Profiting Democracy In A Nonprofit Job
By Mark Swartz
Monster Senior Contributing Writer
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.
But who guards these safety nets so they catch us when democracy falters?
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) is one such defender. It works alongside many others to protect Canada’s fundamental freedoms. This particular not-for-profit, founded in 1964 and based in Toronto, is a public watchdog centered on law reform. Since 2009 it has been led by Natalie des Rosiers, Executive Director. She may not be a household name, but in her circles she is the Wayne Gretzky of civil liberties.
Careers In Civil Liberties and Democracy Protection
Ms. Des Rosiers holds a masters level degree in law (from Harvard, no less). But to work in this field you don’t have to be a lawyer at all. There are jobs at every level in a wide range of roles.
The CCLA’s Administrative Assistant, for example, is contributing to the greater good in their own way. So is the Media Relations Manager at Amnesty International Canada. The employee that handles accounts payable and receivable at Unicef Canada is helping the cause too.
Monster.ca offers a number of jobs in the Nonprofit sector. Associated positions can be found in government agencies as well.
The Interview With Natalie Des Rosiers
Ms. Des Rosiers' day is overflowing with urgent meetings, phone calls, speaking engagements, fund raising and advocacy yet she managed to carve out a bit time to chat with Monster.
Monster.ca: 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 in this field. I am from Montreal and at that time constitutional law was constantly making the news.
Monster.ca: So you didn’t set out specifically to defend democracy at first.
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 journalists at Radio Canada went on strike. 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 got me involved with vulnerable and disadvantaged populations.
Monster.ca: What did you do upon graduating from law school?
Ms. Des Rosiers: Some of my professors encouraged me to 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.
Monster.ca: What were the key lessons for you from your clerkship with Supreme Court of Canada Justice Julien Chouinard?
Ms. Des Rosiers: There were many critical learnings. First was simply appreciating the judge’s enormous responsibility. Part of my clerkship involved researching precedents and drafting memoranda for the judge. He would always be concerned about the far reaching impact of his decisions .
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.
Monster.ca: 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 directly on civil liberties?
Ms. Des Rosiers: Throughout the years I had been involved with 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 could not stop this rights violation and I asked myself, why not? 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.
Monster.ca: 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.
Monster.ca: What’s your greatest reward for doing this 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 wrongdoings 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.
Monster.ca: Thank you so much, Ms. Des Rosiers, for sharing your thoughts 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 at your peak.
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. À chaque jour suffit sa peine, which loosely means leave your work sorrows at the office.
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 what you care about most every day. Persevering is key.