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South Asian Bar Association 10th Anniversary Gala and Awards Night

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December 1, 2015
Speaking notes: Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane

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Thank you for inviting me here to share in your 10th anniversary celebrations.

I look around the room and see many friends and allies, and many people who represent the success stories of Ontario’s South Asian community.

I am proud to be one of your number, and will talk tonight a bit about my own journey and the road ahead.

From an early age, I had a deep sense of justice – of what was right and what was wrong… I am sure that many of you can relate to that.

Some of my earliest memories involved challenging my parents over rules that I felt were arbitrary or otherwise unfair.

On regular trips to India, I was deeply troubled by the rigid and prescribed gender roles that my cousins, male and female, were expected to abide by.

And yet, it was my family and the close-knit South Asian community in Calgary that fostered some of my core values and beliefs, about hard work, helping my community, and always respecting our elders who teach us and mentor us.

Knowing that my parents were able to come to this country and find success showed me that Canada was a land of opportunity for people who hail from diverse cultures and backgrounds.

By the time I was a teenager, I understood that Canada’s deep commitment to inclusion and diversity is unique and special, and worth fighting to protect.

My involvement with human rights got its start in the area of gender-based violence.

As a young girl, I was well-aware of the fear and shame that many women in our community faced when talking about gender-based violence.

Until recently, it was taboo to speak out about these issues and, even now, many women are ostracized from their families and communities if they seek accountability for violence they experience.

It was these early impressions that led me to get involved in the violence against women movement. 

  • First, as a law student volunteering at METRAC to provide women with information on their legal rights,
  • Then, on the board of a local women’s shelter,
  • Later, as a lawyer representing complainants whose private records were sought in sexual assault proceedings;
  • And, most recently, drawing attention in international forums to sexual harassment and violence that girls around the world experience while at school.

But the decision to devote my career to ending discrimination against vulnerable people and groups was not easy.

That is because, for many in our community, success is defined in relatively narrow terms: climbing the corporate ladder, landing a Bay Street job, getting married and having kids, and making lots of money.

And deviations are often viewed with skepticism.

When I decided to leave Bay Street to dive into the trenches as a busy criminal lawyer, my parents and many of my South Asian peers expressed apprehension.

Why would I quit such a good, stable job? Why would I leave something so prestigious to defend criminals? 

And, of course my mother wondered what this would mean for my marriage prospects and how she would explain my decision to her friends!

Fast forward 15 years, and my appointment as Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission was celebrated in Desi Magazines and the Times of India, and my parents couldn’t be more proud.

Aunties and Uncles from across the country sent their warm wishes.

I say this not because I think that all South Asian lawyers should pursue a career in social justice.

No, it is equally important for us to demonstrate success in all aspects of the profession – to break down barriers and glass ceilings.

But, I do hope that we can begin to define success more broadly and encourage and mentor young lawyers who are interested in social justice to feel supported in pursuing a career in this area.

Regardless of where you work, if you are in this room, you are like me, very privileged in terms of the education and the opportunities we have enjoyed.

But with this privilege comes responsibility.

We need to recognize that many other people in Ontario’s South Asian community face real, systemic barriers to success.

OHRC work

And that brings me to the work of the Commission….

The Ontario Human Rights Commission is Ontario’s human rights watchdog and focuses on preventing discrimination before it takes root, and eliminating it when it does happen.

In short, we’re in the business of bringing down the barriers.

Racism and racial discrimination

Racism and discrimination are still very much a part of the current fabric of our society – and I include racism against Ontarians of South Asian descent.

More than 50 years ago, Ontario’s Human Rights Code was enacted, in large part to expand legal protections against racism.

Even though we have come a long way, progress has been slow, and often frustrating.

Over the years, the Ontario Human Rights Commission has taken many steps to identify and eliminate racial discrimination.

We are currently in the early stages of drafting a policy on identifying and eliminating racial profiling – the toxic process of subjecting innocent people to extra scrutiny simply because of the colour of their skin.

Everyone has heard about how racial profiling has affected young Black men – and it is also felt by people who have “Brown” skin, such as the youth in our own community.

Many of our young men experience racial profiling in airports and at borders – where the so-called “war on terror” sometimes becomes an excuse for discriminatory treatment.

The Commission continues to take a strong stand against all forms of racial profiling, especially the deeply troubling practice of police “street checks” – often referred to as “carding” – across Ontario.

We are gratified that community support has been so strong, and I believe community voices are finally starting to be heard.

When grappling with big issues like racial profiling, we can’t do the work alone.

We need active partners in the community who share a vision of a Toronto, and Ontario, where one incident of racism is one too many.

SABA has been such a partner.

In your recent submission to Minister Yasir Naqvi, you have called for the government to place a permanent ban or prohibition on carding and street checks.

Your comments echo and support many of the points we continue to make.

Anti-Muslim discrimination

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the recent spike in anti-Muslim discrimination in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks.

The Commission has made clear and unequivocal statements against hateful acts like the arson at the Peterborough mosque, harassment of women wearing Hijab in public spaces, and online threats to kill Muslims.

In an article I wrote in the Huffington Post, I noted that “faraway acts can cause deeply troubling cracks in our collective identity, that remind us that Islamophobia and racism are part of the lived experience of people here at home.”

Despite our relative harmony and peace, there is still much work to do.

The Commission can and will continue to use its voice to help reduce situations of “tension and conflict.”

We cannot minimize the harmful effects of discrimination on many vulnerable people, including members of our community, and we need you all to be part of the solution…

So, let us all here tonight commit to doing this hard work together and using our positions of relative privilege to work to end discrimination in our province, our cities, our communities and our workplaces.

We should celebrate

At the same time, as you mark your 10th anniversary tonight, let us also celebrate.

We should celebrate the important work SABA is doing as an advocate for South Asian representation in the judiciary.

We should celebrate your work on the Law Society’s Equity Advisory Group.

We should celebrate the exciting mentoring work you are doing with students who dream of joining our profession.

And we should especially celebrate your continued commitment to speaking out on important issues like racial profiling.

Each of these actions is a step towards the kind of Ontario envisioned in our Human Rights Code

An Ontario where there is understanding and mutual respect for the dignity and worth of each person, where each person feels a part of their community and can contribute to its well-being.

I thank you for a decade-long contribution to move us closer to this ideal.

And I look forward to the exciting accomplishments we will be celebrating over the next decade and beyond.