York’s new champion of human rights

For Nöel Badiou, the new director of York University’s Centre for Human Rights, there’s been a common thread running through much of his life. From his early exposure to the study of law and human rights as a student at l’Université de Moncton, to his work in private practice and his positions at the Law Society of Manitoba, the Manitoba Human Rights Commission and the Court Challenges Program of Canada, Badiou says it was the human rights element in each role that he found most professionally and personally fulfilling.

Left: Nöel Badiou

Now it seems as if those career paths and early influences have been leading him to his current role at York University. Since moving to York in July to assume the role of director of York’s Centre for Human Rights, Badiou has been quick to put his experience into action. Under his direction, the centre has a new name, focus and Web site. There’s also been a strong shift to a more proactive human rights education role for the centre. He has been meeting with interest groups across the University to gauge their understanding and input for the centre’s role and place within the York community.

Recently, he sat down with YFile to talk about his background, mandate and vision for the centre.

"I left a private law practice after an opportunity came up to work as a complaints investigator in the Discipline Department at the Law Society of Manitoba," says Badiou. "I really enjoyed the work as it was very interesting and it sharpened my skills in terms of investigation and mediation because I worked on some very challenging situations."

Badiou says that when he later became the manager of investigations and mediations at the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, he gained a deep understanding of the important role human rights plays in achieving a healthy and democratic society.

"Human rights is very close to my heart," says Badiou. "My role with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission was very exciting, interesting and involved intense work that spoke to a passion of mine about working with people who are historically disadvantaged. It was an eye-opening experience to realize that human rights complaints are evidence-based, and sad because as much as I believed that there had been a human rights violation in some cases, there simply wasn’t the evidence to support it."

One of the most memorable cases Badiou worked on during his time with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission was the plight of foreign medical doctors, which made national headlines in the early 2000s. "It was large, complex issue that involved a lot of players. It concerned people coming to Canada who had received medical training in other countries where they had worked as doctors. Once they arrived in Canada, many ended up working in the service industry because their credentials were not recognized in Canada," says Badiou. "I think the Manitoba Human Rights Commission took a leadership role in moving that issue forward, getting better recognition and a system in place for recognizing some, if not all, of these foreign credentials."

Badiou then became the executive director of the Court Challenges Program of Canada (CCPC). "This role again spoke to my passion for human rights and equality rights. It also spoke to the linguistic side of my nature growing up as a francophone in Manitoba," says Badiou.

Fluently bilingual, Badiou says he was pleased to combine his human rights background with his abilities in French and English in a federal role with the court challenges program. "The program funded cases dealing with equality rights and language rights as well as human rights. It was fascinating to be on the inside to see how these cases were progressing across the country," says Badiou.

"The important work undertaken by this program included many high profile cases, such as the same-sex marriage issue. In that case, the CCPC dealt with a wide variety of groups with different perspectives with a view to getting everyone on the same page. The program’s key role was to educate the different groups involved and achieve a respect for the many and sometimes emotional viewpoints people had on [many topics including] same-sex marriage."

"The program was unique in the world and unfortunately funding for new cases no longer exists because it was cancelled in 2006," says Badiou. "During my time as manager and following the winding down of the program, I found that I had good administrative intuition but not the specific education, so I pursued a master’s degree in public administration through a joint program offered via the University of Winnipeg/University of Manitoba."

That experience, says Badiou, reignited another of his passions, education. When the opportunity came to serve as director of York’s Centre for Human Rights, the many influences in his life seemed to fall into place.

"Human rights is about having a discussion, it is not about dictating what it is or is not. The goal is to come to an understanding – not only about our own rights but also our responsibilities to others in society," says Badiou. "In arriving at York, I am meeting with different groups – faculty, staff and students – with a view to gauging the various views and perspectives about the centre’s role and to receive input for the charting of a renewed path for the centre. The goal is to make the University a better place. I want to raise the centre’s profile internally and externally thereby furthering York’s profile on the national stage."

The centre, says Badiou, has gone through a number of different incarnations. To learn about the history of human rights at York, Badiou says one of the first things he did was to read York Professor Gill Teiman’s book Idealism and Accommodation: A History of Human Rights and Employment Equity at York University, 1959 to 2005. In its pages, he gained further insight into York’s rich history in human rights and equality. He also learned about York’s past initiatives, including the folding of the previous Centre for Human Rights & Equality into the Office of the Ombudsperson & Centre for Human Rights in 2005.

“It [the Office of the Ombudsperson & Centre for Human Rights] was created to be a one-stop shop,” said Badiou. “When the roles were assessed prior to my arrival at York, there appeared to be some potential for a confusion of roles and the possibility of a conflict of interest. One aspect of having a completely separate ombuds function is to ensure that every administrative component of the University can be held to account, including the Centre for Human Rights, because we can’t investigate ourselves.”

With that in mind, Badiou says the University’s move to separate the ombuds function from that of the human rights function is in line with current practice. “It provides an assurance to the community of autonomy. The decision to deal with the ombuds function separately will bring a lot of credibility and respect to the investigative process and its decisions,” says Badiou.

“In the short time I have been here, I have learned that the community saw this office as the ‘ombuds office’ first and the human rights function seemed to be in the background,” says Badiou. “This is an opportunity to shine a light on the human rights function and return it to the forefront.”

Moving forward, Badiou sees York’s Centre for Human Rights serving an integral role in educating the University community about human rights. “This is central to everything the University does, and what we are hoping to do at the centre is to refocus our energies and resources into doing a better job of educating staff, faculty and students at the outset about their human rights and responsibilities to others,” says Badiou. “We are hoping to coordinate a lot of initiatives and create an educational program with consistent messaging throughout, from student, faculty and staff groups through to the administration.

“One basic message that needs to be reinforced, not just at York, but in society in general, is that of respect, civility and how to live by example," says Badiou. "We want to include a discussion about respectful and civil discourse as part of these educational programs.” 

His vision sees an expansion of the centre’s educational mandate, while maintaining its traditional role in investigating and mediating human rights complaints. “We want to act as a resource. If someone has a question with respect to discrimination, harassment or accommodation, they should call our centre and we can provide guidance and advice, as well as referrals. If there is a human rights complaint, it will be assigned to one of our advisers who will help determine the seriousness of the issue and the best options available including mediation and/or investigation, with the goal of finding a reasonable resolution."

To learn more, visit the Centre for Human Rights Web site, or drop by the centre’s office located at Suite 327, Ross Building South. The door is always open. 

Story by Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor