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Howard Adelman Obituary

Howard Adelman passed away 23rd July, 2023, a profound and unexpected loss to family and friends from near and afar.

Funeral services were held on Thursday July 27, 2023 at 1:30pm (EDT) at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. The service can be viewed here: .

While formally educated in philosophy and having been a political activist and student leader at the University of Toronto, he pursued a distinguished career as an academic, institution builder, and author.  He contributed to Canadian civil society, worked on international refugee challenges, on human rights, on the politics of multiculturalism and accommodation, and the cultural industries.  He advised the Government of Canada, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) and the Africa Union, and he was a visiting scholar at Princeton University, Griffiths University in Australia, and the Hebrew University.  He was recognized by his Canadian peers through his longstanding appointment as a Massey College Senior Fellow.  He was a mentor to many dozens of students and NGO activists over the past four decades.  As an Associate Dean, Chair of Senate, and founder of the Centre for Refugee Studies, Howard contributed to building York University as a leading Canadian institution of research and teaching.  He was sought out by officials in the Canadian government and in international institutions for his expert knowledge. 

There were three broad themes to his work: philosopher and scholar of contemporary Canadian and global issues, activist academic applying knowledge to urgent public policy issues, and cultural and political commentator providing valuable and informed insights across cultures and nations.  But he also had an informed curiosity about science, the social sciences, and medicine.  His was an inquisitive mind who sought out argument, knowledge, and understanding.  His wide-ranging scholarship, public policy work, and political activism was recognized in 2018 when he was awarded the Order of Canada.  As more than one of his colleagues and friends has mentioned, for Howard nothing human was foreign to him, he was the epitome of a renaissance man.

While Howard was a man of many interests, skills, and passions, nothing was more central to his life than his family.  His children – Jeremy, Shonagh, Rachel, and Eric, Daniel and Gabriel – as well as his eleven grandchildren and five Israeli great-grandchildren commanded his deep love and abiding attention.  While setting high standards, he also had the wisdom to recognize that each had to pursue their own interests, and he never failed to provide guidance and support, and especially deep love, respect, and a listening ear.  He took great pleasure in learning from them and arguing with them, but he also worried about and for them.  He looked forward to the family’s regular summer stays on his beloved island in Georgian Bay, a chance to talk, to think, and occasionally to write, but most importantly to converse with family.  Howard had great pride in and derived much pleasure from all their accomplishments.  Over the past 40 years, Nancy enriched his life in innumerable ways, and together they were a deeply loving and powerful partnership for family and for their wide circle of friends.  Nancy guided and supported Howard through difficult and challenging times, and together they emerged stronger.  All who knew Howard and Nancy were better for it.  As friends have commented, his devotion to family is a role model for us all.

Howard was a highly productive scholar; first appointed to the Department of Philosophy at York University in 1966, he continued to be active as Professor Emeritus and Senior Scholar with books, articles, and public lectures.  He wrote or   edited alone and with others 26 books along with many dozens of book chapters and journal articles. He provided commissioned research reports for governments and international institutions.  Howard was sought after around the world for lectures and conference presentations.  His studies in philosophy focused on the work of Hegel which informed his normative concerns about refugees and forced migration, genocide with a focus on Rwanda, early warning systems and responses with a focus on Africa, identity politics, and the practical and policy challenges of settlement, integration, and accommodation.  Colleagues from many countries and institutions with whom he worked or who have been affected by his writing have provided testimonies to his impact, as have those in refugee communities whose futures were helped by Adelman’s interventions.

Howard not only researched and wrote on major social issues, he worked to ameliorate them through program and policy development.  He may be best known within Canada for his leadership in areas of refugee protection, human rights, and diversity accommodation.  As reported during the 40th anniversary of the coming of the Indochinese Boat People to Canada, Howard began Operation Lifeline in his living room; it was a mobilization of faith-based organizations, private citizens, and the Canadian parliament that resulted in the admission of over 60,000 Indochinese refugees to Canada within 18 months, over half of them through private sponsorship. In 1986, the people of Canada were awarded the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Medal for outstanding service on behalf of the forcibly displaced people in recognition of the response to the Indochinese.  Howard was one of several experts who contributed to the rewriting of the policy of private sponsorship of refugees, a strategy for refugee resettlement that the Canadian government used recently to bring Syrian refugees, and now Ukrainian refugees, to Canada.  As noted in his Order of Canada commendation, “Adelman’s work on behalf of refugees embodies the Canadian spirit of inclusivity and generosity. … [H]e helped catalyze Canadians to privately sponsor thousands of refugees from Southeast Asia when he founded Operation Lifeline in 1979. From these efforts, he later created the Centre for Refugee Studies, the leading research centre in North America for forced migration studies. In addition, he is also recognized for his writings on the Rwandan genocide and other ethnic conflicts.”

While doing all this, Howard did not shirk from being a critical commentator on the inadequacies of international law and of the UNHCR to address the growing challenges of the forced displacement of peoples.  With Norwegian scholar Astri Suhrki, Adelman undertook a major study on the Rwanda genocide.  The publication and dissemination of their work, The Path of a Genocide, made headlines, and contributed to a serious critique of the UN, the workings of the UNSG’s office, and the role and responsibility of the UN in terms of international humanitarian law and the law of armed conflict.  It also contributed to his role as a leader of an international community of experts to establish early warning indicators to prevent or at least to better manage the outbreak of violence. Professor Adelman was called upon by the secretariat of the Africa Union to advise on regional policies.

Howard’s expertise came nicely together with Canada’s emergent role as the country “holding the gavel” at the international Refugee Working Group from 1993 through the end of the decade exploring possible solutions to the plight of the Palestinian refugee population. He travelled into Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, as well as Israel, to undertake original empirical research, and as a result was able to challenge the conventional presentation put forth by the UNRWA and other activists, leading to a more well-founded basis for further negotiations. This work reflected Howard’s long interest in the state of Israel.  Earlier he had pursued some remarkable archival work on UNSCOP which provided him insight for his more recent and ongoing concerns about the Israel-Palestine situation from human rights, state building, democratic governance, and security perspectives.  He was deeply troubled by the protracted conflict and fearful of the implications that came with the increasingly likely failure of a two-state solution.  As former diplomat and leading refugee expert Mike Molloy commented, “The thing I learned early on about Howard was that he never let theories stand in the way of facts. He was the giant of our generation.”

He worried about the polarization occurring in Israeli society and the possible breakdown of democratic norms and principles.  As historian and friend Derek Penslar wrote, “…he had an extraordinarily acute understanding of the creation of the state of Israel and of the Palestinian refugee problem. I regularly assign an essay that he co-authored on the latter subject. He mastered the most intricate details of the United Nations’ role in the creation of the state without ever losing track of the big picture.”  

In his activist role in the years following the 1967 and 1973 Mideast wars, Howard became increasingly concerned with regional peace and Israel.  In 1976 he moved to Jerusalem as the Lady Davis Fellow at Hebrew University, with his first wife Margaret and their four children, Jeremy, Shonagh, Rachel, and Eric.  The wars and his experiences while in Israel affected his intellectual positions and activist commitments towards both Israel and the Palestinians.  Howard was co-founder with Irwin Cotler and Harry Crowe of Canadian Professors for Peace in the Middle East, and then years later turned to television where he and Nancy produced Israel Today over a ten-year span.  Both these projects reflected his deep belief that Canadians needed to learn more and to have access to a range of analyses and opinions about such a complex human situation.  He continued to write about this in a widely read regular blog, and over the past few years with a few informed friends and the support of Holy Blossom Temple, he contributed to a regular educational webinar, The Israel Dialogues.  After spending the last few years with Howard as a commentator on Israel Dialogues, former Canadian diplomat Jon Allen commented, “Apart from his intellect which was enormous, I always found Howard to be principled. Nothing was taken for granted. Statements had to be accurate and based in fact and logic.”

Howard’s contributions to Canadian public policy also are evident from his work on multiculturalism, diversity and accommodation, religion, culture, and the state, focusing on minority rights, identity challenges, ethnic and religious issues, and the place of Quebec.  As with refugees, he applied his knowledge to the practical; for example, in advising and working with his longtime friend, Dr. Joseph Wong, and other leaders in the Ontario Chinese-Canadian community in establishing a network of assisted living centres culturally responsive to Asian populations.

Throughout this career of intellectually informed scholarship and public policy activism, Howard Adelman maintained an active commitment to the place of culture in Canadian public life – theatre, film, literature – as a commentator and critic.  From his early university days till recently, he maintained an ongoing presence within Canada as a public voice assessing both Canadian and foreign cultural products. 

Howard Adelman’s legacy lives on through his family, the many colleagues and students who were affected by his knowledge and energy, his insights and wisdom, his contributions to public policy, and by the care and consideration he gave to each with whom he worked.  He will be deeply missed. 

The family has requested that tribute gift in Howard’s name be made to either the Holy Blossom Israel Engagement Committee ( or the Holy Blossom Refugee Relief Fund ( 

May his memory be as a blessing.

David Dewitt

24 July 2023