Given the law school’s emphasis on public service, maybe it’s no surprise that so many graduates would choose to give up a more lucrative career in private practice and face a higher level of public scrutiny in the pursuit of elected office. Now widely known as the “Weldon Tradition of unselfish public service,” the school has long advocated that graduates work and serve to improve their communities.
But what motivates someone to seek public office? Is it ambition, a higher calling, a family legacy, a sense of duty, or just circumstance? For Elizabeth May, it is a means to an end—to protect the Earth.
Elizabeth May (LLB ’83)
Green Party, Saanich-Gulf Islands
When asked during her law school entrance interview whether she viewed the law as a shield or a sword in her fight for the environment, she answered: both.
“I went to law school in order to defend the environment,” says May, who attended as a mature student. She later taught for a year at Dalhousie while developing a program established in her name in Women’s Health and Environment.
I wouldn’t have done anything different with my law degree, I’ve never lacked for feeling my life has meaning and purpose.
May spent more than three decades advocating for the environment before becoming the first Green Party candidate elected to the House of Commons in 2011. In the mid-1970s, she established herself as an environmentalist and anti-nuclear activist, successfully leading a grassroots movement to help prevent aerial insecticide spraying in Nova Scotia.
While in law school, she continued her environmental work and even missed graduation because she was cross-examining a witness. She and a local group of residents had gone to court to prevent herbicide spraying.
Citing Dal Law professor Graham Murray as one of her many mentors, May still adheres to his advice: “Develop the habit of thoroughness.” Thoroughness and studying law have been “indispensable” in her environmental activism and fight for social justice, from her role as senior policy advisor to a federal environment minister to executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada.
Now, as the MP for the riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands, May acts as a watchdog in the House. Her legal training not only allows her to analyze and digest massive pieces of legislation quickly, but also better detect when bills are violating the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“I wouldn’t have done anything different with my law degree,” says May. “I’ve never lacked for feeling my life has meaning and purpose.”
As a leading environmentalist, May tries to adopt what she calls a “servant style” of leadership. She sets the bar high with Jesus and Gandhi as her role models.
“If you want to be a good leader, you have to be a good servant,” she says.
Geoff Regan (LLB ’83)
Liberal, Halifax West
For Erin O’Toole and Geoff Regan, it isn’t a stretch to say public service was a family calling. Regan’s father, Gerald, was a former MP and former Nova Scotia premier, and his son watched admiringly from his front-row seat as his dad performed in the political arena. “I felt that what he was doing was trying to build a better province,” says Regan.
When Regan decided to pursue law after graduating from St. Francis Xavier University, politics was an option but not a certainty. With a deep fear of public speaking, he wondered how he could ever succeed in the political world. Following a friend’s recommendation, he joined Toastmasters, a non-profit organization focused on helping develop public-speaking and leadership skills.
As his law practice in Bedford grew, Regan became not only more confident speaking publicly but also more involved in his community. Crediting his mother, who believed firmly in service to others, he volunteered with such food banks as Beacon House and the Metro Food Bank Society (now Feed Nova Scotia), eventually becoming the organization’s board chair. “I was doing things I enjoyed and felt were worthwhile,” he says.
Good leaders have to accept responsibility when things go wrong. They have to inspire others.
A speech to graduating students at Sackville High School, which he attended in the 1970s, forced him to look seriously at his own political ambitions. Regan encouraged the students to not let fear hold them back from pursuing their dreams. Knowing that he had to follow his own advice, he took a run at provincial politics in 1988. He lost but didn’t give up; in 1993, he ran federally and won.
Crediting law school for teaching him how to think analytically and for developing his understanding of legislation, Regan also attributes his legal background for his appointment as parliamentary secretary to the government House Leader in 2001 and his decision to run as Speaker of the House of Commons in 2015.
En route to achieving his political aspirations, Regan has been inspired by many people, including former cabinet minister Don Boudria, who taught him the ins and outs of the House of Commons, and the late scholar and former senator John Stewart, who taught him the intricacies of parliamentary procedure.
Erin O’Toole (LLB ’03)
Conservative, Durham, Ont.
Like Geoff Regan, politics runs in the O’Toole family. O’Toole’s father, John, was a longtime Progressive Conservative MP in Durham, Ont., a provincial seat he won in 1995. After being first elected as a Conservative MP in a 2012 by-election, O’Toole now represents the federal riding with the same borders. “I got the political bug from him,” he says. “I saw my dad being able to help people.”
Aside from his father, O’Toole also credits Hugh Segal, a former senator and chief of staff to then prime minister Brian Mulroney, as a mentor. O’Toole first met the political strategist while he was a student at the Royal Military College of Canada. “I liked the way he would approach a disagreement with a measured approach,” he says.
A leader needs to know when to collaborate. To be a collaborative leader is a sign of strength.
When O’Toole embarked on his third career as a politician, he had already had two successful careers, first as a captain in the Royal Canadian Air Force and then as a corporate lawyer on Bay Street. Along the way, he built an inspiring charitable record. Dedicated to helping veterans, he was instrumental in creating the True Patriot Love Foundation. Since 2009, the national charity has raised more than $15 million to support veterans and their families as they deal with the challenges that follow active service.
“Going to law school allows you to be an effective advocate,” says O’Toole, who graduated from Dalhousie in 2003. He also credits his law school experience for developing another valuable skill needed in Ottawa: the ability to adapt. “Change is the law of life,” he says.
O’Toole has had to adapt to a host of changes since the Conservatives lost power in the last election, including losing his post as minister of Veterans Affairs. While his leadership role has changed, he remains eager to continue working for his community as an MP.
Sean Casey (LLB ’88)
When Sean Casey started his private law practice 30 years ago in Charlottetown, he was expected to not only choose his political stripes but also roll up his sleeves and help at election time. In the 1988 federal election, he threw his support behind Liberal candidate George Proud.
As a young member of the election team, Casey was sent to the city’s rooming houses to convince reluctant voters to use their ballot to fight the Canada–U.S. Free Trade Agreement. Proud won, and Casey was hooked. “Politics sort of got in my blood,” he says. “There was a whole mix of people and a competitive aspect to it. It was the thrill of the hunt as much as anything.”
More than 20 years later, Casey ran as a Liberal candidate in Charlottetown. He won a seat in the 2011 federal election and was re-elected in 2015. He now serves as parliamentary secretary to the minister of Justice.
The chance to make a change in the justice system is pretty heady stuff. There’s constantly an opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.
At Dalhousie, politics was far from Casey’s mind; instead, building a successful private practice was his goal. After graduating in 1988, he returned home to P.E.I. and joined the firm that would later become Stewart McKelvey. By 2008, he was the managing partner. When his wife, Kathleen, was elected to Charlottetown City Council in 1997, she inspired him to think about pursing public office. “She would come home from a council meeting about a foot off the ground,” he says of Kathleen, who was elected MLA in 2007.
Active in his community, through the Chamber of Commerce and his children’s sports teams, Casey credits timing for his decision to run in the 2011 federal election. With his two sons leaving home, he felt that he had more time to fight the direction in which then prime minister Stephen Harper was taking the country. The election campaign was an eye-opener for Casey; knocking on doors, he saw what living in poverty was like. While he charged $300 an hour as a lawyer, he met people in his riding who were forced to choose between paying the rent and buying a prescription drug.
Making the leap into politics was made easier by having been to law school. “It teaches you how to think—how to break down a problem and identify the issue,” says Casey. He also credits his legal practice for instilling the importance of thorough preparation. “Hard work takes you a long way.”
Among Casey’s mentors are Irwin Cotler, a former Attorney General of Canada, Senator Percy Downe and lawyer and former MP Shawn Murphy. From each he took something different about what it means to be a good leader, such as Murphy’s ability to see the big picture and disregard what isn’t unimportant. “I like to think I’m a patient listener,” says Casey of his own leadership qualities. “I constantly remind myself that I have two ears for a reason.”
LINDA DUNCAN (LLM ’98)
NDP, Edmonton Strathcona
Timing was everything in Linda Duncan’s decision to enter politics. A third-generation Alberta lawyer who followed in her grandfather’s and father’s footsteps, Duncan now sits as the only NDP MP from Alberta. When she was first elected MP for Edmonton Strathcona in 2008, she was just the second New Democrat MP ever from Alberta.
Despite her family history, Duncan wasn’t convinced that law was for her. She contemplated earning a master’s degree in social work but eventually chose the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Law. “I never had a particular interest to be a practitioner in a law firm,” she says. “My interest has always been in community law and in public law.”
I wanted to be a watchdog and to work with communities to give them a louder voice.
In 1982, Duncan founded the Environmental Law Centre to help Albertans concerned with environmental and natural resources law. Five years later, she established a new enforcement unit at Environment Canada. She also worked as the assistant deputy minister for Renewable Resources in the Yukon government, led the enforcement department of NAFTA’s Commission for Environmental Cooperation, and helped establish environmental law enforcement systems in Jamaica, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. In 1999, she earned an LLM from Dalhousie, and in 2013, she was appointed a fellow of the Marine and Environmental Law Institute at the Schulich School of Law.
While working in Bangladesh, Duncan felt compelled to return home to run in the 2006 federal election. She wasn’t successful but tried again in 2008 and won. “I feared that Stephen Harper would shred our environmental protections,” she says. After spending decades building environmental laws, she needed to prevent the Conservative government from eroding her work.
Legal training is valuable for a parliamentarian, Duncan says, because it teaches everything from critical thinking and private versus public law to how to read the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Duncan is inspired by local and community organizations that advocate for change, such as saving a river or a waterway. “I believe in participatory democracy,” she says. “A real leader is someone who quietly works in the background. It’s like a community-development approach to law reform.”
Kyle Peterson (LLB ’04)
Motivated by a strong sense of public service, Kyle Peterson ran for the Liberals for the first time in 2011. He lost, but in 2015 he ran again and won, becoming the MP for the Ontario riding of Aurora–Newmarket, where he grew up. “I want to contribute to my community,” he says.
President of his high school student union, he joined the Ontario Young Liberals during his undergraduate degree at Western University. “I had the political bug early,” he says. After graduating from law school in 2004, Peterson was torn between pursuing a career at a big law firm or in business. Possessing both a law degree and a keen interest in business (he later earned an MBA from the University of Toronto), he articled with McCarthy Tétrault in Toronto and later spent a couple of years working for Magna International.
I’m a litigator. I know firsthand there are two sides to every story.
While a partner at the Toronto law firm Affleck Greene McMurtry, where he specialized in commercial litigation and advocacy, Peterson became increasingly involved in community organizations, serving as the director of the United Way of York Region and chair of the Aurora–Newmarket Family Health Team, as well as the Newmarket Economic Development Advisory Committee.
Attributing his strong belief in community service to his parents, who were both teachers, Peterson looked to Charles Beer, a member of the Ontario legislature, as a political mentor. “He always conducted himself with integrity and honesty,” he says.
Law school was where he learned one of the most valuable skills he felt that he needed to succeed in politics: the ability to listen. “You have to listen to both sides,” he says.
Sean Fraser (LLB ’09)
Liberal, Central Nova
For Sean Fraser, attending law school wasn’t a route to becoming an elected politician, but early on he learned that politics fit nicely with his passion for litigation. “I love solving problems and thinking on my feet,” he says.
While completing his kinesiology degree at St. Francis Xavier University, Dal Law graduates Colin MacDonald (’77) and Justice Patrick Sullivan (’74), members of the university’s board, encouraged him to attend law school and find a way to help make a difference at the local level. “Fundamentally, what you’re doing in politics is passing laws that will help your community,” says Fraser. “Contributing to mine has been a common thread throughout my life.”
You don’t take the opportunities when they’re convenient, you take them when they’re available.
Timing was everything for Fraser’s leap into politics. After graduating from law school in 2009, Fraser was working at Blake, Cassels and Graydon LLP in Calgary when former MP and cabinet minister Peter MacKay announced that he was stepping down in Fraser’s home riding of Central Nova. Fraser’s phone started ringing, and after receiving five or six calls a day from people encouraging him to run, he agreed.
As a young newly elected MP in Ottawa, Fraser is eager to be the kind of leader he respects—someone who is skilled at “listening to others and facilitating things for others, as well as acting as a bridge to connect people who are trying to do good things.”
Colin Fraser (LL.B.’07)
Liberal, West Nova
Colin Fraser can’t remember a time when he wasn’t interested in politics. After graduating from Carleton University in 2000 with a political science degree, he went to law school at the University of Wolverhampton in England as a way to see another part of the world. He returned to Canada and attended Dalhousie for a year in 2006 to convert his degree to Canadian law. “I loved politics but really wanted to practice law,” he says.
You don’t do [politics] for the money, you do it to serve your community.
While practicing at Nickerson Jacquard Fraser in Yarmouth, N.S., he became involved in the Yarmouth Liberal Association and worked on former MP Robert Thibault’s 2006 and 2008 election campaigns. He also volunteered with the Yarmouth Hospital Foundation and the South West Nova Transition House Association.
When the 2015 federal election was called, Fraser’s name was on the ballot for the Liberals in the riding of West Nova. “Representing people is what you do as a lawyer,” he says. “It’s also what you do as a politician. The desire to help people is present in both fields.”
As a young politician, Fraser put building a lucrative legal practice on hold, but he’s satisfied it’s in the pursuit of higher ideals.
Double DutyHistory was made last December when Geoff Regan was elected Speaker of the House of Commons, the first from Atlantic Canada in almost a hundred years, and on the same day George Furey was appointed Speaker of the Senate, the first ever from Newfoundland and Labrador.
Not only do both men hail from Atlantic Canada, but they studied law together—graduating with the class of 1983. Proud alumni, they both know a lot of work lies ahead.
“In my new role as Speaker, I am keenly aware that Canadians want to see a reformed Senate that is less partisan, more transparent and more accountable,” Furey said.
A native of St. John’s, Furey took a circuitous route to the Senate. After spending part of his childhood in Mount Cashel Orphanage, Furey went to Memorial University, became a teacher and school principal and later attended law school. Prior to being appointed to the Senate in 1999, he practiced at the St. John’s law firm, O’Brien, Furey and Smith.
“For me, empowering others is the essence of leadership,” Furey said.
Regan’s long and varied political career has seen him move from the back benches to cabinet to a member of the third-place party in the House of Commons. After first being elected as an MP in 1993, the Bedford, N.S., native served as minister of fisheries and oceans from 2003 to 2006.
As the newly-elected Speaker, Regan’s goal is to reduce cynicism in politics—something he’s been working on since becoming an MP. “I want to see a better atmosphere in the House,” he said. “I want to work with the parties to bring in reforms so every member can have a say.”
“We shouldn’t take democracy for granted,” he added. “We should nurture it.” •