The first thing that struck Rob Rainer when he moved to Ottawa from small-town New Brun­swick was the number of homeless people.

“That was the trigger,” said Rainer. “I couldn’t believe this was happening in a country as privileged as Canada.”

After working for 20 years in the environmental sector, he switched to human rights. He now works full time as the executive director of the National Anti-Poverty Organization.

Like Rainer, many people don’t plan to go into human rights. They fall into the career unexpectedly. But that’s something Carleton University’s hoping to change with the debut of the first standalone human-rights degree offered in Canada.

“There’s been an exponential increase in the interest in human rights,” said Margaret Denike, associate professor and co-ordinator of the human-rights program at Carleton University. “Before this program, we only offered two core human-rights courses, and for the past five years the number of students enrolling in them was doubling every single year. It really reflects that this is something more and more students are passionate about.”

Carleton is now offering 20 new courses in human rights that range from human rights and sexuality to the history of persecution. Fourth-year students also have the opportunity to work first-hand with a human-rights agency in Ottawa.

Already, more than 325 students have signed up for the program.

“Human rights touch every aspect of your life, from your child to people with disabilities to people who are visible minorities,” said Denike. “Employers are starting to realize that every single organization, profession and institute requires people with human-rights training, whether it involves how to resolve disputes or how to put together a package of contentious issues.”

But Denike warns her new students that humanrights work isn’t glamorous.

“So much of the work that happens is done by agencies that have offices the size of your kitchen,” said Denike. “They’re typically underfunded. Most of the work is done by two or three committed people. It involves a lot of self initiation and instruction.”

Working for the government or a private company is a stable, much higher paying alternative to non-government organizations. Researchers for the Canadian Human Rights Commission deal with issues related to national security, social conditions and people with disabilities.

Money aside, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more rewarding or eye-opening career.

“I see so many people pursuing careers that they just don’t like,” said Denike. “They think, ‘If I just stick it out, I’ll eventually come to like it.’ But I encourage students to pursue careers that they really care about. That’s the most rewarding thing about teaching this program, seeing them inspired to take charge of the issues that shape the world.”

Carleton is hosting a panel discussion on careers in human rights on Jan. 21. Rainer, along with speakers from Amnesty International, the Canadian Human Rights Commission and Voluntary Services Overseas, will give prospective students an inside look at the field.

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