From Lebanon to Loblaw – Carole Dagher impresses in the legal world and as a mental health advocate

The VP, Legal, at Loblaw uses her own mental health challenges to tell others they are not alone

From Lebanon to Loblaw – Carole Dagher impresses in the legal world and as a mental health advocate

When it comes to triumphing over challenges, Carole Dagher, VP of legal at Loblaw, makes the perfect poster child to celebrate overcoming adversity.

Not only did she spend the majority of her formative years living in a bomb shelter in Beirut. Her family was forced by the civil war to move from their little village in southern Lebanon – she immigrated to Canada at 13 years old, not knowing a word of English and having missed several years of formal schooling on account of the civil war.

Whether or not the trauma she endured during childhood contributed to the depression she has been dealing with as an adult, Dagher wants people to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel for others facing mental health issues, even if they are high-functioning members of society who hide their pain.

“I was born in 1977 and grew up living in bomb shelters with five sisters and my parents,” Dagher says, remembering the times she, her five sisters and her parents waited for a pause in the fighting before her family could go outside to find food.

While recognizing that immigrating to Canada was an opportunity to start her life afresh, Dagher felt the enormous cultural change moving from the Middle East to the West. “I felt at first like I didn’t fit in, and financially, it was difficult for my family at the start.” 

Her oldest sister left Canada after a few months, realizing she was not happy here, while her second-oldest sister was already married and didn’t come with the rest of the family to Canada. Dagher’s two younger sisters acclimatized relatively quickly, but it was a hard adjustment for Dagher and another older sister who was here with her. “We were in our teenage years, which also made things more difficult.”

Still, as a gifted child, Dagher quickly caught up academically, buoyed by the opportunity to “start over and not waste that chance – our determination to take advantage of that opportunity really drove us to succeed.”

Still, it wasn’t until she was a third-year undergraduate student at York University that she felt totally comfortable as a new Canadian. “It was then when I felt, yes, I get this whole Western culture thing, I get the language, I understand how to study.”

As for entering law school, that was a no-brainer, a goal she had since she was a little girl. 

“When I was about eight years old, my dad asked me to go for a walk with him, as he had to talk to some tenants of ours to see if they would pay overdue rent. One of them, who was in the army, put a gun to my dad’s head and said, ‘The next time you come, I’ll pull the trigger.’ I thought it was the last time I’d see my dad, and in my young mind, I thought I would become a lawyer to help people like him – and that resolution never wavered.”

For a long time, Dagher thought she’d want to be a human rights lawyer with the idea of “making a difference” in the world but realized that would be a challenging goal.  She decided to do “the type of law that would better guarantee financial security, having experienced poverty.”

After graduating from Osgoode Hall Law School at York University, where she was a top student, Dagher passed the New York bar exam on her first try and spent several years working in the Canadian office of a top U.S. law firm, Shearman & Sterling, doing such things as cross-border debt and equity financings.

But Dagher decided she needed a change from a top U.S. firm’s relentless hard work culture and decided to take the Ontario bar exam, later ending up in an in-house role at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.

At a top corporate firm, Dagher says: “You get paid extremely well, but there is an unspoken contract [with the firm] that you forgo your personal life. I’m not critical of that, but at some point, I realized that wasn’t enough for me. I didn’t want to be a partner in a big law firm; it just didn’t feel authentic to me.”

She also wants to make it clear that working as an in-house lawyer “still means you work very hard – the difference is that you have a bit more control over when you work so you can meet your family and social obligations better.”

After working for about 12 years at CIBC and later at Scotiabank, Dagher says she was recruited for the position of an in-house lawyer, overseeing the legal issues of Loblaw’s retail division. 

 “I did my due diligence and realized what an interesting company it would be to work for as an in-house lawyer – it’s a grocery and apparel retailer, a pharmacy, and a real estate and technology-driven company.”

But before taking the job at Loblaw, Dagher felt she had to be upfront with her potential new employer about the fact that she had been managing mental illness for about 14 years – starting with postpartum depression after her first daughter was born. That evolved into other mental health issues such as major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and major trauma disorder. 

She has tried every single class of antidepressants, cognitive behaviour therapy, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, electroconvulsive therapy and ketamine treatment – all to manage her mental illness and remain the high-functioning professional that she is.

“This is something that I will have to manage forever, and I now have the tools to do that. It’s challenging, but I am blessed because I have a large and diverse toolkit.” Dagher also makes sure she exercises regularly and sets work-life boundaries.

She admits she was not open about her mental health for a long time, worried about the impact it would have on her career. But not telling others about what she was going through also caused her mental health to suffer more because she was living two lives – “a visible life and an invisible life.”

“So, I just decided during my interview at Loblaw to tell my (now) boss the truth about my mental health and said that if I could not bring my ‘authentic self’ to the new job, don’t make a job offer to me.”

For the most part, people who know about Dagher’s mental health challenges are very accommodating. However, some find it hard to reconcile the hardworking, high-functioning professional that she is with a person who deals with mental illness.

Dagher’s philosophy, which she has learned through therapy, is that “if people are uncomfortable with me and my mental illness, that is their problem, not mine.” She goes on television, radio, podcasts, and conferences to speak on behalf of organizations such as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. 

Dagher is also a co-editor of the newly published book “The Right Not to Remain Silent: The Truth About Mental Health in the Legal Profession. “My husband actually came up with that title,” she says proudly.

The book can be purchased at LexisNexis, with all royalties donated to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

“Ultimately, people need to become more educated and informed on mental health,” she says. “And I feel obligated to advocate and try to tackle the misinformation about mental health.” 

Dagher is one of this year's Law Society Medal recipients, given by the Law Society of Ontario to lawyers who have made a significant contribution to the profession. In awarding it to Dagher, the society noted: "Carole consistently demonstrates a commitment to coaching, mentoring and mental health guidance — a true trailblazer in the legal community, acting as a strategic counsel and promoting legal excellence, well-being and inclusivity."

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