Making a difference

Justice Eileen Gillese is giving back to the School of Business that helped launch her career

Justice Eileen Gillese, ‘77 BCom, has traveled a long way from her days at the University of Alberta – earning two law degrees from Oxford University and now sitting as a justice of the Court of Appeal for Ontario for over two decades. But she hasn’t forgotten her beginnings at the Alberta School of Business, and she credits the education she received here as being foundational to her success.

“My business degree taught me rigorous analytical and writing skills and the need to think critically,” she says. “It was a tremendous aid in adjusting to both a different profession and to Oxford, such a different milieu.”

While Gillese didn’t come from a background where postsecondary education was encouraged, once she began the commerce program she quickly discovered it was the right fit for her. Undaunted by the fact that she was one of the few women in the program, she was inspired by professors like Dr. Roger Beck, whom she remembers as demanding and “hugely influential,” and Dr. Myer Horowitz, who became a mentor and lifelong friend.

By the time she reached the last year of her Commerce degree program, Gillese was starting to realize she wanted her future to move in a different direction – and a course in business law helped her realize where she wanted to go next.

When I took that course, it gelled for me that law is really an invisible “guiding hand” in society,” she explains. “How is it that we know how to regulate ourselves and our behaviour with other people and with society in general? Understanding the legal system was the missing piece for me.

eileen-g-editedv2.jpg It was also during this time that Gillese won a Rhodes Scholarship, which had just opened up to women, and made the decision to study law at Oxford. After moving across the pond and initially feeling like she had gotten in over her head, Gillese recalls returning to Edmonton and talking with Horowitz, then president of the U of A, over lunch.

“I confessed to him that I felt more than a bit of an imposter and that I was not going to do well and bring pride to the university,” she says. “He was a gentle man but he also had a penetrating intellect, and he encouraged me to hang in there, not judge myself and give it some time.”

It was wise counsel. Gillese ended up excelling at Oxford, earning a first-class standing and returning to Canada with both an undergraduate and a graduate degree in law: a BA Hons. Jurisprudence and a Bachelor of Civil Law.

Gillese returned to Edmonton, where she articled and practised. She then moved to Ontario, to take up an academic post with the Faculty of Law at the University of Western Ontario. She ultimately became a full professor and served as Dean of the Law faculty. During this time, she also served as Chair of the Pension Commission of Ontario, the Financial Services Commission of Ontario and the Financial Services Tribunal – work she says she couldn’t have done without the financial background from her business degree.

Gillese was appointed a judge with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in 1999 before being elevated to the Court of Appeal for Ontario in 2002. Among her most high profile work in the judiciary is her role as commissioner of the Public Inquiry into the Safety and Security of Residents in the Long-Term Care Homes System. The inquiry was established by the Government of Ontario in 2017 in order to investigate the circumstances surrounding the crimes committed by serial killer nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer.

Gillese has received many accolades during her career and, from being one of the first female Rhodes Scholars to the first female dean of law at Western, has been a trailblazer for women.

Now, Gillese has reached a point where she wants to focus on supporting the causes she feels strongly about. Most recently, she made a substantial donation to the Carruthers Student Commons in order to help create a place for business students to share and learn from one another.

“It’s important to me that I give back to the School which created the platform for my career,” she says. “The ability to give back is a gift to me, as well as to the School.”

“There are lots of universities where teaching is not as valued as it is at the U of A,” she adds. “It’s the teachers who really inspire us; we’re standing on their shoulders as we launch. It’s important that we give enough support back to the School that they can continue to do that for the next generation.”

As for her own advice to the next generation, Gillese urges young people – and especially young women – to learn how to say no and to leave space in their lives for new, unexpected opportunities.

She also recalls the words of her grandmother: Every space you inhabit should be better because of your presence.

“I think the notion of service is vital,” she says. “I think it’s what drives you in the end – the notion that you’re making a difference.”

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