to come tell us about their realities,” he said.

Interested in supporting individuals, scholars, mentors and fellows who have interesting life histories

Mr. Hébert is doing his PhD in social and cultural anthropology, focusing on the experience of transgender people who are incarcerated in Canada; anecdotal evidence suggests they are overrepresented in prison populations. Like Dr. Denov, Mr. Hébert – one of 187 Trudeau scholars to date – relishes the foundation’s supportive nature and its commitment to researchers who want to effect social change. A member of the LGBT community, he has found the foundation to be a very comfortable place.

It “is interested in supporting individuals, scholars, mentors and fellows who have interesting life histories, who are studying questions that are emerging or timely, and I think LGBT rights more largely, and trans rights in particular, are an emerging and important and timely topic in Canada,” he said.

While that commitment to research with an impact on the public agenda gets much praise, a few commentators have carped about the organization being partisan. After all, it’s named after a prominent Liberal prime minister whose son now happens to lead the country. But Mr. Rosenberg is adamant that the foundation is “not pushing any particular policy agenda. We’re supporting research. We don’t take particular positions.  And we actually think that with a little bit of understanding as to who we are, we’re well-positioned to be a convenor in a non-partisan way on some of these big, tough issues … and we are reaching out not only to other parties but also to people from other civil society organizations and the private sector as well.”

Mr. Rosenberg notes that, from the outset, the foundation has had New Democratic and Conservative politicians as part of its governance. Former Saskatchewan NDP premier Roy Romanow and former Ontario Progressive Conservative premier William Davis have been members of the foundation community. Former federal Conservative cabinet minister Michael Fortier has been a mentor, as has his former cabinet colleague Chuck Strahl, who is now on the foundation’s board.

“Your reputation is that you get along with people”

Mr. Strahl, who’s based in Chilliwack, B.C., and is also director and chairman of the Manning Centre, contends that the foundation is “a non-partisan group but with a very partisan name.” He jokes that he’s the “token Conservative,” but adds that the foundation is unfairly dismissed as Liberal because “it deals with the humanities, it deals with the environment and indigenous people and the relationship between Canada and its natural world.”

He recalls that Alexandre Trudeau, brother to Canada’s current prime minister and a member of the foundation’s board, was one of the people he talked to before becoming a mentor. “He pumped my tires pretty good, is what he did. He said, ‘Your reputation is that you get along with people.’”

The foundation does not accept individual applications for awards – candidates must be nominated by a Canadian university or other group that has been invited by the foundation to submit a nomination. The next mentorship competition runs from July to September of this year, the fellowship competition from July to December, and the doctoral scholarship competition from September to December.

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