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The Magazine Of Queen's University

2017 Issue 4: How we learn

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Meet Renu Mandhane, Ontario Chief Human Rights Commissioner

Meet Renu Mandhane, Ontario Chief Human Rights Commissioner

[photo of Renu Mandhane]
Renu Mandhane, Artsci'98, Ontario Chief Human Rights Commissioner

With just a short time under her belt as Ontario’s new Chief Human Rights Commissioner, Renu Mandhane is already looking towards the future.

Quick to laugh, and with a bright smile, it’s easy to forget that Ms. Mandhane, Artsci’98, is in charge of an institution that’s tackling some of our most important social issues. Racial profiling by police, legal protections for the mentally ill and safeguarding the right to non-binary gender expression are just a few of the problems the commission has worked on in recent years, but Ms. Mandhane doesn’t want the Human Rights Commission to rest on its laurels.

“The commission has had a really public voice making sure it’s understood that an ostensibly neutral practice, like police carding, can have an outsized effect on marginalized communities. It was also one of the first mainstream institutions to look at mental health as a disability protected under the Human Rights Code. I think with those successes, it’s a great time to think about what unique value this institution can bring in the next five to 10 years,” she says. “I want to create a new strategic plan that builds on what our internal stakeholders want us to do as well as find out what the public wants from this body.”

Though she’s now holding one of the province’s top legal positions, it wasn’t that long ago that Ms. Mandhane was an Artsci student at Queen’s, unsure of her career path. After coming to Kingston from Calgary, she experimented with different courses before settling on a medial degree, focusing on economics and English literature, with some history classes mixed in as well.

To round out her academic life at Queen’s, Ms. Mandhane started volunteering with the Sexual Health Resource Centre, and soon found a community.

Renu in residence at Queen's.

“Back in the late ‘90s, Queen’s was a fairly conservative place, and so volunteering with the SHRC brought me together with a group that I identified with,” she says. “It was the place where I found people who shared my interests and values and where I could discuss the things that mattered to me.”

That volunteer work laid the foundations for the subjects she pursued after graduating and enrolling in law school at the University of Toronto. Ms. Mandhane’s interest in feminist and critical race legal theory was bolstered with more volunteer work, and after she finished articling, she decided to head to New York University to pursue her LL.M. in international human rights.

“Up until NYU, my focus had been very domestic, very local work,” she says, but when she started interning at a U.S.-based international NGO called the Center for Reproductive Rights, it broadened her perspective. “An interesting thing that the CRR did was to provide strategic advice to governments who wanted to create progressive laws that fit with international standards. We would look at the legislation they were proposing and determined which parts could be improved. For example, while I was there I wrote the first draft of our submissions on a sexual health bill being proposed by the Rivers State in Nigeria.”

With her master’s degree in hand, Ms. Mandhane returned to Toronto to begin her legal practice and returned to the firm where she had articled.  

“As a young lawyer, it was hard to figure out how to do human rights work in Toronto. I was trying to figure out my next steps when I saw a job posting that seemed like a perfect fit.”

The posting was for a “feminist criminal lawyer,” and while at first Ms. Mandhane was reluctant, she was convinced to apply.

“I had never been interested in criminal law, but a bunch of my friends asked if I’d seen the job posting and told me it sounded perfect. Sometimes your friends know you better than you know yourself, so I went for it.”

That led to her practising feminist criminal law for four years, largely representing women who were in conflict with the law, but also those who had been victims of violence and federal prisoners. It also brought her back to Kingston when she was one of the lawyers challenging the closing of the only stand-along minimum security women’s prison, Isabel McNeill House.

Though she enjoyed her practice, the academic life came calling and so Ms. Mandhane returned to U of T as assistant dean in the Faculty of Law. In this role, she was responsible for overseeing the school’s academic program, a job that included supervision of the Faculty’s International Human Rights Program. When its leadership position opened up, Ms. Mandhane and the then-Dean, Mayo Moran, began discussing a suitable replacement.

“Because I had a background in international human rights, she asked me if there was anyone I knew of who might be a good fit for the position. I began listing off possible candidates, and then, quite flippantly said, ‘I wish I could have this job!’ so she encouraged me to apply.”

It was good advice.  Ms. Mandhane got the job.  In 2010, now balancing work with new motherhood, she assumed the role of executive director of the international human rights program, She focused on building up the program, its legal clinic, internships and speaking series.

“The goal of the program is to expose students to the range of human rights advocacy tools that are available and then work on projects that make use of those tools. That means doing anything from conducting policy work or human rights investigations, to appearing before parliamentary standing committees and appearing as counsel before the Supreme Court.”  

Once again though, it was the advice of a friend that got Ms. Mandhane thinking about her next steps. When the previous Chief Commissioner of Ontario’s Human Rights Commission was set to retire, one of Ms. Mandhane’s colleagues reached out.

“She told me that I should consider applying, and while I felt that it was a bit of stretch for me, I went for it anyway.”

It was a months-long process to apply, interview, and pass from one level of consideration to the next, but on Oct.30, the Order in Council was signed. Ms. Mandhane began as Ontario’s Chief Commissioner of Human Rights three days later.

Now at the beginning of her renewable two-year term, Ms. Mandhane is ready to embrace the mandate of the position.

“The commission is meant to focus on persistent systemic oppression, and it was some forward-thinking by the government to recognize that individual complaints aren’t always the best way to bring about social change,” she says. “This is an institution that focuses on public education, outreach, communication and strategic litigation, and I’m hoping in the next few year we can really move the dial on some of Ontario’s bigger issues.”