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Irene Bujara reflects on two decades at the Human Rights Office

By Rosie Hales, Communications Officer

Twenty-one years ago, when the Human Rights Office (HRO) at Queen’s opened its doors, it was based out of a classroom and consisted of Director Irène Bujara and an administrative assistant.

Initially collaborating with 15 community members who made up the Human Rights Advisory Council, and engaging groups of volunteer complainant responders and advisors, today, the office makes its home on the fifth floor of Mackintosh-Corry Hall and employs five full and part-time staff members,

In recognition of the importance of community engagement, its resources are available to members of the Kingston community, as well as Queen’s faculty, staff and students.

As the first and current director of the HRO, Ms. Bujara noted that the office has always been well-used by those who want to discuss human rights issues.

“The office’s mission has been to foster Queen’s as a place where diversity thrives,” she notes.

When Ms. Bujara arrived at her new job in 1992, there were already human rights advisory committees in place to deal with topics such as racism, homophobia and sexual harassment. In 1994, these committees came under one umbrella and were instrumental in advising on the development of one-, three-, and five-year plans. Integral to those plans were capacity building goals that would allow the office to work with community members seeking advice about human rights issues.

Ms. Bujara hasn’t seen a significant change in the types of cases that are brought to the office, but she has found that people are becoming more willing to disclose accommodation needs in relation to invisible disabilities, such as mental health.

“What we see is a microcosm of what happens in society in general,” she says.

Even if a concern falls outside of the jurisdiction of the HRO, the Office will work to help students, staff, faculty or community members find the right place to get help.

“We are conscious of the need to be an active part of the community and so most of us volunteer in some capacity with community organizations where we can lend our expertise,” says Ms. Bujara.

Members of the HRO team have volunteered with community legal aid clinics and various community groups, and have helped individuals and organizations access human rights training and other resources.

The Office provides many educational opportunities for those wanting to learn more about human rights. This includes collaboration with the Department of Human Resources in the form of a one-year certificate program “From Diversity to Inclusion,” which is helping build equity competencies for staff members who seek professional development.

When it comes to milestones, Ms. Bujara said she’s been impressed by the growing attention to human rights issues across the University outside of the complaints mechanism. She credits much of the success of the office to her dedicated team.

“Queen’s has one of the few offices that has very stable staffing,” says Ms. Bujara. “This allows for institutional memory and a better system. It allows for progress. I want to acknowledge that without the support of many community, staff and student volunteers who contributed to the establishment of the Office I wouldn’t have been able to make this a success. It’s always been a team effort.”

The 20th anniversary celebrations of the HRO will happen on September 19th, with a keynote speech by artist and activist Faith Ringgold. A mural with over 140 contributing artists will also be unveiled.