Working for diversity and inclusion

Posted on Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Sonya Nigam in a meeting with Marie-Claude Gagnon, coordinator of web accessibility

Director of the Human Rights Office Sonya Nigam and Web Accessibility Compliance Coordinator Marie-Claude Gagnon

By Johanne Adam

Did you know that there’s a service at the University whose mission is to raise awareness of diversity and ensure inclusion for each student, professor and staff member? It’s the Human Rights Office.

Raising awareness of prejudice

The Human Rights Office was established in 2013 to achieve a discrimination-free campus environment. It handles all discrimination and harassment complaints at our university.

“We look to properly resolve complaint files, but a large part of our mandate consists of prevention,” says director Sonya Nigam. 

The office seeks to make the University community aware of the ingrained ideas that can hinder inclusion, whether they are related to religion, ethnic origin, culture or disability. “As human beings, we all have preconceived notions, which can cause us to hold prejudices. However, we have to always be conscious of them,” says Nigam.

Transgendered persons on campus are among those who are potential victims of prejudice. Their difficulty in finding washrooms reserved for them is a good illustration of this.

“We need to look at solutions, for example, installing universal washrooms. This requires action to raise awareness within our university. However, this is also an opportunity to establish a dialogue within our community, which will cause us to find solutions to avoid exclusion,” says Nigam.

Help adapted case by case

Anyone who is a victim of harassment should seek out the experts at the Human Rights Office as soon as possible. The longer one waits, the more overwhelming the feelings and the harder the problem is to solve. Under no circumstances should one have to put up with such a situation.

“Our officers are skilled in particular in analyzing these incidents,” says Nigam. “Complainants can receive coaching sessions to help them better manage these difficult situations. This makes them better equipped to handle any interpersonal conflict.”

Officers try to adapt to the situation. Sometimes, they seek to facilitate dialogue between parties. One approach to resolve the conflict is to have each person involved in a different room, with the officer passing messages between them.

Some cases must be referred to Protection Services or to the Student Academic Success Service (SASS).

As well, sometimes people just need to talk about an uncomfortable situation, and often, a few consultations are enough.

Meeting expectations

In light of the 2009 changes to Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, the University felt it necessary to develop internal policies to better meet its obligations in the area.

Among other things, unions and student groups were asking for the establishment of a human rights office. Says Nigam: “President Allan Rock also made it one of his causes. You could say that the office is, in large part, his legacy.”

As well, the University of Ottawa is working with other Canadian universities that have also chosen to create human rights offices. The Universities have created a forum for discussion on human rights best practices in a university setting.

“The main goal of our service is to work to ensure the dignity of each person on campus,” says Nigam.

Visit the Accessibility Hub. It houses tools and resources for students, educators, employees and visitors to help identify and remove barriers to accessibility.

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