York University community members celebrated the institution’s core values of diversity and inclusion on Jan. 27 during the seventh annual Inclusion Day Conference through discussions and learning opportunities that explored the interface between human rights issues and the University.
Participants were invited to engage in a variety of activities during the day-long event, including workshops, panel discussions and a luncheon that featured a keynote address by Renu Mandhane, the new chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC).
Formerly the director of the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law, Mandhane shared personal insights on supporting human rights through the lens of postsecondary institutions.
Universities, she said, have an opportunity to step beyond the usual approach and offer innovations that enhance human rights. She offered as an example York University’s recent collaboration with OHRC, ARCH Disability Law Centre and a York PhD student to reach a standard-setting agreement for new guidelines on academic accommodation.
The change in guidelines means that students no longer have to disclose their diagnosis to register for mental health accommodations and supports.
“I’m really pleased to see York University taking this important step,” she said. “It breaks down unnecessary barriers to success … and places York University at the forefront of postsecondary education in ensuring accessibility for students with mental health disabilities.”
Universities are also in a unique position to advance the field of human rights law through cutting edge research. By sharing their specialized knowledge, universities are often called on by the OHRC to consult on the drafting of new policies.
The OHRC, said Mandhane, has partnered with York U to host a policy dialogue on racial profiling, which will be presented in February and feature academics presenting papers and offering insights on the issue.
There will also be a public lecture on the topic on Feb. 16, where the OHRC hopes to share some of the information on work happening to address this particular issue.
Universities, she added, also offer a unique and neutral forum to bring together diverse sectors such as academics, government, the private sector, NGOs and grassroots groups to discuss difficult and contentious issues in a safe place.
“You can be protectors, promoters and advancers,” she said, “and you can contribute academic expertise that is really not available anywhere else. You can be leaders by being innovative and sharing your successes and you can provide a respectful forum for dialogue.
“These contributions are helping to build a society where everyone is respected and able to contribute, just like the UN envisioned more than 60 years ago when it created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” she said.
Mandhane also took a moment to recognize that York’s Inclusion Day Conference aligned with both International Holocaust Remembrance Day and Bell’s mental health awareness campaign, Let’s Talk.
York University President and Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri took the podium to reflect on Mandhane’s speech, as well as York’s commitment to human rights and equality, the significance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the Let’s Talk campaign.
He emphasized that the recent change in guidelines for academic accommodation was a “positive and important” step toward promoting a healthy, inclusive and supportive learning environment.
Charting a path forward that solidifies York’s commitment to supporting its values of diversity and inclusion, he said, requires a commitment from everyone to “accept the responsibility to demonstrate civility and respect for the dignity of others.”
Shoukri acknowledged that “we have a campus that may not be as inclusive as we’d like” and that he is aware some students have expressed feeling marginalized. He assured participants that matters of this nature are taken very seriously.
“I believe it’s our duty to ensure all of our students feel comfortable and safe on campus, and that includes feeling safe to speak,” he said.
York, he said, is one of the most diverse universities, and that is an important element of the University’s success.
“The key task ahead of us is to make sure that all community members feel included in a way that makes their lives better,” he said. “This is why today is so important. It’s a reminder of the work left to do, and [of the need] to continue to celebrate our inclusivity.”
York University’s annual Inclusion Day Conference is organized by the University’s Centre for Human Rights.
By Ashley Goodfellow Craig, YFile deputy editor