Queen’s alumna Renu Mandhane has been appointed as the new Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
Mandhane, ArtSci ’98, says her experience volunteering at Queen’s Sexual Health and Resource Centre (SHRC) inspired her to pursue a career in social justice.
“That was a really formative experience for me,” Mandhane said.
Mandhane — who will officially assumed her new role on Nov. 2 — graduated from Queen’s with a medial in Economics and English and a minor in History.
She worked previously as the executive director of the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law.
Mandhane’s dream of attending Queen’s began when her elder brother enrolled at the university during her high school years.
“I remember in high school hearing about all [my brother’s] experiences and it made a real impression on him. So when I was applying to university, I of course applied to Queen’s,” she said.
As an undergraduate student, Mandhane’s volunteer work at the SHRC helped her find her place within the Queen’s community.
“I thought that I could work in this area or make an impact doing social justice work, so that was a really pivotal moment for me,” Mandhane said.
One of Mandhane’s classes was taught by Professor Asha Varadharajan, who still teaches in the English Department at Queen’s.
According to Mandhane, Varadharajan’s class kindled her interest in human rights.
“I took a course on post-colonial literature, and having the opportunity to read novels from people all over the world, about their post-colonial experience, definitely had an impact on me,” she said.
Mandhane says her interest in human rights law stemmed from her exposure to critical race theory and critical feminist theory at Queen’s.
“A lot of that was through the English program at Queen’s,” she added.
After three years at Queen’s, Mandhane enrolled at U of T’s law school before heading to New York University (NYU) to complete a Masters program in international human rights law.
Mandhane says her experiences — both at Queen’s and beyond — have helped prepare her for her new role as a human rights commissioner.
“They’ve all lent different things, and they’ve all kind of built on each other, so my start in this world was at a community, grassroots level.”
She has been actively involved in many different movements — most notably her involvement in community-based women’s anti-violence movements and as a member of the board of directors on a number of non-profit organizations.
She is also part of the Elizabeth Fry Society. Located in Toronto, the Elizabeth Fry Society is a women’s shelter that provides services for women who are at risk of facing legal issues.
After law school, Mandhane transitioned into her role as a criminal defense lawyer, where she represented women facing legal troubles or those who were survivors of sexual violence.
Moving forward, Mandhane says she hopes to create a stronger public presence for the commission and its work.
As part of her short-term priorities, Mandhane says she plans to embark on a strategic planning process that would allow the commission to hear from their stakeholders. She said the process will make the commission more accountable to the people of Ontario.
Although she’s excited about this new opportunity, Mandhane says she’ll remember her beginnings in Kingston and at Queen’s.
“I’ve had quite a bit of attention from the Kingston media and I’m excited about that because obviously Kingston has a special place in my heart,” Mandhane said.
“I really want to make sure that the commission represents the voices of smaller communities, and so this is a great first step towards that.”
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