To understand Ian McPhail’s career path, you have to take a step or two back in the family tree.
McPhail’s grandfather was a first-generation Canadian, born here to parents who came over from Scotland. Growing up in Sault Saint Marie, Ont., John McPhail spoke Gaelic until he went to school, but he quickly learned English and went on to become active in law, business and politics. Eventually, he became a driving force in his northern community — and an inspiration to his grandson.
The elder McPhail played a role in developing hydro-electric towers in the area and when Algoma Steel was going under in the face of the Great Depression, he ended up as one of the receivers. He was able to arrange for people to come in and rescue it, and the company still exists today.
“I think to a large extent through his efforts, Sault Saint Marie became a prosperous community,” says McPhail, who also grew up in the community before going away for school. “It showed me that one person who can assemble a good team can make a significant difference.”
This conviction informed his choices after he graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School in 1970. Although McPhail started out working with a bigger firm, what was then Blackwell Law in Toronto, it didn’t take him long to realize he could explore his other interests if he went out on his own — he established McPhail Law in 1972. He was looking for the independence that would allow him “to do different projects that might not have fit that well with a larger firm,” he explains.
He then began to build up his firm, where he practises estate law, and was eventually appointed a federal Queen’s Counsel in 1992. In 1999, McPhail put his private practice on hold to serve on the boards of various organizations.
He was chairman of the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, chairman of the Environmental Review Tribunal and also served as acting chairman of the Ontario Educational Communications Authority (TV Ontario). McPhail is also a recipient of the Ontario Bicentennial Medal and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal.
The goal of his many and varied commitments has always been to protect the public interest.
“I always had an interest in public policy in a lot of different areas,” he says, noting that while growing up he would pay close attention when issues were discussed around the dinner table at home.
“Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy law practice, too; I just also think legal training and legal experience is a great background for so many other areas,” he says. “I never viewed any of these other jobs as careers.
“They’re something you can take time off to do and I enjoyed every one of them. I learned a lot.”
When asked what his favourite or most memorable position was, McPhail says his first role with TV Ontario stands out. He was a member of the board when then-chairman and CEO Peter Herrndorf moved to Ottawa, and McPhail found himself in a new role: acting chairman for a year.
“We went through a strategic planning process, had one budget cycle and the net result was that, for the first time in seven or eight years, we were actually able to increase the amount of money that went for programming,” McPhail recalls. “I found I enjoyed the whole process.”
McPhail returned to his practice in 2004, but eventually a position with the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP came up.
“Like many things, I had a call one day and was told there’s new legislation coming in to create a new oversight body,” McPhail says. Would he be prepared to take on the chairmanship on a part-time basis?
He was, of course, game. However, he says, “like a great many things, they don’t move quite as quickly as you might think and it was about four years later, having served on a part-time basis, that the new position was finally established.”
In January of 2010, McPhail was appointed as interim chairman of the commission and given a one-year mandate.
“I have no background in policing or in criminal law, but as was explained to me at the time, the job was to be essentially neutral between the complainants and the RCMP,” McPhail says. “Either experience as a defence counsel or Crown attorney would have caused my objectivity to be brought into question.”
But the position stretched well past 12 months, and throughout his time with the commission, he issued a number of high-profile public interest investigation reports. In 2014, when the body became the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP following the coming into force of the Enhancing Royal Canadian Mounted Police Accountability Act, McPhail was appointed full-time chairman.
The new legislation gave the commission the power to do systemic reviews for any aspect of policing, McPhail explains, and the Minister of Public Safety requested an investigation into workplace harassment in the RCMP. The final report and recommendations on workplace harassment in the force were released in May.
“We consulted with various experts in the field — academics, legal specialists — and we asked individuals to come forward on a confidential basis and looked at previous reports,” McPhail says, adding that the commission “cast our net pretty widely.”
They had an investigator that worked for the commission gathering information and a good team in the systemic review unit within the commission that headed this up. For its part, the RCMP was co-operative. Privately, McPhail received “quite a number of acknowledgments, letters, emails” from members of the RCMP. While he’s sure there were people who didn’t like the report, “from the rank and file, we got a really positive reception.”
“It had been accepted, through numerous reports, statements of the then-RCMP commissioner and the government themselves when they settled the class action lawsuits that had been brought” that there was no question harassment existed within the force, McPhail explains. The commission looked at it a little differently — how could the problem be alleviated?
Not an easy question to answer, McPhail notes, adding that the RCMP is an incredibly complex organization that — among other things — serves as Canada’s national police force and the provincial police force for seven of the 10 provinces, along with a number of municipalities and indigenous reserves.
“Just managing an organization of that sort is an incredible challenge,” McPhail says, but the bottom line of the final report was that it is necessary to have governance changes. It’s a big job that’s been talked about for some time, McPhail notes, with different approaches to consider such as a board of management or a model of splitting policing function.
“Whether a federal government chooses to take that on or not, that’s quite a different story.”
McPhail’s tenure as chairman formally ended on Nov. 29, 2017 and he says he learned that while there are challenges in policing, “we can actually be quite proud. I think we’ve got at least as robust a system of policing review and oversight in Canada as they have anywhere in the world.”
When asked if he misses his role with the RCMP, McPhail says the work was “interesting and challenging, no question.”
“What made it easier was we had some really first-rate people at the commission,” he adds, harking back to the lesson his grandfather taught him about the possibilities that open up when surrounded and supported by other like-minded individuals. “There are challenges, and I don’t want to minimize those, but that having been said there are a tremendous number of people who are there for the right reason.”
But McPhail says he’s happy to get back to his practice, noting the seven years he spent as complaints commissioner was “considerably longer” than he originally intended.
But there’s always the chance his grandfather’s legacy could come calling again.
“If something else comes my way, I’m always interested in anything I can do to help out.”