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From government to think-tank role

Professional Profile
|Written By Janet Guttsman
From government to think-tank role

A think-tank’s new focus on international law offers the perfect combination of action and reflection for Oonagh Fitzgerald, named director of the International Law Research Program at the Waterloo, Ont.-based Centre for International Governance Innovation.

Fitzgerald, who joins CIGI after a high-profile career in the Canadian government, says her first priority will be to set clear guidelines for the new program, which is designed to expand the scope of international law, especially as it relates to business and financial issues, as well as to build up a team of scholars, legal experts, and students.

“There’s a lot we can do,” she says.

“I’ll be hiring people and looking for distinguished fellows to join, and also students to participate, either as grad students or post doctoral students or perhaps even undergraduate students. It’s not simply an academic pursuit. It’s trying to bridge the gap between knowledge and access to decision-making. So what I will be looking for is to find where there are irritants, and gaps where we can add value and where we can bring the right people together to find solutions to the problems.”

The new program will focus initially on intellectual property rights, environmental and sustainability issues, and economic and investment law, three priorities set by CIGI’s leadership teams. It has financing for up to 19 fellows, and will work closely with other programs at CIGI, a non-partisan think-tank set up in 2001 with endowments from local tech wizards Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, then the bosses of now faltering BlackBerry.

Fitzgerald, an amateur musician who is learning to play classical guitar, says the opportunities presented by the program were too good to pass up, even though it will — initially at least — mean a long weekly commute to Waterloo from Ottawa, where one of her two sons is finishing high school.

“I see it as a really exciting challenge, because it’s brand new,” she says. “I’ve been looking at the work of CIGI over the last decade or so and always wondering will they ever have the opportunity to connect it with the legal dimension. And so when I saw that they had announced the program of international law and research it seemed too attractive to ignore.”

Fitzgerald, who grew up in Stratford, Ont., not far from her new Waterloo base, is somewhat more reticent about her many years in government, where she held jobs in departments as diverse as Justice, National Defence, Human Resources Canada, and the Privy Council.

She was legal adviser to the Department of National Defence and the Canadian armed forces in the period after the deadly 2001 suicide attacks on the U.S. Pentagon and the World Trade Center, at a time when the government was rethinking security issues and rewriting its contracts for military hardware to strengthen military equipment against the improvised explosive devices that were killing Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan.

Her last government job, starting in October 2011, was as national security coordinator and senior general counsel for the Department of Justice.

“I worked a lot on the government response to 9/11, so that was an interesting period to be working on legislative changes in the field of national security,” she says. “It’s been interesting working in that area and seeing how things have evolved over time, and it’s an area that will continue to evolve. It’s an ongoing, very challenging area.”

She adds: “Security is very important, it’s a primary responsibility of state. But there is always that question of how do you protect peoples’ human rights and privacy and those interests at the same time as guaranteeing security, so it’s always a delicate balance. And as the threat changes over time, one has to adjust to that. It’s always a question of finding the balance, and certainly issues of national security have changed a lot over time.”

Fitzgerald strongly recommends the federal government as a destination for ambitious young lawyers.

“I’ve had a wonderful career in the public service, and most of it connected with the Department of Justice,” she says. “I think one of the really exciting things that happens when you work in government is that you are involved in the big issues of the day. So there have been many times where a paper lands on the front doorstep and you go ‘Oh boy, there’s my file,’” she says.

During her time in Ottawa, Fitzgerald balanced a day job with the government with a part-time professorship at the University of Ottawa, where she taught international law and governance.

She also spent about a year working on an anti-corruption initiative in Malawi as part of a United Nations project and travelled to Ghana to present the paper that came out of that research.

“I’ve always done both jobs,” she says of the combination of working for the federal government and in the academic world. “So I would teach at night, and I would practice law in the public sector during the day. . . . I think both worlds are really great, really interesting places to work. I know that some people would say that in an academic environment you don’t have that feeling that everything you do is relevant, which you do when you work in government. It was a nice combination to do both.”

It’s a combination of practical and theoretical that will also work for CIGI.

“The way I want to work is I want to consult with the private sector, with government and with the academic community to see what are the issues that they feel are the ones that need to be pursued right now as a priority, and I don’t want to create an agenda that is not grounded in real-life concerns of Canadians,” she says.

“What I learned from my public service career is how to work well with people and how to find super-bright people who will add to a common cause and I’m good at inspiring people to work to that common cause. So I have a lot of positive hope for this position that I will be able to draw people from the different legal communities and even cross-discipline communities to work on these projects and I think we can achieve some wonderful things together.”


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