Chief Commissioner, Ontario Human Rights Commission
Renu Mandhane was appointed Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission in October 2015. She is the former Executive Director of the award-winning International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. She has an LL.M in international human rights law from New York University. Renu began her practice focused on criminal law and, in that capacity, represented numerous survivors of sexual violence and prisoners. Renu sits on the Canada Committee of Human Rights Watch, and has appeared before the Supreme Court of Canada and the United Nations. Most recently, Renu was recognized by Canadian Lawyer magazine as one of Canada’s most influential lawyers for her advocacy related to solitary confinement.
Our society has come to a fork in the road: we must decide the core values that will drive social policy in the future. Ontarians have big ideas and want bold approaches to address persistent human rights problems, and we agree. Our work has the most impact when we amplify the voices of the most marginalized people, and when the public echoes our human rights message and demands action.
On August 10, 1974, Edward Nolan died by suicide in a segregation cell at Millhaven Institution in Bath, Ontario. Each year on August 10, we commemorate Prisoners' Justice Day to remember Nolan and all of the prisoners who have died in custody, and to renew calls to respect the basic human rights of prisoners housed in jails, correctional centres, and penitentiaries across the country.
Officers should be required explicitly to advise individuals of their right to walk away if they are not under arrest. The reason for the stop should be in the receipt provided. Officer training on systemic racism and racial profiling should be required. Data collection to create greater accountability should be standardized across police services.
Every year, thousands of people are placed in segregation in jails and penitentiaries across the country. Systemic data about the use of segregation in both provincial and federal contexts indicates that segregation is being overused on -- and causing particular harm for -- vulnerable groups, such as black and indigenous prisoners, women, and those with mental health disabilities.
Like most people that call this city home, I am deeply troubled by Sunday's shooting deaths in Toronto's Chinatown and the eight other gun-related deaths the city saw in January. This is obviously unacceptable, and police must be supported in their efforts to investigate and prosecute those responsible for these horrific crimes. That being said, most people would be hesitant to draw any clear conclusions about why we have seen a high number of gun crimes over the past month. Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association, the union that represents police officers, feels differently.
Most Canadians believe that religious discrimination is no longer a problem in contemporary society. Yet, after the terrorist attacks in Paris last month, we have seen a marked spike in hate crimes against Muslims. Less extreme, but likely more pervasive than overt attacks are new stereotypes that view all religious people as inherently backward, less tolerant, less informed, or closed-minded. This is a different form of prejudice that appears to be socially acceptable in our more secular society, and among many otherwise "progressive" or "liberal" individuals.
Such is the nature of our hyper-connected planet that events seemingly worlds away from our day-to-day lives can reverberate in our neighbourhood. That is the power and promise of social media - it makes the world smaller. The flip side, however, is that faraway events, like those in Paris, Beirut, Nigeria and Egypt, can embolden otherwise-marginal, hateful forces here at home.
The human rights landscape has changed dramatically since 1962, when the Ontario Human Rights Commission was created. There are now parallel human right institutions federally and in every province and territory, and numerous international human rights treaties to which Canada is a party. In Ontario, most people are ambivalent or simply don't know about the OHRC, its role, and its work. This is ironic because some of the issues that have captivated Ontarians in recent years clearly fall within the OHRC's jurisdiction and are issues on which the Commission has been actively engaged.
In the past few years, I have made a handful of requests, dutifully paying my $5 in the hopes of receiving documents that will shed some light on Canada's human rights record. What has transpired is Kafkaesque. I requested information from the Department of Justice, Foreign Affairs, and Heritage Canada on our government's process for implementing human rights treaties. Between two departments, I was told that processing of my request would cost... wait for it ...more than $4,000 in search fees.
The International Human Rights Program (IHRP) at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law and David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights were interveners before the Supreme Court and argued that the right to a remedy is protected under international law, and is a principle of fundamental justice under the Charter (which protects life, liberty and security of the person). The Supreme Court rejected that argument.
How many people have to die alone in a jail cell, with only their troubled thoughts for company, before we demand an end to grave human rights abuses happening in our prisons? Edward Snowshoe is the latest casualty in a systemic practice that killed Ashley Smith, and likely contributed to the death of Kinew James as well. Edward, Ashley and Kinew were all prisoners with serious mental health issues who were segregated for extended periods of time by the Correctional Service of Canada. Edward Snowshoe died under the very conditions that the UN found amounted to violate the Torture Convention.
In recommendations released today, the UN Committee Against Torture slammed Canada's treatment of prisoners with mental health issues. Given that Canada is viewed by many as the "gold standard" in corrections, these findings are also an important reminder that serious problems remain within the Correctional Service of Canada.
The story of Ashley Smith's in-custody death in 2007 was so shocking that it touched many Canadians unaccustomed to empathy for prisoners. Our report, produced by the International Human Rights Program at the Faculty is shocking because it details how women a lot like Ashley continue to be treated in a manner that breaches their human rights.