Rona Ghanbari (3L) and Hanna Gros, U of T alumni and IHRP Senior Fellow
In October 2015 one of the University of Toronto’s very own was nominated as Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC). Renu Mandhane, formerly the director of the International Human Rights Program (IHRP), has been Chief Commissioner for over a year now. The Rights Review team paid her a visit at the OHRC to discuss her transition between roles, and learn about the OHRC’s work.
RG: With this profile piece, we want to get a sense of life post-IHRP, and also get your perspective on some advocacy initiatives that you started at the IHRP, many of which are on-going and have grown! So to start, could you describe the transition from the IHRP to the OHRC?
RM: It was obviously a huge transition, and there are good and more challenging aspects. Starting with the good: it’s a huge honor to have a platform for people to listen to the views I’ve had for a long time. I’m able to meet with Ministers basically by picking up the phone, which you aren’t able to do if you’re at a university or an NGO because that access isn’t really there. We also have a staff of 50 people who are extremely informed, knowledgeable, and passionate about human rights, which is very rewarding. Having 50 professionals who are working on this mandate feels very different compared to the IHRP where you’re working with incredible students but there’s not as much continuity.
One of the main challenges however is that we are a statutory body, so we are constrained by our statute. The statute has a very narrow view of human rights, which is essentially focused exclusively on non-discrimination. Some of the issues that I really care about – things like immigration detention for example – are hard to fit within the OHRC’s narrow mandate. At the IHRP we could work on anything that was interesting and related to human rights. With a statutory mandate, you are always worried about exceeding jurisdiction, so the first question is always, “is this something we can work on?” and the reality is that there are a large number of issues that we can’t take on.
RG: That actually seems like a significant constraint, and a delicate balance to strike.
RM: Of course, the more powerful the institution, the more constraints there are on that power. One of the things I’ve had to learn is that, people actually care what I say – if I opine on something on Twitter, people believe that the OHRC is pronouncing on whether something is right or wrong. So that means you have to be far more careful in how you weigh in on the public debate on an issue. The level of public scrutiny and expectation is much higher. At the IHRP there isn’t a level of expectation from the public as to the work that you do; you hope that your work will drive social change and resonate with the public, but there is no expectation that you’ll deliver that. Whereas here, we serve the province of Ontario, and that’s nearly 10 million people that we are expected to serve. So there is a lot of expectation about what this institution should be able to do and the results we are meant to achieve.
RG: Is there anything in particular that you miss about being the IHRP Director?
RM: I really miss working with students, partially because no matter what the impact of the projects you do at the IHRP, the biggest impact is the students who come out of the program and go on to do all sorts of amazing things. So even if the project they worked on didn’t result in meaningful change itself, the fact that they themselves go out into the world and work on human rights or volunteer, or even just bring that perspective to wherever they are – that’s the impact. Inherently, the IHRP has capacity building as one of its outcomes. No matter what happened on our files, you always felt like you were contributing by just working with students, mentoring them. There are lots of students I still keep in touch with. I feel personally invested in their careers, and I think that they are amazing people doing amazing things, and that’s really gratifying. Here the work is much more driven by the substantive output and the impact that you have.
RG: Well certainly many students at U of T feel very fortunate to have had your mentorship.
Focusing in on some specific advocacy initiatives, we wanted to get your perspective on immigration detention and solitary confinement, which are both issues you worked on intensely. As an advocate, what drew you to these particular issues?
RM: I’m always driven to people who are “invisible.” If you are in a jail, you are almost by definition “invisible.” These are people who cannot easily bring their stories forward: they are hidden from public view and public scrutiny, and they are hidden in a unique way.
What I find fascinating about immigration detention and solitary confinement is that, as a society we empower the state to take away our liberty, take away our kids, and to do all sort of things that can have a significant impact on our lives. Implicit in that is the fiduciary duty that the state won’t abuse that power. These issues are so compelling because it’s really about mediating the power of the state. When do we as a society get to say, “Actually we the public have not empowered you to do that”? To me that’s different than the direct racism or discrimination that you might see in an employment situation or a housing situation, because the minute government is the alleged discriminator it’s about a breach of the public’s trust – it places the issue on a different level.
What drew me to the immigration detention issue specifically*, and what still fascinates me about it, is that this was a serious human rights issues under our nose and I don’t feel like the public even knew about it. (Author’s note: The IHRP began its work in immigration detention under Renu’s direction, with the release of the report “We Have No Rights”: Arbitrary Imprisonment and Cruel Treatment of Migrants with Mental Health Issues in Canada in 2015.) I remember hearing from lawyers about the things happening in immigration detention centers and provincial jails and thinking, “That can’t be true – this is Canada.” There was a surreal quality to it: it’s almost like a dirty secret. That kind of work reminds us of the disconnect between the narrative that we have as Canadians and some of the state sanctioned practices that we allow. When you think about impact, and what is the point of all this work – sometimes it’s just to shine the light. That said, we have seen some substantive changes in response to the work that IHRP students have done on these issues.
The flip side is that I’m consistently surprised in a good way that, on some issues, Canadians just get it. For example when I met Adam Capay in the Thunder Bay jail, he had been accused of murder. He spent four and a half years in a windowless basement. Although some Canadians would say, “Well he is accused of murder, he doesn’t deserve better,” the vast majority of Canadian instantly saw why this was so problematic and that it was in contrast to our values as Canadians. Even though we don’t want to pat ourselves on the back too much, tolerance and human rights feel like a part of our national identity, so when things come up against it, it almost creates this discomfort like, “How can these two things coexist?” In some ways, it’s the role of human rights institutions to challenge those mythologies and make people grapple with realities of people who otherwise you wouldn’t even know exist.
RG: Could you describe some of the challenges of working on these issues both as the IHRP Director and as the Chief Commissioner?
RM: The issue with being the Chief Commissioner is that you can’t really fly under the radar. When we were going to do those interviews with immigration detainees through the IHRP, we were able to quietly perform our research without the government knowing or gaining too much attention during that stage. Now I couldn’t show up at a jail without informing the Ministry that I was going to go there, and I would be given an official tour – so it’s harder to be on the ground in the same way as I was able to as IHRP Director.. It also means that people who talk to me in my role as Chief Commissioner feel as though they are putting a lot more on the line. At the IHRP, people talk to us because there is some amount of safety in talking to a university researcher, and it doesn’t feel like you are putting yourself at personal risk; whereas if a whistleblower comes to me as Chief Commissioner there is more on the line, and sometimes that can make it harder to gather those kinds of stories. That’s why it’s important for the OHRC to be actively engaged with on-the-ground-community experts, because those are the people who are able to connect with individuals directly.
RG: In working on these two issues, were there particularly memorable moments or interactions that defined the core of these issues in your mind? Were there interactions that defined your role as an advocate and how has this role changed?
RM: Fundamentally I just care about people at a really personal level. Early in my career, I transitioned from Bay Street to criminal defence, and that was a hugely formative experience for me because I had clients who were often on the margins of society by virtue of being criminalized. My mentors at the time were so amazing because they always encouraged me to listen to what my clients had to say without judgment or an air of being superior to them. That is something that I’ve taken through my whole career, and it’s easy in a role like this to lose that. Ultimately that’s what the work has to be about: keeping your eye on how to bring forward people’s stories in a respectful way that’s going to have an impact, but also that does justice to their experiences. The OHRC is not an expert in people’s experiences of discrimination, the people are the experts in their own experiences. The main question then is: how do we make sure that we are always listening? If you lose that level of interaction, then the institution becomes out of touch.
Those experiences stay with you after it all. After all the writing and advocacy, what it always comes back to is those interactions with people. What I cherish about my time at the IHRP is the experiences of hearing people’s stories and bringing them to light, and that’s still the part that I’m trying to preserve in this role. In some ways in this position, people almost expect you not to get into the weeds or dirty your hands, but I’ve tried to continue engaging with people at a personal level. The job to me wouldn’t be meaningful if it was only meeting with Ministers, giving speeches, and talking with media. For me the most meaningful thing is just meeting average people. We are doing a huge amount of work around Indigenous reconciliation and I am going up to Kenora later this month. Most of our time will be spent listening to Indigenous people talk about their experiences, rather than just going and meeting dignitaries. I want to keep that as a focus in my career and in my life.
RG: Are you able to tell us a bit about any projects you’re working on? What’s next for the Commission?
RM: Currently the priorities for the Commission are reconciliation, criminal justice, poverty, and education.
From an international law perspective, I’m really excited about working on the priorities related to Indigenous rights and poverty because there is a lot the OHRC can learn from international law. International law is so much more developed on economic, social, and cultural rights. We can take a lot from the international system in terms of how can we start talking about poverty for example as a human rights issue.
I’m also really excited about all our work around reconciliation. It’s another of those areas that needs significant light shed on it. Before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, I don’t know that I even had a full appreciation of the history of colonialism and the enduring impacts of it, so I think there is a lot of work for us to do as a country, and I’m excited to be one little part of that.
RG: Your work is inspirational to so many students and aspiring advocates. What message do you have to those who want to follow in your footsteps? What do you wish you would have known when you were in law school or just starting out your career?
RM: I think what distinguished me from my other friends who were interested in human rights wasn’t my marks or anything in that respect: it was just not giving up. I was always really committed to having a career in this area in a long term way, even when it didn’t materialize in my first year or two of practice, I was always trying to figure out a way to work in the public interest. That tenacity was what ultimately led me to the decisions and opportunities that got me here.
I think it’s much easier if you define your career path like, “I want to have a job where I get to hear people and help them.” There are a lot of jobs out there that allow you to do that. I think it’s about thinking about human rights or social justice in a broader way, because there are so many jobs that are really conventional law jobs – family lawyers, immigration lawyers, criminal lawyers – where you can have tremendous impact on individual people and experiences. If you keep your eye on that, it’s a much more attainable goal. Of course, other opportunities may come out of that, but you have to start small rather than expecting that you’ll have your dream job right away.
I think the worry is that if it doesn’t happen for you right out of school, about 50% of people will think, “I wasn’t destined to do that,” or “ I wasn’t good enough,” but actually the number of opportunities that are open at that stage are pretty small. One thing that is really important to me to share with students, is that students should think about the 5 years post-graduation as still being part of their education, because those years are actually about developing skills. Whether you do that downtown or wherever, it doesn’t matter, as long as you are developing some really important skills. To me, the skills that were the most important were advocacy – written and oral advocacy. And students should remember that they can make a meaningful contribution, even if it is not through their formal employment. A lot of people do amazing work as volunteers, working in community at the grassroots level, or giving back to the law school. There are lots of ways to contribute, and not everyone is destined to become a human rights lawyer, and for some people it’s not even within their means to do that because of student debt and realities of their lives. That’s all okay and there are so many ways to contribute back and change peoples’ lives in a meaningful way.