Embracing opportunities and making a difference for Winnipeg
Integrity Commissioner Sherri Walsh says legal education taught critical thinking, problem solving, confidence to face challenges
Sherri Walsh [LL.B./85] has been extremely busy over the past year since she started her new job as the City of Winnipeg’s first-ever Integrity Commissioner in April, 2017. The Robson Hall Faculty of Law alum rose with confidence to the challenge of completely revising an out-of-date 1994 Code of Conduct for City Councillors. As a result of her hard work, she received unanimous backing for the new document presented to City Council this February. The Code was passed and made effective as an official By-law of the City on February 22, 2018.
Pioneering the role of Integrity Commissioner in Winnipeg could have been a daunting task, but thankfully, Walsh was able to consult with existing municipal integrity commissioners in Ontario and the new one from Calgary. With a combination of their advice, and her own vast prior career experience working in different areas of public interest law, Walsh conquered the challenge. A significant key to her success came from the legal training she received from her alma mater, Robson Hall, which gave her a solid background in critical thinking and problem solving. The Faculty of Law recently caught up with Walsh to ask how her legal education influenced her career path, and what advice she might share with the next generation of lawyers to truly make a difference.
Robson Hall (RH): What motivated you to apply for the position?
Sherri Walsh (SW): I am always looking for different and interesting ways to use my skills and experience as a lawyer.
In the summer of 2016, I heard a story on the news about this new position that City Council had created and I thought it sounded interesting. In part, I was drawn to the public interest aspect of the work. Much of my career has been spent working in the public interest – whether as a human rights lawyer and now adjudicator under The Human Rights Code (Manitoba) or as Commission counsel to the Honourable Ted Hughes when he presided over the public Inquiry into the Circumstances Surrounding the Death of Phoenix Sinclair.
RH: What compelled or drew you to the position knowing that it would likely be highly controversial and political?
SW: To be honest, I didn’t think about that when I applied for the position. And I still don’t think of it that way. Certainly there is a public nature to the work but the role an Integrity Commissioner performs is not itself political in nature. And like other Integrity and Ethics Commissioners, I was careful to put procedures and policies in place to ensure that the role remains impartial and independent; politically neutral.
RH: What were the biggest areas needing work that you discovered when you assumed the position?
SW: Frankly, everything needed to be done! This was a newly created position. As such, it was a rare opportunity to develop something from the ground up. Council had certainly given the role a mandate and I was able to look at what was happening in other jurisdictions but I had to establish every aspect of how the role would be performed, from administrative details, to recommending a new, enhanced Code of Conduct which would include a mechanism for investigating and reporting on complaints about the ethical behaviour of Members of Council.
RH: Was it anything you expected it to be?
SW: In some ways it was but I don’t think I really appreciated the full magnitude of the undertaking. I expect that’s often the case when you take on a new role. It has been at once both daunting and exciting. I have also been extremely fortunate to be able to rely on the experience of Integrity Commissioners from other jurisdictions and on the City of Winnipeg Clerk who has been invaluable in sharing his knowledge of how City Council functions.
RH: What has been the best part about the job and what has been the worst?
SW: As I said, I think the best part of this job is the tremendous opportunity to break ground – to work with Members of Council to create a new ethics and accountability framework for the City. I have had tremendous engagement from every Member of Council, each of whom has made it clear to me that they appreciate the importance of this role and want it to succeed. I also enjoyed the rather steep learning curve that this job has afforded me and feel that I have expanded my experience and expertise in ways I had not previously contemplated. Like anything that is worth doing, there have been and I am sure there will continue to be stressful moments but the work has been an extremely positive experience for me.
RH: Having drafted a new Code of Conduct for Councilors, what is/are the biggest lesson(s) you have learned about how the City of Winnipeg City Council operates?
SW: One of the many fascinating aspects of this work has been establishing a professional relationship with the Members of Council – 16 individuals – each of whom has a unique political mandate and background. The process by which a self-imposed Code of Conduct is put in place is as important as its content. The Code was enacted as a By-law which was approved unanimously by the Members of Council. Leading up to that I met extensively with the Members of Council both individually and as a group to make sure they understood the ethical obligations to which they were committing themselves.
In the course of doing that I learned that the issues that the public relies on Council to address involve many of the most basic and significant aspects of peoples’ lives – ones that affect them on a daily basis: what their neighbourhoods look like; how they get to and from work and school; whether they have opportunities to play sports and connect with each other; and how they keep their families safe. It is a big job.
RH: How do you think your training at Robson Hall prepared you for your career this far and this unique position as Integrity Commissioner?
SW: I am grateful for the education that I received during my 3 years at Robson Hall. The courses I took and the people who taught me – both the academic professors and the practising lawyers, gave me an excellent background. I learned how to think critically and how to resolve problems in a fair and principled manner.
This, in turn, has given me the confidence to approach new challenges as they arise in my career and hopefully to make a difference in the course of doing that.
RH: What advice would you offer to law students considering different paths for after graduation?
SW: My advice to law students is to embrace every opportunity that presents itself. Think creatively about how to use the education you obtained during law school in ways that will be meaningful for you as both a person and a professional. Don’t be afraid to move outside your comfort zone; nor to ask for help or advice as you do so.
Maintain your intellectual curiosity and use your skills and experience to make a difference.