Profile with Eileen Gillese

Justice Eileen Gillese (Alberta & Wadham College 1977) has been serving on the Ontario Court of Appeal since 2002. She also served as a Superior Court Justice from 1999 to 2002. Prior to this, she held the position of Dean and Professor of Law at the University of Western Ontario’s Faculty of Law. Eileen holds an honorary LLD Degree from the Law Society of Upper Canada, a BA and BCL in Law from the University of Oxford and a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Commerce from the University of Alberta. She lives in Ontario with her husband, four children and her granddaughter.

Rhodes Project: When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Eileen Gillese: The background I came from did not encourage women to go to university; women were expected to stay home and raise a family. I don’t think I had any clear vision or ambition until I was old enough to think for myself and realise that was not the path in life I wanted to follow. In fact, I missed the deadline to apply to university when I was in high school because I was still in the mindset that women didn’t go to University.  Thankfully I decided to go to the University of Alberta, armed with my transcripts, despite having missed the deadline for application.  Because I was a very strong student, a number of faculties were prepared to admit me.   

Rhodes Project: What surprised you most about your time at Oxford?

Eileen Gillese: How comfortable I felt within a very short time after I arrived! It was an enormously reassuring feeling.  I think that one thing that contributed is Oxford’s tolerance for idiosyncrasies, which translates into people feeling free to be their authentic selves.  One memory that I have illustrates this point.  I remember coming home by train from London late one night and seeing the guy who ran the chip wagon close to the train station reading A Shortened History of England! Rather than appearing incongruous, it felt like Oxford’s best.  I found my time at Oxford to be very liberating.

Rhodes Project: What’s the most challenging part of your job?

Eileen Gillese: Probably finding time for “self-care”.  The court I serve on is Canada’s busiest appellate court.  There is a great deal of work and responsibility.  I know that it is important to take time to look after myself, if only so that I can ensure that I bring a proper perspective to each case, not one that is the product of being tired or rushed.  Nonetheless, like many women, when there’s a huge workload, I just dig in and work and work and don’t necessarily recognise the need to build in some time for myself.  Having said that, I have learned some good tricks about balancing family (I have four children) and career and those help a lot.   

Rhodes Project: What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

Eileen Gillese: Making good decisions, ones in which the parties feel they have been heard and fairly dealt with.  A good knowledge of the case and relevant legal principles, coupled with good listening skills and parking your ego, lead to good decisions.  When litigants feel they have been fairly heard, even if they are not the winning side, they tend to accept the decision. The rule of law is based on people accepting that courts make fair decisions.  Thus, at a fundamental level, I feel that I am helping make the justice system work, which within a democracy, is of vital importance.

Rhodes Project: Can you talk about the conflict between your own beliefs and your commitment to upholding the law?

Eileen Gillese: It gets easier. The oath a judge takes is to uphold the law. There are times when a judge might not agree with a particular law but that is part of the democratic process. My views or values are not what should determine the result in a case. The laws passed by the (elected members of the) legislature are the laws that we must uphold, provided they are constitutionally valid. If a person is not able to or prepared to do that, he or she is not well suited to being a judge.  A judge is a judge – not a politician or an advocate.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a memorable teaching moment?

Eileen Gillese: In law school, first year is often not a good indicator of how well a student will ultimately perform in law school or as a lawyer. Sometimes I would have a student who did not perform well in their first year but I could see their potential.  If they were disheartened about their standing, I would try to tell them such things as “You’re patient, analytical, and thoughtful. Keep going.  Maybe try doing certain things differently but your time will come”.  Because I taught all three years of law school, I would usually see those students again and the most memorable moments came when they soared in later courses.  I just felt so happy for them and for their ability to persevere despite the initial challenges.  Things have come full circle in that regard as I sometimes see former students before me at the Court of Appeal and I think “You are a truly good lawyer.  Good for you for not giving up! “ 

Rhodes project: If you could do it all again, knowing what you know now, would you do anything differently?

Eileen Gillese: Nothing comes to mind but my life has not been as planned out as others might have been.  Because I did not have a fixed plan, I think I was open to opportunities when they presented themselves.   

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to a young woman pursuing a career in law?

Eileen Gillese: Find some mentors, people at different stages in their legal careers, who have a life-work balance that you admire - their personal lives should be a mirror of what you hope for yourself and the work that they do should both be meaningful and something you can see yourself excelling at.  Try to find mentors at different stages in their careers – someone who is two or three years ahead of you in terms of your career, another who is five years ahead of you, and another who is ten or more years ahead of you.  Ask for their advice.  Talk to them regularly.  Listen carefully and then follow that which resonates.   

Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to devote to any one issue, global or local, what would it be and why?

Eileen Gillese: Several years ago, my husband Rob and I sat down and talked about our charitable giving and our volunteer activities because we felt we were not doing enough in that area.  We made a conscious decision to choose one area and focus on that - channel our volunteer time and charitable giving into that one area.  We decided that one area was women and children, with a particular emphasis on housing and education.  So, if I had unlimited resources, I would devote them to that, beginning with Toronto itself.   

Rhodes Project: What brings you the most joy?

Eileen Gillese: My family – Rob is a great husband, our four children are wonderful young adults, and our granddaughter Leah is awesome.  My job also brings me much joy.  It is challenging to be a good  parent and also have work that you love and find meaningful.  I am filled with joy when I look at my kids and granddaughter and see how well they are doing and then come into work and lose myself in an interesting case.  I give thanks every single day for the richness of my life.   

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