Conversations with the President

Building communities with Tom Ullyett

Episode Summary

CBA President, Stephen Rotstein, meets with Tom Ullyett, chair of the Employment Standards Board, a member of the Yukon University’s Board of Governors and co-chair of the Yukon branch Public Sector’s Lawyer’s section. He’s recognized for being a community builder who’s helped support a generation of Yukon public sector lawyers.

Episode Notes

CBA President, Stephen Rotstein, meets with Tom Ullyett, chair of the Employment Standards Board, a member of the Yukon University’s Board of Governors and co-chair of the Yukon branch Public Sector’s Lawyer’s section. He’s recognized for being a community builder who’s helped support a generation of Yukon public sector lawyers.

He’s been an active CBA member at the branch and national level for over 30 years. Last year the CBA awarded him with the Louis Saint-Laurent Award for Excellence, the highest award conferred to a CBA member in recognition of a lifetime of outstanding service of professional achievement to the benefit of the legal profession, the CBA and society at large.

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Episode Transcription

Building communities with Tom Ullyett

Stephen Rotstein: Bonjour/hello everyone. Welcome to another episode of this season of Conversations with the President. My name is Stephen Rotstein, president of the Canadian Bar Association. I’m speaking to you today from Toronto, home to many nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat. I would ask each of you to consider the treaty lands and territories on which you reside as we acknowledge with respect and gratitude the many First Nation, Inuit, Metis, whose footsteps have marked this land for centuries.

My priority as president is strengthening our community, both in the sense of making sure our members have the tools they need to be their best selves, both professionally and personally. But also in the sense of encouraging lawyers to volunteer in their communities. In this series of episodes, I will talk to accomplished legal professionals who are leaders in volunteerism. I hope you’ll be inspired by their examples as I am.

My guest today is Tom Ullyett, a career public sector lawyer who served as deputy minister and deputy attorney general of the Yukon Department of Justice from 2013 to 2016 and as a public sector commissioner from 2016 to 2019. He currently serves as chair of the Employment Standards Board, a member of the Yukon University’s Board of Governors and co-chair of the Yukon branch Public Sector’s Lawyer’s section. He’s recognized for being a community builder who’s helped support a generation of Yukon public sector lawyers.

He’s been an active CBA member at the branch and national level for over 30 years. Last year the CBA awarded him with the Louis Saint-Laurent Award for Excellence, the highest award conferred to a CBA member in recognition of a lifetime of outstanding service of professional achievement to the benefit of the legal profession, the CBA and society at large. We also share a passion for running, but he does it in much colder temperatures than I usually do in Toronto. Welcome to the podcast Tom.

Tom Ullyett: Well thank you very much Stephen, its truly a pleasure to be here and truly to know that on this morning it’s probably warmer in Whitehorse at minus eight than it is in Toronto [whatever you’re at? 00:02:39].

Stephen Rotstein: It’s funny Tom you say that, as I was just waiting to start our taping of our podcast, I saw something that I’ve actually never seen in Toronto before. I saw someone cross-country skiing down my street. So I think you’re actually right, it is – the weather seems to be a bit in reverse today. So anyhow thank you very much again for joining us, Tom and I do have a kind of a series of questions and as per usual probably go a bit off script, because there’s lots of interesting things I know you’ll be sharing with us.

Tom Ullyett: And Stephen if I can – you should never interrupt a president, but here I am doing it one minute into our conversation. I just wanted to follow your good example and do a land acknowledgement, because I'm here in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada's northwest corner, standing on the land that is the traditional territory of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation and the Ta’an Kwäch’än First Nation. And I should add this part of the of the continent is the place where human civilization began over 25,000 years ago.

Stephen Rotstein: Thanks for that Tom. I got to say one of the most interesting things that I’ve have been learning as part of my CBA presidency, as I have been doing mostly virtual calls around the country, occasionally in person – hopefully in person again, is just obviously learning about the very First Nations lands of which we occupy and we're lucky enough to occupy. So thank you for providing that to us. So as I kind of begin the podcast with you, I want to ask you a bit about your career, where you've always combined kind of obviously in a very accomplished career with involvement in the CBA. You know, can you tell us a bit about your story, how you kind of started your career and kind of where you've gotten to, obviously very accomplished in your current part of your career?

Tom Ullyett: Sure, I’d be happy to Stephen. You know I grew up in a family with five kids, the only boy in a sibling group of five. And that isn't so significant, but what is significant is my parents were joiners, if you know what I mean. My parents were very involved in the community they were involved in the IODE for my mother. They were involved in various church activities, my dad was involved with Kiwanis, other service clubs and we lived – I grew up essentially in two places – Kitchener, Waterloo, just to the west of you, that great part of Ontario and Calgary, Alberta.

And when we moved to Calgary, I was 13 and my dad said to my older sister and I – if you want to be accepted and get on in this new community, you need to be a joiner. So his words were be a joiner. And you know that has stuck with me till today and it resonated again, for instance when I was at law school – at University of Ottawa Law School and we were told that we were being given this – we would be given this privilege of practicing law. And that it was a noblesse oblige thing, you've been given a great privilege, you must give back to your community. And I heard that in various ways throughout law school.

So when I left Ottawa in 1985 – the spring of 1985 to come north – to come to Whitehorse, Yukon, I came here with that idea that I wanted to be part of a community and I wanted to reach out. And I was already a CBA member, I joined CBA as probably many of your listeners have, when I was in law school, so I came to Yukon with my CBA ticket in my back pocket, so that gave me a bit of an edge, because there was a active CBA branch when I moved here.

Stephen Rotstein: Right. And so you know it's interesting, so obviously you went to – as you mentioned you went to law school of U of O and then you went to the north, you went obviously for an opportunity or did you – like what brought you then originally to the Yukon? Obviously, you stayed – I think you've stayed. Did you ever leave? That's another question I guess I would ask you as well.

Tom Ullyett: Yeah. No, I never left Yukon, that doesn't mean I won't, but I've never left Yukon. But what I did by doing my [article 00:07:47] in the north and in Whitehorse was certainly counter intuitive, compared to my classmates who were mostly doing their articles in Ottawa, in Toronto and also in Calgary and Vancouver. So going north I think some people thought I was just being a little bit foolish or stupid – you know, why would why would you want to go there, but turns out that the north, not just now, not just then I would say forever has been a land of opportunity in so many ways for the people that have lived here for well 1000s of years.

Stephen Rotstein: Yeah. No, I totally agree with that. So when you joined, you went for a public – so have you spent your whole career then in the public sector?

Tom Ullyett: Yes, you know I did not come from a public service family or neither of my parents worked in the public sector. I had a couple uncles who lived and worked in Ottawa and they worked in the public service, but it's not something I aspire to. I just kind of fell into it, because when I was looking for articles in the north, I had my choice between Yellowknife and Whitehorse and I chose Whitehorse and then in Whitehorse I had a couple alternatives here. And for some reason I chose the Department of Justice at the Yukon government and boy am I ever glad I did not, because right away I found myself involved in very interesting public policy issues, right even during my articling year.

Stephen Rotstein: As an aside, I couldn't imagine that when you started your articles in the north, did ever thought one day that you'd be the Deputy Minister of Justice?

Tom Ullyett: No, absolutely not. You know, I wasn't destined for greatness, if that's what it is, by any means, no as an articling student. I remember seeing the deputy minister of our department and he was a very senior lawyer and admiring him and thinking that someday wouldn’t that be nice if I could be deputy minister. But I really didn't think that I was en route to the chair of being department head or the deputy attorney general.

But you know again like many of your listeners, things happen along the way, your perspective changes, your goals change and you also have – and this is one of the things that the CBA is so good at, you learn skills along the way. If only you get influences from people who are – have skills and reputations that you don't have. And so the CBA has been great to that way and helping me in so many ways, not the least of which is meeting lawyers from coast to coast from north to south, including you.

Stephen Rotstein: So it's funny – and it's great to connect with so many members of the CBA through these podcasts, but you and I have spent time together and working together and it's great that I get to now interview you and just hear about your path. But yeah, I've been lucky enough, you know if it wasn't for the CBA, I mean we're both government sector lawyers I guess, but we probably wouldn't have crossed paths. So I totally agree with you, it's a great opportunity to meet people. So you mentioned earlier that you went to the north with the CBA membership card in your back pocket, kind of what type of role – volunteer roles have you had then [unintelligible 00:12:03] over the years?

Tom Ullyett: Yeah, right off the bat I found out that in Whitehorse there was an active family law section. So and one of the lawyers in the office I was working in was a member of that. So you know as has happened so many times and continues to happen, he said – hey, why don't you come along with me? The family law section is having a luncheon, why don't you come? So that was really my first experience was the family law section here and I was interested in that, because I was interested in family law in law school.

And then at the Department of Justice I had family law files, as they were then called maintenance enforcement files, trying to squeeze money out of parents who weren't meeting their either spousal or child support payments and adoption and child protection. So I was kind of working – and occasionally custody matters – working in that realm of family law. And so that was sort of my launch into sort of being a little more active as a member of the family – of the CBA.

But pretty quickly I found out that there was a Young Lawyers group within the CBA Canada and we didn't have one in Whitehorse. And with some encouragement from the national office, myself and another lawyer started a Young Lawyer Section in Whitehorse. And then, as now, there was a lot of young lawyers and you know that allowed me to meet all kinds of great lawyers across Canada, especially with the annual face to face meetings. And so it was really the Family Law Section in Whitehorse and then the Young Lawyers Conferences it was called at the time nationally to sort of help me walk through that CBA door that so many people do.

Stephen Rotstein: You know one thing you haven't mentioned yet, but I want to talk about involved in – as one of the roles you've been involved in as part of your CBA experience is your role dealing with the mental health and wellness of lawyers. You were the chair of what was then called the Legal Professional Assistance Conference, which is now our wellness subcommittee. Can you tell me kind of what got you involved and kind of some of the things you were working on in your role on that committee?

Tom Ullyett: Well, I've always been interested in wellness and mental health issues and you know when I was younger, I probably didn't really realize what I was seeing in a lot of cases. But both members of the bar and members of the community, I didn't know much about, but I was attuned – interested in wellness and mental health and addictions. You know, when you work in family law in the north you're exposed, you might not understand so well, but you're certainly exposed to many people who are struggling with mental health issues, struggling with addiction issues, struggling with various cognitive issues.

And that was all new to me and so it's something that through practicing here in Whitehorse, I became aware of, I was working with psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, a lot of other health and mental health practitioners. And so that was sort of something I was kind of always interested in and trying to understand how it is that some people, some communities, some nations struggle with this so much. Anyways, fast forwarding a number of years, I was then serving as the Yukon branch representative on I guess what – Stephen correct me if I'm wrong, but what is now called CBA Financial, then called Canadian Bar Insurance Association – CBIA.

I was serving on that board, terrific board to be on, any of your listeners ever get a chance to be on that board, wonderful services that it provides to the bar and a very interesting board to be on. In any event, near the end of my six or seven years on that board, the then President Greg Harding of Edmonton asked if I'd be interested in going on to the LPAC board and I was. And there had been some connection between CBIA and LPAC in terms of CBIA being a funder of some LPAC programs.

So then I was with LPAC, now CBA Wellness for 10 years, including chair and my understanding and learning of the human condition you might say, the milieu that lawyers work in, the stress, the challenges and how it manifests itself in a wellness and health way, increased a little bit. So that's sort of how I got involved with LPAC and it was terrific, I met so many fine lawyers who were so concerned about their fellow men and women in the bar, both maintaining their health, but helping those who are struggling.

Stephen Rotstein: Thanks for that background Tom. Yeah, I mean one thing that I've done a lot during my presidency is talk about mental health and wellness. And it's nothing, to be quite frank with you that I expected to talk a lot about, but sadly because of the pandemic, it's really – there's always been underlying issues within the profession.

Obviously, we all know that lawyers are type A personalities and put their clients’ interests ahead of their own, sometimes it's their own mental health and wellness that is being sacrificed. But as a result of the pandemic, it's obviously exaggerated that greatly, so I don't know if you have any thoughts on what kind of can be done in the area of mental health and wellness now as it relates to the profession – but it's important the early work that you did in this area to set the foundation to where we are now.

Tom Ullyett: Yeah, well you know Stephen, when I got to – when I became involved in the LPAC, so much work had been done by others who had served on that board over the years. But I will say, so I was just trying to move the ball forward a little bit you might say, but one thing that I'm really proud of about the Yukon branch of the CBA is this branch was the first branch in Canada to have a Law Day Run. And in 1991, local lawyer Dan Shire and I who both had a passion for running as you do, we decided that for Law Day, which the Yukon branch had already been involved and active in Law Day for years by then.

But in 1991, we decided we would put on a run and just see how that went – a lunchtime 5k run and it's still going Stephen – you know 30 plus years later, it is still going. It's now called Law Day Charity Fun Run and Walk and each year it that attracts well over 100 participants and raises money for local community groups, usually $5,000 to $8,000 per year, which for a small NGO or a small non-profit can be quite significant. So Hannah Bernstein, one of the former staffers at the national office always liked to say that it was the Yukon branch that first put on the Law Day Run, which was then replicated in other parts of the country, including in Ottawa.

And I was lucky enough to run in the Ottawa Law Day Run one year with Eugene Meehan who took off like a rocket – one of your predecessors of course, at the start line and until the others caught up to him about 500 meters into it, but that's another story. So you know that was – we didn't characterize it as a wellness thing, but it's still happening, I'm on the – again on the organizing committee for Law Day, including the Law Day Run coming up.

Well, like all the event organizers, we’re sort of trying to wonder you know what's this going to look like, do we have a plan – what does our plan B and Plan C look like, depending on the trajectory of the pandemic. But anyways, we're hoping to have another addition in about three months’ time of the Law Day Charity Fun Run and Walk.

Stephen Rotstein: Thanks for that, Tom. Yeah, one thing – you know this could be a different podcast you and I do is running and the joy of running. And I mean you're talking about a good cause that comes out of running, obviously two good causes, one is supporting charity and the second is mental health. But it's definitely – you know you mentioned about the idea of community, there's a community of lawyers, there’s a community of lawyer runners and I had the privilege of doing that – running. And the amount of good conversations I've been able to have with fellow CBA members over a run, whether it be a short run or a long line or for those who don't even run, a fun walk, just a good way to get outside and stretch – get physical and stretch – to stretch yourself out.

Tom Ullyett: Well sure and exactly you know when you – those that are experts, unlike me, but those that are experts in mental health and especially during this pandemic, will include invariably staying active as part of your regime of being health healthy – physically, mentally, spiritually. And of course there's all kinds of other things that will be suggested, such as regular sleep and a good diet and being able to be a bit self aware and know what triggers, know what’s sort of sending you down a path that you probably don't want to go and. And course being as you just mentioned, being engaged with others, not isolating yourself in a time of isolation, not isolating yourself, that's a bit of a challenge.

Stephen Rotstein: That's great advice. I could talk about this for a while with you, but there's a couple other things I wanted to talk to you about.

Tom Ullyett: Sure.

Stephen Rotstein: One of which is you know you mentioned earlier in this conversation that your father had given you what I think is excellent advice, which is to be a joiner, my parents have also given me similar advice. So I'm just wondering over the years kind of what kind of volunteer in addition to the CBA stuff that you've been involved in, what other kind of volunteer things have you been involved in within your community?

Tom Ullyett: Well, I've always kind of split my volunteer activities between sort of local stuff and more regional stuff and national stuff through the CBIA or through the – sorry the CBA and through a couple of other national organizations that I've been involved with. So it's always been kind of a bit of a back and forth between the two of them. But like most parents who have children, when my daughters were young, I was very involved in their activities as a – certainly as an observer, but also as a participant.

So one of the things that my daughters were involved in when they grew up was minor hockey. And I grew up playing minor hockey and have always played hockey and continue to play hockey to this day, even though at 64 I'm starting to look like one of the grandpa's on my hockey team and probably play like it too. But in any event, so like a lot of parents in hockey and soccer for that matter as well I was involved in refereeing, I was involved in coaching.

I was involved in managing – managing a team, timekeeping, all the different roles that are needed and usually fulfilled or carried out by volunteers to make a community activity for youth work. Whether it's a dance organization or a hockey association, there's so many roles to play, so I was very involved in all the different sports that my daughters played growing up, cross country skiing, downhill skiing, hockey, figure skating and soccer. So not unlike most parents, just helping out doing something beyond just standing on the sidelines, because as you know the more you're involved, the more you get out of it.

Stephen Rotstein: Yeah, no I agree. You know Tom when I speak to you, I kind of think about that's exactly the same approach I've taken. I've either been – volunteered or there's another expression I use – voluntold, to get involved in [unintelligible 00:27:25] activities for my daughters as well. So just with the time we have remaining, you’ve provided some great advice on various topics. I'm wondering, for the younger lawyers or the lawyers who are thinking about transitioning in their career, kind of what advice would you give them how to be successful, you know either professionally or personally as they kind of go through the next stages of their career?

Tom Ullyett: Well, I guess Stephen I could throw up some clichés there, like follow your passion and develop your strengths and stuff like that, but you know I'm no professional advice giver in that sense. But I guess I would start with that for law students and lawyers and especially young lawyers, start with the premise that we're coming from a place of privilege. We've been given this ancient – it goes back to – I mean how long has there been lawyers? The time of the Greeks, Babylon, I mean there's always been lawyers and we're carrying this ancient tradition and practice a forward.

So that in itself is a privilege and then to be able to get a legal education in Canada, the challenge of getting into law school, the challenge of paying for law school, but once you're – you know, it still is a great privilege. So I think recognizing that privilege and especially if you're a white male [Anglo-Saxon? 00:29:14] like me, I'll be the first to admit there was a lot of doors that were open to me, that may not have been open to other colleagues who just didn't look like me, if you know what I mean. But then give that privilege a workout, spread it around.

And you know, when you come home after a hard day at work, just don't open a bottle of wine and start watching TV. Of course, you're going to do that some nights of the week, but get out there in humanity, get out there and do something to advance civilization and to help others. And you know people as you know Stephen, organizations love to have lawyers involved with them, to sit on their board of directors, sit on a board of directors.

Be a coach and if you're not a coach, should take some training to be a coach, but do something beyond yourself, beyond your house. And whether it's with the Bar Association, whether it's with the broader community, because you will most likely benefit from it, although perhaps that isn’t the only reason you should do it. But your community will benefit from it, your family will benefit from it, your country will benefit from it and the good name of lawyers will benefit from it.

Stephen Rotstein: Tom those are inspiring words, I couldn't have said them better myself. I've really enjoyed our conversation today and our catch up. And please continue your contributions both to the CBA and obviously to the broader community. Now, keep well and I hope to see you in person again soon.

Tom Ullyett: OK, well Stephen I look forward to running with you again. It's been – the last time I remember running together was in Montreal I think, but I look forward to running with you or at least having a cup of coffee with you when we all start travelling again. The Union Pearson Express is pretty handy from the airport, so I will call you and say – hey, Stephen let's meet at Balzac’s at Union Station and have a cup of coffee.

Stephen Rotstein: That sounds great, I look forward to that.

Tom Ullyett: OK, thank you.

Stephen Rotstein: I’ve been talking to Tom Ullyett, a career public sector lawyer who served as deputy minister and deputy attorney general of the Yukon, Department of Justice and who’s currently chair of the Employment Standards Board in the territory. Merci/thank you. We want to hear your stories about how you think legal professionals can help strengthen our communities.

Do you know a lawyer who exemplifies this ideal? Or do you see a need for the legal professionals that aren’t currently being met? Let us know at Twitter @CBA_News, on Facebook and Instagram at Canadian Bar Association. You can also find me on Twitter @StephenRotstein. Thank you for listening to this episode of Conversations with the President. Subscribe to get the newest episodes as soon as they're released on Spotify, Apple podcasts or your favorite podcast platform. And don't forget to leave a review. Until next time.