Human Rights Literature

“Literature can be as powerful as life itself … It can inspire us to change our world and give us the comfort, hope, passion and strength that we need in order to fight to create a better future for us, as well as all humanity.”

– Vered Cohen Barzilay, “The Tremendous Power of Literature” 

Books have the power to further human rights education. They can personalize human rights that may, otherwise, seem obscure or abstract. They can present unique perspectives, teach us empathy, foster understanding, and help readers imagine a world based on human dignity, rights, and equality.

Below, are some books – reviewed by SHRC Commissioner Heather Kuttai – that deal with important human rights issues. Books that have the ability to awaken new worlds, stimulate thought, and provoke discussion about human rights and society.

The Break and The Strangers


The Break (2016) and its companion book, The Strangers (2021), are novels by prairie writer, Katherena Vermette. The Break is the story of a violent crime that occurs in an open field inWinnipeg’s North end, and the woman who happens to witness it all from the window in her apartment. Both novels center on three generations of a Métis–Anishnaabe family, and their perspectives and experiences on the fallout of this crime. The Strangers follows up on some of the characters, introduces new ones, and expands our knowledge of what it means to be a Metis woman in Canada.

Neither book is an easy read, but important ones rarely are, because what may happen while reading these stories of pain, grief, and abuse, is a shift and a depth in understanding intergenerational trauma, systemic racism, and the often messy and complicated layers of violence and crime. Vermette weaves narratives that are steeped in sadness, but at the same time, are also rich in compassion, emotion, wisdom, and love. Readers will come away feeling connected to the characters, especially the women, and will undoubtedly remember them for a long time. Their strength, grace, humour, and resilience offers us a glimpse into a world that is far too often not on their side.

Vermette is a Red River Metis writer, film maker, and Indigenous advocate. She is the Winner of the First Novel Award and was a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award. She has also won the Burt Award for First Nations, Metis, and Inuit Literature, and the Governor General Award for poetry.