Sandy Vander Ziel's experience of loss in her youth drove her to advocate for victims of violence

The family law lawyer was recently recognized for work supporting children who experienced trauma

Sandy Vander Ziel's experience of loss in her youth drove her to advocate for victims of violence
Sandy Vander Ziel

Sandy Vander Ziel leads with her whole heart. Justice Michelle Christopher of the Provincial Court of Alberta wrote this in her nomination letter for Vander Ziel, the recipient of the 2024 Distinguished Service Awards for Service to the Community from the Law Society of Alberta and CBA Alberta chapter.

Vander Ziel has been working and leading with her heart since her childhood. When she was a teenager, a family in her neighbourhood was murdered. Gavin Mandin, who was 15 at the time, murdered his mother, stepfather, and two children. Vander Ziel knew the family from a young age, including the two young daughters who died. It was a trauma that would stick with her for the rest of her life.

“It froze my family in shock and terror and propelled me into a world I didn’t know,” says Vander Ziel, partner at Dunphy Best Blacksom (DBB) LLP. “It was a difficult time for my family.”

Advocating for survivors of violence

As she tried to make sense of it, a request came from organizers of a Justice Day rally. A young woman in Edmonton was murdered, and they wanted Vander Ziel to speak about her own experience. Vander Ziel was 18 years old. It had been years since the family murder, but the request brought up the same feelings.

“My mom remembers how I was sitting in our backyard writing the speech,” says Vander Ziel. “I was thinking about how I could help make changes in the justice system.”

Vander Ziel became one of the founding members of the Canadians Against Violence Everywhere Advocating for its Termination (CAVEAT) Alberta chapter. CAVEAT was a grassroots organization focused on giving a voice to survivors of violence in criminal proceedings. CAVEAT was instrumental in creating the Office of Victims of Crime in Ontario and the Policy Centre for Victim Issues at Justice Canada.  Even as an undergrad student, Vander Ziel worked with advocates, listening and documenting stories of violence and pushing for changes in the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

“I met some incredible people, but it was hard work,” says Vander Ziel. “These are significant stories of loss and grief and how all these people who lost their lives are not forgotten.”

Making an impact on youth criminal justice

While completing her history and political science degree at the University of Alberta, Vander Ziel also started volunteering for the Edmonton Youth Justice program, eventually serving as a member of the youth justice committee.

“It’s great because it focuses on the strengths of the person,” says Vander Ziel. “You meet these kids, and they’re dealing with abuse, or maybe they have a great background, and they just made a mistake. One mistake shouldn’t define them.”

While in the youth justice program, she met a young girl who was caught shoplifting. Vander Ziel asked her what made her happy, and the girl mentioned her love for playing the violin. The young girl was ordered to organize a concert at a senior care home, which was a success. At the follow-up meeting, Vander Ziel did something she usually doesn’t do. Vander Ziel gave the young girl her phone number, asking the girl to keep in contact with her so she could celebrate the young girl’s successes. Years later, the girl called her, telling Vander Ziel about her completing music conservatory school.

“I told her I believed in her, and I’m proud of her,” said Vander Ziel. “She hadn’t heard that before, and I could tell she needed to hear that.”

When Vander Ziel was at the University of Calgary law school, her dream was to be a Crown prosecutor, but her father was afraid of her taking in too much of the criminal justice system. So, Vander Ziel started her career working in oil and gas and litigation but felt the pull to go back to advocacy.

She started working in family law in 2002 and eventually switched her practice to focus on mediation, arbitration and parenting coordination. In 2020, she became a partner at DBB LLP. She continued her work at the Youth Justice Society, serving as board chair from 2006 to 2012.

“I was meant to work with people,” she said. “Community work is my heart work. I don’t do anything else. It speaks to my heart.”

Supporting children who experienced trauma

Her work in youth justice culminated in the creation of the Sonshine Children’s Centre in 2015. The Sonshine Community Services renamed the Radiance Society, is a transitional women’s shelter for women and children who have experienced family violence and abuse. Vander Ziel, who served as chair of the board, wanted a centre focused on providing therapeutic care for children who’ve witnessed family violence. She was the leading force in raising $1 million to create the Sonshine Children’s Centre.

“I want to make systemic change,” says Vander Ziel. “There was a woman who came into the women’s shelter, and one of the staff members said they remembered seeing her as a child. We knew we had to do something different.”

Vander Ziel is now focused on gender-based violence. She’s a board member of the Canadian Women’s Foundation and will join the board for I’m Worth It Now, a nonprofit organization that provides survival kits for human trafficking survivors and raises awareness. It’s the kind of hard work that keeps her motivated. 

“Sometimes people tell me you must be exhausted, but I have hope and focus on the change,” she says. “I’m always thinking, how can I change things? That’s how I live this life.”

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