Wisdom. Justice. Compassion. These three words not only embody the core mission of Brescia University College, but also are what the Honourable Madam Justice Eileen Gillese of the Ontario Court of Appeal believes that every legal professional should actively practice. This alignment with Brescia’s values, in tandem with her fierce advocacy for women pursuing roles of leadership, are why it was an easy decision for Justice Gillese to accept the role as Brescia’s second Chancellor.
A trailblazer throughout her career, Justice Gillese earned a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University in England, the first year the Scholarship was opened to women, and served as the first female Dean of the Faculty of Law at Western University. In 1999, Justice Gillese was appointed to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice and in 2002 became a judge of the Ontario Court of Appeal.
In 2019, after four incredible years of service leadership at Brescia, Justice Gillese will complete her term as Chancellor – leaving behind a meaningful and lasting impact on Brescia’s students and community.
Why did you choose to become involved with Brescia, as the University’s second Chancellor?
On a personal level, it was partly as a result of having known Brescia’s first Chancellor, Dr. Joan Francolini. Joan was a wonderful person and by taking over her role as Brescia’s Chancellor, after she passed, I felt it honoured her memory.
In addition to my connection with Joan, there were three reasons why I wanted to be involved with Brescia. The first is that Brescia is a truly unique institution. Often, when people think of Brescia’s uniqueness, they automatically think of its status as Canada’s only women’s university. While this is important, something else that makes Brescia unique in Canada’s post-secondary landscape is its overt commitment to providing an education that is much larger than simply academic. In addition to the University’s pursuit of academic excellence, it also has a deep commitment to social justice, community service, and the development of women in leadership. These combined factors are crucial in helping to develop the whole person. I don’t think there is another post-secondary institution in the country that actually recognizes that it can take a role in educating the whole person and is courageous enough to proudly trumpet this message in our current world.
Second, Brescia’s key values of leading with wisdom, justice, and compassion are keenly aligned with my career goals and my long-standing commitment to the legal system.
Finally, Brescia’s academic values align with my vision for what we truly need today, which is to ensure that there is an abundance of opportunities for women in post-secondary education. Brescia is leading in this area and also in its recognition that leadership in women can be developed. It is vital for women today to understand their leadership capabilities. And, I do not mean leadership in a conventional way, such as being a CEO or CFO. We need to understand that, as women, we have the capacity to lead in many different ways, with equally empowering results.
What path led you to your role within the Ontario Court of Appeal?
Traditionally, few academics have been appointed to the Bench. The typical career path for a lawyer to become a judge in Canada is to work for at least 15 years in legal practice, before thinking about applying for the Bench. So, obviously my career trajectory was different. Although I initially practiced as a lawyer, I ultimately chose academia, where I remained for many years.
When I consider my path to the Ontario Court of Appeal, two important factors stand out. First, prior to my time on the Bench, I ran some provincial Commissions, such as the Pension Commission of Ontario, the Financial Services Tribunal, and the Financial Services Hearing Board. In my capacity of either Chair or Vice-Chair of those Commissions, I ran many hearings, heard a lot of evidence, and wrote dozens of decisions – with many of them being reviewed in the courts. I realized at that time that the work I was doing was much like that of a judge. And, I realized that I liked it very much.
However, while these provincial Commissions sparked my interest in becoming a judge I honestly do not think I would have become a judge without the support of a group of leaders in the London Bar. This group of legal professionals – interestingly, all of whom were male – took me for lunch one day, said they thought I would be a great judge, and encouraged me to apply. At that time, there were very few women on the bench in southwestern Ontario. But if it wasn’t for the support of this group, I am not sure I would have ever pursued an appointment to the Bench.
What are some of the learnings that you have been able to take away from your experience with Brescia and apply to your life and/or career?
One of the most compelling lessons that I have learned during my tenure as Brescia’s Chancellor is the value and ability for institutions to transform themselves while remaining true to their core values. Brescia began as a Catholic University, established by the Ursuline Sisters, to provide women with the opportunity to pursue post-secondary education and to learn to lead with wisdom, justice and compassion. Many people still think of Brescia as that small Catholic institution and may not appreciate how it has developed to be more ecumenical in nature, with a diverse student population and professoriate.
Similarly, when Brescia was first established it was known as a Home Economics school – focused on food preparation and clothing textiles. Today, Brescia has a full breadth of course offerings and has transformed its approach to Foods and Nutrition. It is no longer a school for Home Economics but, rather, one that offers a rigorous science- and evidenced-based nutrition degree, which graduates exceptional food professions.
While Brescia has successfully adapted and modernized itself, it has always remained true to its mission. This ability to transform itself, while staying true to its values is not an easy thing. Universities especially can be hierarchical and rigid in many ways, but the opposite is true for Brescia. For this, I credit the Ursuline Sisters, who realized early on the need to be a full-fledged post-secondary institution that was ecumenical and versatile in its approach.
Many institutions – not just universities – tend to be inflexible in their operations and not easily changed. My experience with Brescia has made me more patient and persistent in my approach to things that I think can be improved. Rather than thinking, “How can I ever make a difference here, when I am only one person?” I think of how Brescia has transformed itself, while remaining true to its core values and mission, and feel reassured about the capacity of other institutions to also transform themselves.
To what do you attribute your professional success?
First, my wonderfully supportive spouse. The older I get, the more I appreciate how important it is to have a partner who supports you and loves you for your authentic self.
Second, I think sheer hard work has played a part. No matter what jobs we hold, there are bound to be times when long, hard hours are called for and they may not be appreciated. While never easy, I think that those periods are part of the maturation process in a career, and we should not shy away from them.
I also think success comes from the willingness to try new things – even if they arrive at less than convenient times. For example, you may be at a point in your life when you feel stressed trying to juggle a job and family life – you may even feel “maxed out”. At times like that, when an exciting new opportunity comes along – particularly one that pushes you outside of your comfort zone – your instinctive reaction may be to say “no” to it. I suggest that may be exactly the time that you want to stop, assess and decide if the new opportunity is worth exploring.
Finally, for me, success is more about the quality of work that I do than it is about the amount of money I make. There will be many times in your life when you can walk through one of two doors: Door A will lead to more money but Door B will lead to work that speaks to your essence. For me, a lot of my success has been because I went through Door B.
What advice would you give to Brescia alumnae and students?
I cannot stress how important it is to have people in your life who know you, support you, and love you for who you are. Your authentic self. There was a time early in my family life, where my husband Rob and I had four young kids and two busy careers. During this hectic time, I was seriously thinking about “jumping off the treadmill.” Rob knew my passion for the law and encouraged me to continue working as a professor – and, together, we made some changes that helped restore some balance in our lives.
I also think we should not try to be all things, to all people, at all times. There will be times when it is tough to juggle all the competing demands on you. You may even drop the ball on some matters – leaving you feeling disappointed and, perhaps, judged. Before you get to that state, just accept that you cannot be all things to all people. Keep your eye on what you truly believe to be the most important things and let some of the rest go. You will be happier and more at peace.
As a related thought, here is a strategy that I used to help me keep focussed on what is truly important to me. Take some relaxed time to think about your values and what really matters to you. Force yourself to keep the list short enough to fit on a cue card. At those hard times – when you think you are failing or coming up short – look at the card and see if you are achieving most of the things you wrote on it. Chances are that you are. But, even if you aren’t, remind yourself that you are – in fact – doing your best and that is all that anyone can ask of you, including yourself.
How do you define leadership? Or, what characteristics make a great leader?
To me, leadership takes all forms and cannot be confined to one single definition. It is not a title, nor can it be measured by the size of your salary.
The central ingredient to real leadership is the willingness to do the right thing. I also believe that great leaders possess four distinct characteristics – the first being patience. Most of us do not come into this world with an abundance of patience, but it is an essential skill that should be practised and honed. Compassion is the second characteristic, which is bred largely from the third trait of empathy. The final characteristic is humility. Again, this is not usually something we come into this world with, because we all have an ego; humility basically asks us to step away from that ego. From my personal experience, I have found that the best leaders possess these four characteristics, and that is what has made them successful.
What are your hopes for Brescia in the next 100 years?
As Brescia enters its second century, I hope that it has the capacity to continue to evolve while remaining true to its values and essence. I hope that it continues to be a space of academic excellence, and a place where women are encouraged to develop and thrive as leaders. Finally, I hope that Brescia will continue to strive for its foundational goals of social justice and community service.
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