Justice Gloria Epstein, LLB 1977

On the transformative powers of law, challenges—and snakes

By Lucianna Ciccocioppo

From the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of Nexus

 

LC: Thank you for volunteering as president of the Law Alumni Association these past two years. What were the highlights of your tenure?

GE: Two things. First, getting to know and working with great people, the other members of the association who volunteer their time for the school, the law school staff, and the faculty, particularly two terrific deans.

The other part was working with the LAA and the school toward enhancing the association’s value to the law school by increasing the communication surrounding issues the school is facing. I am very pleased about the progress made in that area.

 

LC: Let's talk about a milestone case in your career. What do you look back upon and think ‘I made a difference there’?

GE: The biggest one has to be M v. H.—identified as the landmark case on the rights of equal treatment of same-sex couples under the Constitution. The case came before me in my second week as a judge. Eventually I heard the constitutional argument. I held that the exclusion of same-sex couples from the definition of common-law spouses under the Family Law Act was a violation of equality rights under s. 15 of the Charter that could not be saved by s. 1. The decision was ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court. I am enormously proud of the part I played in that case, in that particular development of Canadian law. It’s one of the shining aspects of our society. Canada really has led the way in treating people of all types of sexual orientation equally, giving them the dignity and respect they deserve.

 

LC: When did you know you wanted to be a lawyer?

GE: I don’t think there was ever a ‘voilà’ moment. It kind of just happened. I graduated with a commerce degree from Queen’s University and thought, ‘Well, I have a business degree so I better have a business.’ So, I bought a fishing camp on an island on Lake Temagami in northern Ontario. What an ordeal. I cooked on the cook's day off, bartended on the bartender's day off, did the laundry, cleaned the rooms, ordered the supplies, did the books, marketing—you name it. One of my most vivid memories is when I had to pull a snake out of a water pump on a freezing cold winter morning. 

I also formed wonderful relationships with the Ojibway of the Bear Island Indian Band. Little did I know how the many experiences from my camp days would impact my legal career.

But I realized that running a fishing camp was not my life's calling—might have been shortly after the snake incident. I had to move on. My brother-in-law was my confidante and a lawyer. He suggested law. I went to a gym in North Bay, wrote the LSAT and was accepted into U of T law.

I guess you could say I ended up in law school more by happenstance than by design.

 

LC: Tell me about your law school experience and your student days. What stands out? It couldn't have been easy in the 1970s.

GE: You're right. There were changing dynamics at the time involving women in law. The adjustment was not necessarily easy. There weren't many of us.

I think on a personal level my experience in law school can best be described by overlapping challenges.

One was simply the intellectual rigour of U of T law, particularly after two years on an island in northern Ontario. I had catapulted myself into a dramatically different environment. I was surrounded by people engaged in high-level academic pursuits. I still had my fishing camp boots on.

And, I had no money. During first year law, I worked four nights a week as a cocktail waitress and one night as a coat-check girl.

 

LC: Where did you work?

GE: I was a waitress at The Pinnacle Restaurant at the top of the Sheraton Centre and checked coats at Don Quixote Restaurant. In my second year, I got married. My first child was born in the fall of third year law. As I say, my time at law school was challenging. But I would not change any of it. It was exciting. And law school, together with the fishing camp experience, made me strong, very strong.

I realized that running a fishing camp was not my life's calling—might have been shortly after the snake incident. I had to move on. My brother-in-law was my confidante and a lawyer. He suggested law. I went to a gym in North Bay, wrote the LSAT and was accepted into U of T law.

LC: What was it like to launch one of the first women-owned firms in 1985, Gloria Epstein and Associates?

GE: When I was expecting my third child, I decided to start my own firm for two reasons. The main one was I thought I could have more control over my life and have more time for my family. And second, I saw it as a challenge—hmm, there is a theme emerging here! Anyway, at the time, there weren't many, if any, women-owned law firms.

 

LC: How did your background and your upbringing inform your career?

GE: I came from a background that can only be described as impoverished. My parents were poor and unsophisticated. My mom, in fact, had only a Grade 3 education.

My dad died when I was a teenager. Recently, following my mom’s death, I reflected on my family life and it dawned on me that when I went to Queen’s I had left a home with only one book other than my school books—the Bible. Imagine leaving a home with no books and ending up in law. To this day I am constantly aware of the effects of my upbringing—not necessarily bad, but certainly there is a difference.

One of the most significant differences might well be insight into people and their lives, something important to my work as a judge. I am profoundly interested in people—people from all segments of our society. This interest has really marked my career. 

 

LC: You've spoken passionately about access to justice, including at the Faculty of Law’s 2011 Access to Civil Justice Colloquium. What changes would you like to see?

GE: As I said then, and I say now, we need a Unified Family Court comprised of judges dedicated to family law. A strong business case to support such an initiative can be made to both levels of government.  And a UFC would provide a vastly improved system of justice to so many people in our community who are going through difficult times.

For reasons I don't understand, the federal and provincial governments have not been able to agree on a way forward with this initiative. I keep my fingers crossed but they have been crossed for longer than they should have to be.

 

LC: What do you think are some of the key challenges on the bench these days?

GE: Adjusting to change. In the more than 20 years that I've been a judge, there have been tremendous changes in law—most significantly, the Charter. Institutional changes. Changes in the profession. Changes in society. We have to keep pace. It is not that easy but it is essential. 

 

LC:  Now that you are supernumerary, what do you envision doing?

GE: When I told our wonderful new chief, Chief Justice Strathy, that I was going supernumerary, I said "George, I'm not pulling back, I'm spreading out." I am at the office all day every day, as always. But I have more time to spend on my work. More time to be involved with professional organizations, to teach, judge moots and the like. More time to engage in the community and serve the public in various organizations. So I have done what I told the chief I would do. I have spread out. And it’s great.

 

LC: You've received numerous prestigious awards for your community work and women's advocacy, including U of T’s Arbour Award and the YWCA’s Woman of Distinction. Why do you do it?

GE: Two reasons: because I can and because I care. I have the resources, the energy level, the support that allows me to contribute to the community. And I have the initiative—I genuinely care about the people in our community.

 

LC: What advice would you have for new alumni who are starting their careers, probably starting their families, buying homes, trying to find the time to give back to the community. What would you say to them?

GE: Do whatever you can to free up time for activities outside your practice. I think it helps you develop as a person and as a lawyer. It helps the community, of course. And it helps you. You increase your circulation.  You gain perspective. Everybody wins.

The tough part is finding the time. And, let me be clear, in the beginning, when I was building my family, I barely had time to breathe, let alone do community-service work. But gradually as the kids became more independent, I found ways to address my passion for people not just in the courtroom but in the community as well. 

 

LC: Do you see yourself as a role model for the up-and-coming generation?

GE: No. I see myself as a cheerleader. I see other U of T alumni, such as Justice Rosie Abella, as role models.

 

LC: What's the difference?

GE: Great question. I guess I never think of myself as someone to be emulated. Rather, I encourage and motivate. As I said earlier, I love people. Any chance I get to make somebody else's day better, makes my day better. That's why I see myself more as a cheerleader.

 

LC: Can you imagine yourself being anything else besides a lawyer?

GE: No. There was a fleeting moment after I had practised law for a few years when I actually thought about going to medical school. Can you believe it? I think the community is way better off that I decided to stay in law. I make too many mistakes to be a doctor.

 

LC: Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?

GE: Middle-aged.

 

LC: So, you've only just begun?

GE: Yep, I'm just getting started; 10 years from now, in addition to being middle-aged, I hope to have the same level, or maybe even a greater level of engagement in the three areas of my life that are so important to me: family, the legal profession and the community.