Ena Chadha: Human rights takes leadership, community, entire institutions
For Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) Chief Commissioner Ena Chadha, what is most important in human rights work right now is to mobilize institutions, governments and service delivery organizations to understand what systemic racism and systemic inequity are, acknowledge that they exist, and do proactive and preventative work to eliminate them.
Chadha’s appointment in July 2020 comes amidst the backdrop of an evolving global pandemic. She acknowledges the magnitude of increased awareness and recognition of human rights issues at individual, community and institutional levels – something the OHRC has consistently pushed as a part of mainstream conversations. Chadha says, “I think it is important for the OHRC to recognize and get our communities, government and all stakeholders to review and commit to scrutinizing their own landscape at a macro level.”
“Organizations have to be vigilant. They have to work at every stage, from recruitment to reforming the systems, the programs, to embed substantive diversity and substantive equality,” says Chadha. “It takes leadership, working with the community, and looking at entire institutions, because the unconscious bias, subconscious racism and systemic unfairness is so deep. No matter how diverse, how many policies, how committed, unless they do the heavy-lifting work, no organization is immune from the legacy of discrimination that’s embedded in the systems.”
Chadha believes society must understand that beyond systemic racism, people often experience discrimination on more than one ground, such as disability, socio-economic status and gender, or some other combination. And she believes society must recognize that these intersections can exacerbate negative experiences in tangible and intangible ways.
“For human rights organizations, advancing a more intersectional assessment of human rights is crucial,” says Chadha. “As a society, we have to acknowledge and respond to how interconnected socio-economic, health determinants and poverty are. We have to work this understanding into all of our human rights strategies – whether it is housing, criminal justice or social services.”
Chadha thinks a lot of work needs to be done in the areas of racial equities and truth and reconciliation. “COVID-19 has really brought forward and exposed how these pre-existing inequities are so interconnected,” observes Chadha. “Access to health care, housing, justice, education, all of that has collided in cascading forms of inequality. This has just heaped onto marginalized groups, and I’m worried we’re going to leave some people irreparably debilitated with the consequences of COVID-19.”
As an example of intersectionality, Chadha points to inequities in breast cancer care. This issue is close to her heart, as she is a survivor of Triple Negative breast cancer, an aggressive disease which mainly affects young, Black and Hispanic women.
For racialized women, these health inequities are compounded when they intersect with gender and race. Inequities in breast cancer care provide a stark picture of how systemic discrimination affects racialized women’s access to screening programs, diagnosis and treatment – and affects their survival. Chadha notes that the OHRC’s advocacy in the area of disaggregated data collection applies across sectors, and it is especially important for governments to collect health and other human rights-based data to support racialized communities.
For example, in Canada, the health of Black Canadian women may be particularly threatened by a lack of data. In a paper published in the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, University of Toronto researchers found that Black women may be under-screened for cervical and breast cancer, despite evidence that they may be predisposed to worse outcomes from these cancers. In a 2014 study, the Wellesley Institute found that in Ontario, inequalities across the breast cancer continuum because of race have significantly affected women’s access to screening programs, diagnosis and treatment.
Chadha, who has spent over 25 years as a human rights lawyer, educator and mediator, has long been committed to advancing human rights. “I have seen prejudice throughout my life and work,” says Chadha, a racialized woman, born in New Delhi and raised in Brampton, Ontario.
She explains that as immigrants from a country that experienced British colonization, her family was very sensitive to the issues Indigenous peoples in Canada were experiencing, and had a heightened awareness that as newcomers to this country, they were on other peoples’ land. “My father was very aware of the systemic discrimination Indigenous peoples faced and it was something he talked about with us around the kitchen table,” says Chadha.
“I have always been a human rights advocate,” she continues. “It’s just part of who I am and always have been.” Chadha reflected on how growing up in a time where the world was being shaped by important human rights events, such as the anti-Apartheid movement, the AIDS crisis and the anti-feminist Montreal massacre, had a deep impact on her understanding of equality rights.
While she was a journalism student, Chadha got a summer job as an intake officer at the OHRC. She says that her work on the front line, talking to people on the phone and hearing them share their stories and concerns, contributed to her decision to become a human rights lawyer.
Before her appointment as Chief Commissioner, Chadha was the Director of Litigation at ARCH Disability Law Centre and in her role worked closely with disabilities communities. She also brings extensive knowledge and experience from her work for all three pillars of Ontario’s human rights system: as an articling student and counsel with the OHRC, as Vice-Chair of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario and Board Chair of the Human Rights Legal Support Centre.
What replenishes Chadha’s spirit to continue advocating for human rights in such challenging times? “For me, it is the poetry of Maya Angelou, particularly the poem When Great Trees Fall,” she says. “Angelou’s poetry is infused with issues that speak to me as a racialized woman.”