IHRP’s Renu Mandhane discusses new job, reflects on time at U of T Law

Rona Ghanbari (2L)

This fall, Renu Mandhane—Director of the International Human Rights Program (IHRP), and generally loved member of the law school’s community—will leave her position with the Faculty of Law to serve as Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. I had the opportunity to talk with her about her role as Chief Commissioner, her career in human rights, and her thoughts about leaving the law school. A transcript of the conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Renu Mandhane

Describe your role as Chief Commissioner.

I think the role is to determine the strategic direction and vision for the Commission. If you’re unfamiliar with how human rights law works within the province, there are three bodies: there’s the Tribunal, which decides claims by individuals or groups; the Human Rights Legal Support Center, which provides representation to people who want to bring a claim to the Tribunal; and, finally, the Commission. The Commission’s mandate is a bit more nebulous in that it’s meant to focus on persistent systemic discrimination and to address that through education and advocacy. This includes litigation and inquests, as well as knowledge exchange and policy development.

This tripartite system is relatively new—about 10 years old—so we are still figuring out the Commission’s role and where it is best placed to make an impact, and I want to be a part of that broader discussion.

Do you have a specific project in mind?

The Commission is already doing really great work related to, for example, racial profiling and carding, the rights of trans-gendered people, and the rights of people who identify with a religious minority. So they are doing some very, very interesting work.

Sort of boringly, what I’m most interested in is really figuring out what is the strategic impact that this institution can have, because when the Ontario Human Rights Code was enacted in 1962 there was no Charter, there wasn’t the kind of robust civil society that we have now, and I think the tough work is to think about what is the Commission’s role in this diverse landscape. That’s what I’m most interested in thinking about, because clearly these kinds of statutory human rights bodies have quite a privileged role. They’re arms length from government but have funding from government, and I think they can have a really strong voice that’s different from NGOs, but I think it takes a little bit to figure out what that voice is going to be.

What was your reaction when they called you and told you that you had been nominated as Chief Commissioner?

Well, it had been a long recruitment process. I heard about the job last summer and I applied in February. I spent a long time thinking about it before it was offered to me in August. But I was obviously kind of surprised and excited! Surprised because I’m relatively young and I didn’t know if they would’ve gone for someone with more political connections than myself, as I have no political connections! So I guess I was surprised and I found it refreshing that somebody like me could be nominated for this role.

Do you think there was anything specific you had done that led the committee to be interested in you?

Definitely the IHRP. I’d like to think in my time at the IHRP I transformed it to be more impact driven and have a bigger public profile, and to use a cliché, have it punch above its weight. I think they were really interested in somebody who had a lot of energy and dynamic leadership and quite honestly a deep commitment to human rights.

My whole career has been focused on human rights in one way or another and I think that was compelling to them. I wouldn’t be taking the position for the status but really because I want to be part of a fairer society and want my kids to grow up in an Ontario that is just and fair, and so I think that really resonated with them.

Did you think when you started at the IHRP that this would be the direction you were going in?

No (laughs). Any student who has talked to me about my career knows there was no planning. It all just—I wouldn’t say it was by chance—but I decided to pursue opportunities that presented themselves and if really there’s anything that emanated this trajectory, it was being willing to take risks. For example, being willing to leave the big Bay Street law firm when all my friends were still there, and taking a poverty law job, and then being able to leave that job to come to U of T, and just always really thinking more of “what are the skills I’m going to be able to develop in these new roles?” I definitely had no idea where I’d be after the IHRP.

How do you feel about leaving the IHRP after all this time? I feel like it’s become your baby.

It is my baby! I’m sad obviously. I really love the law school; I went to law school here. I really care about the faculty and I care about the students a lot. But I also know that I’m literally just down the street and the great thing about the law school is that they find ways to engage you and keep you engaged in the law school, so I don’t really feel like it will be a formal goodbye. It’ll just be a different kind of role, and I’m sure I’ll still be involved in the IHRP in some capacity. I’m already slated to speak at our alumni careers panel in November. I feel sad but I think I’d feel more sad if I was going to work in Geneva or somewhere where I wouldn’t be pretty closely connected to the law school.

What about the mystery person who is going to take over the IHRP? I’m sure you’ve been part of the process of deciding who that is.

Actually not really! I’ve had some insight into it. But I think it’s good that the faculty is running quite a neutral, transparent process. It isn’t like there was some hand picked candidate, it’s a real hiring process.

Are you excited for whoever is taking over? Do you know who it is yet?

I don’t know who it’s going to be. I do know that the quality of candidates was extremely high, so I’m not worried. It’s reassuring to me that amongst the pool of candidates everyone was exceptional, so I’m not worried about passing it along. If anything I hope that whoever is hired can expand the IHRP in new and different directions. I really see my time as more setting the ground work and now it’s poised to do even more, and I hope that the next person will be able to do that.

What is your best memory and what will you miss most leaving U of T?

There are two things. A highlight is teaching the clinic course. There are moments in the course where you’ll see—almost before your eyes—students’ ideas, thoughts, or thinking expand or change, and I think that is really cool. Especially when we talk about some of the critiques about human rights and some of the limitations; seeing students change their thinking and outlook is neat. Obviously what’s so cool about the program is that it’s all student work that then often leads to really significant impact like wins at the Supreme Court or at the United Nations. I think those are really satisfying moments—it’s amazing for students to feel like they got to really impact international law.

The second thing is the internship program. I’m quite honestly living vicariously through all of the students and all of the amazing places they go and the things they are learning and absorbing. I have young kids, so my travel bug is not being itched as much as I wish it could be, so seeing students travel and how much those experiences transform their whole outlooks on law and their careers is amazing. That’s more than one “aha” moment but those are some of the highlights.

As a student who has done the internship, and who is in the clinic with you now, it’s been so amazing having you as a mentor and for support and I’m sad to see you go, although I’m excited to see how this next step unfolds for you.

Awhh. Yeah, I’m really truly going to miss the students. In this field, the change is so incremental, it’s slow, it’s fragmented and I feel really lucky because the students are a constant inspiration. Students have a much more idealistic and fresh perspective and I really feel that even as a lawyer I’ve benefited from that. I will for example think “oh we could never make that argument, it wouldn’t work” and a student will convince me that we really should because it’s the right argument to make, and so I feel like I’ve grown a lot from working with students in terms of not becoming jaded, and pessimistic.

Our partners actually—when interns go and intern with them—say to me “oh it was so amazing to have them, it made me remember why I wanted to do this work.” So I don’t think it’s one way, I think that the person who comes into this role and all of our project partners actually really benefit from that fresh, excitement, because you, can as I said, become a little bit…

Exhausted right? It’s tiring and sometimes you’re dealing with really tough stuff…

Exactly! What’s cool about this program and about being in this role is that you obviously want to make an impact on the big issues, but even when you aren’t doing that or don’t feel like you are, you are making an impact on the students and you do feel like that will translate into a new group of young lawyers who are willing to take on this kind of work, and work pro bono when they are at firms. So you’re kind of cultivating the next generation of human rights lawyers which feels meaningful. It feels really good and satisfying.

I wonder out of all the students that you’ve taught over the years and have gone through this program, who is going to end up before the Commission!

It’s really neat that your students become your colleagues. I think profs feel this way too. I have lots of students, for example, from the first year I taught the clinic who are now going to be professors at law schools, or are now mid-level associates at their firms, or are doing field research. It is really neat to see that transformation, and I keep in touch with a lot of past students and love seeing where they end up. I hope I will remain in touch with a lot of the students that I’ve met at U of T, and I’m sure I’ll see some of them at the Commission.

Is there anything else you’re really looking forward to?

One thing about the commission that I’m really excited about is that there’s a lot of growth potential. You could look at doing human rights work in Ontario and Canada and say “we’ve kind of got it figured out – what’s the point really?” But I also think there’s something really exciting about being at the very cutting edge of human rights protection. For example Ontario is one of the first jurisdictions to recognize trans-rights and I think that in that way this can be a jurisdiction that impacts other jurisdictions and that plays a leadership role for other jurisdictions within Canada as well as internationally. So I am really excited to further the ground breaking areas!

We are excited as well to see you step up and take on this new role and be a part of an organization that has such huge potential for change! The IHRP is definitely sad to see you go.

Thank you! I feel really good about the IHRP though, there were a lot of great things I got to achieve but for any institution you need fresh perspectives. I wouldn’t see my leaving as a loss for the faculty but rather a chance for someone new to bring fresh energy and new networks. I think that the law school is thinking about who can grow and expand the program rather than just keep the status quo. As much as people get comfortable with you, it’s actually not good for any institution for one person to just stick around forever. So I think this will be a positive thing for everyone.

Renu Mandhane will be transitioning from her role as IHRP director to Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission in November.