Mark D Swartz

Succeed With Canadian Careers In Democracy

Natalie Des Rosiers

Career Lessons From Nathalie Des Rosiers, formerly of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association

Canadian careers in democracy are honourable aspirations. Protecting freedom of expression and thought. The right to peaceful assembly. In Canada we take these things for granted. Our safety net? The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, plus related laws.

(Note: I originally wrote this article on Canadian careers in democracy in 2011, for However that article is no longer online.)

But who protects these safety nets so they catch us when democracy falters?

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) is one such guardian. It works alongside many other organizations and people to protect Canada’s fundamental freedoms. This particular not-for-profit, founded in 1964 and based in Toronto, is a public watchdog. From 2009 to 2013, Nathalie des Rosiers was General Counsel at the CCLA. She may not be a household name, but in her circles she is the Wayne Gretzky of civil liberties.

Ms. De Rosiers holds a bachelors degree in law from the University of Montreal. As well she possesses a Masters degree in law from Harvard University. She has been a member of Provincial Parliament in Ontario. Was at the University of Ottawa. These days she is Directrice Principale chez Massey College, UofT.

The Interview

Ms. Des Rosiers’s office mirrors her modesty. The premises are functional, not fancy. Just that morning a framed drawing – of a green-necked Mallard – had tumbled off her wall.

But unlike that portrait now resting on her floor, Ms. Des Rosiers is no lame duck. Hers is a day overflowing with important meetings, phone calls, speaking engagements, fund raising and advocacy. Protecting our rights and freedoms is quite a noble calling. How were you initially drawn to this line of work?

Ms. Des Rosiers: Actually I originally wanted to be a journalist. My father convinced me that a law degree would be useful to have as a journalist. I am from Montreal and at that time constitutional law was constantly making the news. So you didn’t set out specifically to defend democracy at first. Then how did this start?

Ms. Des Rosiers: Well, I held a part-time job at Radio Canada and loved journalism. Reporting on the news was a joy. I also found law intriguing.

At one point Radio Canada went on strike at the CBC. So I spent extra time at my law school’s Legal Aid clinic, doing mostly pro bono (unpaid) work helping renters and sorting out minor criminal matters…it involved me in vulnerable and disadvantaged populations. What did you do upon graduating from law school?

Ms. Des Rosiers: Some of my professors suggested that I do a judicial clerkship (articling by working for a judge). It was a prestigious thing to do. Imagine me, not speaking English very well, moving to Ottawa to work with a Supreme Court judge who was coming from Quebec. That was quite something for me. You clerked with Supreme Court of Canada Justice Julien Chouinard? So what were the key lessons for you from this work?

Ms. Des Rosiers: There were many critical learnings. First was simply appreciating that despite my junior position, I carried an enormous responsibility. Part of my clerkship involved researching precedents and drafting memoranda for the judge. He would consider my words when rendering far reaching decisions from the bench.

This made me pause to reflect on future consequences of these decisions for society. I found myself parsing sentences very carefully because my input was taken seriously.

Something else I learned was the need for rigour in reasoning. I found out quickly never to assume that information is 100% true. Statutes must be validated. Were regulations properly passed? Essentially I was exercising due diligence in pursuit of truth. Among other roles, you’ve served as President of the Canadian Federation of Social Sciences and Humanities, of the Law Commission of Canada, have been Dean of Civil Law at the University of Ottawa and its Vice-President for Governance. Was there a turning point for you in your career that moved you to focus on civil liberties?

Ms. Des Rosiers: Throughout the years I had been teaching constitutional law, which often deals with the protections we have as citizens. Then as President of the Law Commission of Canada, I was making speeches in 2001 about the new Anti-Terrorism Act, warning about its potential for abuse.

The Maher Arar case that began in 2002, where Mr. Arar – a Canadian citizen coming home from family vacation in Tunisia – was detained during a U.S. stopover, imprisoned for weeks without access to a lawyer, then sent to Syria to be tortured on rumours he was a terrorist (only to be found completely innocent) seemed to me a real failure of the rule of law in Canada.

Meanwhile I’d recently become Dean of Law. I was in a position of leadership. Yet I couldn’t stop this rights violation and I asked myself, why not? At that point it became clear that resources needed to be mobilized. This is why I eventually moved to civil society. There were too many other possible Arars who wouldn’t be so able to defend themselves or pick up the pieces with such dignity. Clearly your job can be highly stressful. How do you keep going on the toughest days?

Ms. Des Rosiers: A sense of humour and a certain dose of optimism are helpful, for certain. At the core I believe that given a chance, people want to do the right thing. My job is to help them do so. You could say that I am a pragmatic idealist. Regarding Canadian careers in democracy, what’s your greatest reward for doing work you’re passionate about?

Ms. Des Rosiers: Every so often, there is someone who’s been helped by the CCLA. Or we shine some light on a less than adequate process. Then we get a piece of news that we have succeeded: progressive legislation for same sex relationships is passed; a new investigation of 2010’s G20 abuses is started.

Last week we won a court case where the woman had her record of being charged, but not convicted, removed from police files. Without us she was getting nowhere. It’s this combination of small rewards and the occasional big changes that makes it all worthwhile. Thank you so much, Ms. Des Rosiers, for sharing your thoughts on success tips with Canadian careers in democracy with us. Is there any specific advice you’d give to people who are considering a career in democracy protection, or other work that requires speaking truth to power?

Ms. Des Rosiers: One thing I’d strongly recommend is zoning in on your skills and competence. You owe it to the cause to be the most professional you can be.

Practicing courage – which doesn’t necessarily come naturally to me – is another important element. You can’t allow yourself to get defined by resistance to your efforts. Try not to take it personally.

To get things done, develop great time management skills. It would be easy to burn out given all the demands you’ll be balancing. Learn to let it go when nothing more can get done.

Finally, be satisfied and accustomize yourself to noticing small wins and little rewards. There will be failures and disappointments along the way. So work at it what you care about most every day. Persevere. À chaque jour suffit sa peine, which loosely means leave don’t take your office sorrows home with you.

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