Renu Mandhane

Alumna Renu Mandhane wants everyone to know there’s still a need for the Ontario Human Rights Commission

By Lucianna Ciccocioppo / Photography by Michelle Yee

From the Fall/Winter 2015 issue of Nexus

In a corner office flooded with natural light and books, on the ninth floor of a downtown Toronto building, Renu Mandhane, JD 2001, shows me around her new workplace. On the wall to my left, a painting from her parents when they lived in Nigeria, and she in Kingston, as an undergraduate at Queen’s University. On the right, a framed etching from Angkor Wat, the famed set of religious temples she visited in Siem Riep, Cambodia, as an exchange student at the National University of Singapore’s law school. A small table next to her desk displays family photos, a small wood replica of a traditional Nigerian princess, and a white vintage-style milk jar waiting for some flowers, a gift from a former Faculty of Law colleague.

Just some of the thoughtful reminders of the varied path of this Calgarian’s life that led her to where she is today. Mandhane is the new chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, a 45-year-old institution that broke new ground when it first opened its doors.

“It predates the Charter. It predates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It really is amazing that it’s one of the first human rights institutions in the world.”

It’s a big job with “shifting priorities,” says Mandhane. “How do you balance relevancy with pushing for long-term systemic change that isn't going to happen if you're always distracted by the newest and latest issue that pops up?”

These days, it’s about addressing competing rights. “There can be a tendency for the public to think that these institutions are outdated or antiquated because we have such a diverse society. I think it means the work we're doing now is more nuanced. It's at the cutting edge of human rights, quite honestly, in the world.”

Mandhane brings a strong track record in human rights, from an out-of-the-ordinary career path that saw her as a corporate lawyer at Torys, sharpening her courtroom skills—and advocating for the marginalized—as a criminal lawyer at Scott & Oleskiw, and back to U of T law ultimately to head up the award-winning International Human Rights Program. Her clinic work with students advocated for, among many causes, free expression and journalists’ rights in Mexico, and the rights of HIV/AIDS-infected refugees in Syrian camps—just some of the initiatives that received national media attention and increased public awareness.

She plans on being heard, on issues such as gender identity, mental health, and racial profiling and policing, by engaging with the eight part-time commissioners around the province, connecting with Ontario communities, and using the media, like her Huffington Post blog and TVO interviews, to get the commission’s message out.

“We aren't meant to be a think tank. We aren't meant to be operating outside of the public space, and we're not an academic institution. We're meant to be serving the people of Ontario.”

Four months into her new job, she’s only just begun. At a recent premier’s conference on sexual violence and harassment, she was a beacon charged with networking energy.  

“It felt like now I was the person people were trying to meet. It was very nice and warm, and it was very humbling, but it also really reinforced the expectations that people have on me, personally, in this role. I feel very privileged to have been chosen to do this.”