Christine Silverberg, former chief of police in Calgary, is a barrister and solicitor at SilverbergLegal.
Tell me what areas of law you specialize in today?
Silverberg: My law practice includes legal advocacy, civil litigation, alternative dispute resolution – including mediation and arbitration – and conflict resolution. Because I have a broad-based background in policing, executive management and leadership, I would say that the files I handle leverage that experience, whether from a tactical or strategic perspective.
Often when people ask me what kind of law I practise, I say simply “people law.” People come to me with their problems and we work together on options for resolving those problems.
The general nature of my practice enables me to bring value to a number of key areas, ranging from: high conflict family law (where there are often underlying physical, emotional or financial abuse issues); public and administrative law, including tribunals and hearings; policing law; governance in not-for-profit and public sectors; regulatory investigations and enforcement proceedings; civil fraud and corruption; and employment and labour, including internal and disciplinary investigations, human rights and occupational health and safety.
Are there any specific areas that are trending these days in terms of legal issues and why?
Silverberg: Issues related to legalization of cannabis, property division in common-law relationships and policing are high on my list of issues that are trending:
- Legalization of cannabis: The possession, use, sale and distribution of cannabis products has resulted in a number of legal issues over the past several months, including legal age, home-growing, public consumption of recreational cannabis, and drug impaired driving. Perhaps most significant in my mind are the issues raised by legalization in the context of the workplace, for example balancing the respective rights of the employer and the employee as might be seen when employers need to create a safe workplace while respecting the rights of employees to use cannabis for medicinal purposes, or fitness for work if an employee attends under the influence of cannabis.
- Common-law relationships: On Nov. 21, Alberta’s minister of Justice and Solicitor General introduced Bill 28, designed to modernize family law and provide clear rules about property division for unmarried couples. Currently, the Matrimonial Property Act sets out how property is divided when married couples divorce. The new bill will amend this legislation to include “adult interdependent partners.” In my view, this is a long time coming. Common-law couples in Alberta have not been treated the same as married couples as far as property division is concerned, resulting in lengthy, complex court proceedings. This is particularly difficult in long-term common-law relationships. The changes in the law will apply to those who have lived together in a relationship of interdependence for a continuous period of three years, or of some permanence if there is a child of the relationship, or the couple entered into a partner agreement.
- Policing legislation: The province is reviewing the Police Act in Alberta with a view to updating and better reflecting the realities of modern policing. The current law was first passed in 1988 with a few amendments in 2006. I expect that any new legislation will address how complaints against police officers are handled, internally and externally, and no doubt there will be focus on community engagement in the delivery of policing services.
- Apart from those more specific issues, I think, there are broader issues facing both our criminal and civil law systems: first, there are more and more self-represented parties in the system and there is an ongoing issue of the capacity of the system to accommodate self-represented litigants while adhering to the rule of law; secondly, I see an overwhelming need to emphasize mechanisms for alternative dispute resolution. The costs of litigation are out of reach for most people. Diverting these cases into collaborative resolution models, mediation/arbitration, judicial dispute resolution and other settlement models has, I believe, become a high priority.
How did your role as former chief of police in Calgary prepare you for what you’re doing now?
Silverberg: I think that my entire career in policing has been invaluable in assisting clients in very diverse areas.
For example, I’ve been involved in issues of domestic abuse and workplace harassment allegations since the 1970s, both of which are often reflected in family law/employment law files I now have.
As a chief of police and deputy chief before that, I was very involved in the breadth of issues facing any large public sector organization, including labour issues, human rights issues, employment issues, administrative law issues, and investigations and enforcement proceedings. So these areas of law are well aligned with my executive experience.
I have also served on numerous boards and understand governance and leadership, which has served my practice well, particularly in the not-for-profit sector, and in the profit sector in areas of corruption, fraud and criminal wrongdoing.
After I retired as chief of police, I went to law school and consulted broadly in strategy and tactics in diverse areas, including corporate governance, ethical decision-making, executive development and coaching, strategic communications, crisis response, intervention and management.
The wisdom and experience gained over the course of over 30 years has definitely not only shaped my law and consulting practice, but I believe is value added to clients.
What’s your advice for women who are working in or trying to break into careers that are male dominated?
Silverberg: First of all, don’t try to be a man – you are who you are. Integrity in thought and action will allow you to transcend the crises of the day, and remember that your integrity is the one thing that can never be taken away from you. You have to be yourself: follow your vision, believe in yourself (and don’t get sidetracked about what other people assume about you). Be passionate about what you’re doing. Self-confidence is enabling. Be optimistic. Assume control over your life and gain a sense of mastery in your calling – never stop learning. Maintain your energy and focus and don’t blindly set your sights. Of critical importance is to hone your gut instincts. Be willing to take risks. Don’t be afraid to fail. Think in circles, not squares.
Successful people expect the best from themselves and others and don’t limit themselves by their own belief systems. They also go the extra mile and do whatever it takes to get the job done – getting down and dirty and doing what needs to be done. There is no such thing as quitting halfway through. Successful people also know the importance of support networks and they engage them. Look to these people to not only be your strategic allies and teach you the necessary skills, but help you understand the political landscape of the organization and develop personal and professional strategies for advancement.
What’s your sense of Calgary’s overall mood these days considering the tough economic times it has gone through?
Silverberg: The city has just released its citizen satisfaction survey and true to Calgarians’ nature, there is a good deal of optimism. This may seem somehow incompatible with the very real and significant anger and anxiety over the oil price collapse and its consequential effects, some dire. Calgarians, though, seem to be drawing upon their core ethos – resilience – by both focusing on righting the conditions that have led to the crisis and diversifying the economic base, including embracing tech startups and agricultural innovations.
My sense is that Calgarians are going to be strident in demanding action across all governments – federal, provincial and municipal. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Calgarians since I’ve been here, it’s that Calgarians have a ‘stick-to-itiveness’ that is unmatched.
– Mario Toneguzzi