Money & Career

Louise Arbour on career and family

Louise Arbour on career and family

Image courtesy of Louise Arbour Image by: Image courtesy of Louise Arbour Author: Canadian Living

Money & Career

Louise Arbour on career and family

Stroll along Canada’s Walk of Fame in Toronto, and among the stars set in cement to honour actors, athletes and musicians, you’ll find one for Louise Arbour. You may not immediately recognize her name, but Arbour’s contributions to the Canadian justice system and human rights worldwide are renowned. The 68-year-old Montrealer sat as a justice for the Supreme Court of Canada from 1999 to 2004, then, for the next four years, served as UN high commissioner for human rights in Geneva. Appointed by the Security Council of the UN as chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, Arbour pursued and indicted war criminals. She was also responsible for the first prosecution of sexual assault as a crime against humanity.

Now, after five years abroad, Arbour has returned home. For the first time, remarkably, she’s taken a job at a Montreal law firm, providing advice to lawyers of the International Trade and Arbitration Group on international disputes. Arbour is as busy as ever but still took the time to answer our questions about the challenges she and other women face today.

You’ve always had a busy career—and you also raised a family! How did you do it all?
When my three children were little, I was a law professor. People think I was indicting war criminals while cooking soup for three. Well, it didn’t quite work that way. Law is a killer profession in terms of the hours. Any job where you’re paid by the hour tends to be demanding, but in my case, I was in an academic stream. The very early years were manageable. I put my teaching hours in the middle of the day, so I was often home when the kids came home from school.

Then, I worked again at night to prepare. I was a law professor for about 12 years, then I was eventually appointed a trial judge. I was based in Toronto, but in those days, judges travelled to Chatham, Windsor and all over the province for a week at a time. My children were five, nine and 10, so that required a certain amount of management with the support of my partner and a daytime housekeeper.

What resonates more when discussing the struggle for equality in the workplace: Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In (which encourages women to pursue their ambitions and help change the trajectory for other women) or Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic piece “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” (which discusses the need for shifts in work culture and public policy)?
I tend to agree more with Anne-Marie Slaughter. The system isn’t geared to a working time frame that’s friendly to women’s interests. A 24-hour period is divided in a way that’s not particularly attentive to family life. As a parent, never mind a woman, your involvement in the lives of your children is an 18, 20, 30…frankly, it’s a lifetime commitment! The demands on your time are not unique to the preschool years. The demands continue, and there are others as time goes on. The peak demands for growth in any profession are often at the time when a woman’s availability is more limited.

What were the challenges of your appointment at the UN?
The work I did in war crimes prosecution— going to mass grave sites, finding bodies and meeting the families of victims, particularly of people who had disappeared—was very hard. But, for me, I can’t understand how some women can work as a nurse or doctor in a children’s cancer ward. How can you work in an environment that’s so sad? In these situations, you approach difficult tasks with professional skills. Your skills become the firewall between what has to be done and falling apart.

How do you encourage kids to care about human rights?
Kids will pick up on the stands you take and what you do in your community. They’re astute witnesses of your life, and that goes a long way. I think it’s important for children to develop empathy. Real capacity for empathy comes with maturity. Unfortunately, some people mature and then completely lose the capacity to see the world from someone else’s point of view. We want to encourage girls, as well as boys, to be self-confident about their own views, but also to have the capacity to really put themselves in someone else’s position.

What prompted you to take a job as strategic counsel after a long career on the bench and your work with the UN?
It’s been very difficult for me to resist working internationally, but it’s been equally difficult to stay away from home for too long. I’ve done stints of three years, four years and five years away, but now that I have grandchildren, Skype or no Skype, this is the limit. I hadn’t lived in my hometown since the early ’70s. When I moved back to Montreal, I realized I still had too many professional interests. I can’t run myself from my kitchen table, so a law firm is a really good fit. The firm is very supportive of my interests, and I think I can bring all kinds of experience, but in a lowkey way. I’m also trying to take a deep breath.

Do you mentor female lawyers?

I speak to women at my firm, and I’ve had chats with clients who are professional women working at high levels in various industries. Women are entering the workplace in larger numbers but not in appropriate numbers in the best paying jobs—for example, in management or on corporate boards. I think systems have to accommodate pluralism and diversity. Women have so much to contribute. They are entitled to have access to jobs for which they are well suited. Institutional and cultural barriers should be dismantled to permit broader inclusion, not only for women but also for underrepresented groups. I think it’s a conversation we have to keep having, and we have to have it with men as well.

What do you do when you’re not working?
I used to say sleep was my favourite leisure activity. To my great chagrin, I’m not very physically active. I used to ski, but now, every spare minute I have, I spend with my children and grandchildren. For the longest time, I did everything in a virtual world; I gardened by looking at gardening books and I cooked by reading cookbooks. Now that I’m back home and have a bit more time, I’m becoming more human again. I’m in the kitchen more. The things I missed while doing my international work are the things I now crave.

You’ve said that you’ll never write a memoir. Why not?

I like what’s happening now, and I’m always very forward-looking. I cannot imagine the effort it would take for me to ruminate, try to relive the past, analyze it and be truthful about recalling it. I think sometimes when you live in the past, you define yourself by one accomplishment. Right now, the present is my most intense interest.

Want to perform at your own top level? Check out how to use social media to get ahead. Interested in the status of women in Canada and around the world? Check out the state of the sisterhood.

This story was originally titled "This Woman's Work" in the March 2015 issue.
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Money & Career

Louise Arbour on career and family