Alberta Premier Alison Redford speaks with real conviction about the importance of bringing citizens into public policy discussions. That’s not surprising considering her background: long before she entered politics, she worked in communities around the world on issues that touch the everyday lives of ordinary people. What might be unusual is how that has shaped her approach to politics.
Her international development work took her to South Africa where she managed a constitutional development project for the CBA in partnership with an organization involved in test-case litigation on issues ranging from employee rights to the right to antiretroviral HIV drugs for pregnant women. Later, she travelled to Afghanistan where she helped organize the first parliamentary elections. She was involved in writing the election act, educating voters and negotiating who could run for office (although convincing the cabinet that people with private standing armies should be disqualified was a tough sell since some members actually had their own army.)
As Redford explains, Afghanistan was a lesson in the very fundamentals of the democratic process. She remembers travelling to a small school in Helmand Province to speak to women about voting, and being struck by two things: first, that the women clearly thought it was important because they brought their daughters; and second, that they did not know what a vote was. Her explanation — that voting means having a voice in government — got her thinking about how people connect to government and whether it was time to take a seat at the decision-making table herself.
When I met Redford in Calgary in June, she was fresh from stunning pollsters with her unexpected electoral victory over Wild Rose candidate Danielle Smith. And she was still thinking about people’s connection to government and the importance of bringing voters into the conversation.
“We really have to bring politics back to the kitchen table and to the school boards and to the community so people feel that they can make a difference,” she said. She connects the dots between low voter turnout and people’s loss of connection to government, pointing out that voter turnout jumped from 40 per cent in 2008 to 59 per cent in the last Alberta election “because we took the political debate to the public.”
In her opinion, good political leadership defines its values and sets the long-term direction, then seeks public input on how to get there. It’s not politics as usual — but then it’s not supposed to be.
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After I was accepted to law school, one of my newspaper colleagues made a point of sending me stories about lawyers in crisis. The common thread was that lawyers suffer high rates of depression and addiction and as a professional group are vulnerable to suicide. It was a reminder — and perhaps a warning — that the profession has a dark side.
It turns out these were not apocryphal tales. It was true 20 years ago and it’s true today: lawyers and law students face a disproportionately higher risk of depression than the general population. In fact, one in three will experience a major mood disorder or problem with addiction at school or work during their careers. These are intelligent, capable, high-achieving individuals. And yet they struggle, often in silence, unwilling to reveal the depth of their pain. Why?
Environment and personality both play a role, according to researchers. Law school is competitive and “notorious for deflating the self-image and sense of competence of its students,” says Dr. Lawrence Krieger of Florida State University College of Law. Other studies have revealed that law attracts individuals with certain personality traits. Dr. Larry Richard, a U.S. psychologist and former trial lawyer, found that when tested for resilience, 90 per cent of lawyers consistently scored in the bottom half of the general population, making the majority more sensitive to criticism, setbacks and rejections and quicker to become defensive. Many find it hard to strike a work-life balance and they deal with stress in unhealthy ways.
Fortunately, the profession has recognized this problem and is ready to help. The CBA’s Legal Profession Assistance Conference (LPAC) helps lawyers, judges, law students and their families with personal, emotional, health and lifestyle issues. Confidential help and professional referrals are available through LPAC’s 24/7 Helpline at 1-800-667-5722. LPAC also develops programs and liaises with law assistance program across the country.
Don’t be afraid to reach out. In Ontario alone, the Ontario Lawyers’ Assistance program is working with about 1,200 individuals. About 42 per cent of cases involve mental health issues, including depression, anxiety and debilitating stress, according to the 2010 annual report.
There is no need to suffer in silence and no shame in asking for help. In fact, making the decision to seek help can be the most difficult part of the process. But once you do, you’ll be on a path to a much brighter future.
All you have to do is ask.
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Beverley Spencer is editor-in-chief of National Magazine and executive editor of CCCA Magazine