Finding a Way

In-house counsel Graham Walsh's community-based approach is helping transform the City of Mississauga and save it money

Graham Walsh is more than just the legal counsel of labour and employment law for the City of Mississauga; he’s also on the board of the city’s central food bank and its St. John Ambulance branch. By day, he supports more than 5,000 municipal employees and assists with an ongoing, citywide accessibility plan, and by night, he helps countless other needy citizens in the former Toronto suburb.
Graham Walsh is more than just the legal counsel of labour and employment law for the City of Mississauga; he’s also on the board of the city’s central food bank and its St. John Ambulance branch. By day, he supports more than 5,000 municipal employees and assists with an ongoing, citywide accessibility plan, and by night, he helps countless other needy citizens in the former Toronto suburb.

The battles that Graham Walsh faces today as the City of Mississauga’s legal counsel for labour and employment law stand in stark contrast to the ones he fought as a Canadian Army infantry officer in Afghanistan. But, while the challenges have changed, they are just as demanding: Walsh now contends with issues such as accessibility, hunger, and public health, approaching them communally while giving back to the community in his own way through his board positions at the local food bank and the area’s St. John Ambulance branch.

“Believing in serving the community and country—that’s what drove me to work for the city,” Walsh says. “You certainly don’t do it for the money.” The native Mississaugan came back to his hometown after first having done labour and employment law at Gowling Lafleur Henderson and BlackBerry, the latter of which gave him experience with international labour laws and nonunionized workers. Walsh returned both to reconnect with his roots and because an opportunity opened up that offered him a perfect chance to get back to basics, doing what he considered “true” labour and employment law.

“It wasn’t doing the high-level ivory tower work that I was doing on Bay Street,” Walsh says. “It was more of the in-the-trenches labour and employment work that launched my career that I wanted to return to.” After two years in the role, Walsh now provides legal support to more than 5,000 citywide employees, overseeing human rights, employee relationships, policy work, and policy drafting—all while fostering a more collective, joint approach to solving issues between himself, the HR group, and the business units that operate the city itself.

Facts & Figures

93
Age of Hazel McCallion, the longest-serving mayor in North America, who is stepping down after working continuously in Mississauga since 1978

40
Years Mississauga has been
incorporated as a city

752,000
Population of the city

$200,000
Amount saved on external resources since Graham Walsh’s hiring

229,000
Meals the Mississauga Food Bank distributes each month

Some counsel concentrate more on damage control and offering sound legal advice—both of which Walsh does—but he also believes in taking risks and putting his job and reputation on the line to become more integrated with the city’s dealings. “I’ve always believed, when you’re in-house counsel, that you need to have skin in the game and be proactively involved in finding solutions,” Walsh says. For him, that means being creative and making good working relationships a priority even when it’s not required, which has fundamentally changed the nature of his position.

When Walsh first started, having just come from a young, tech-minded company, he began modernizing employment policies, procedures, and agreements. The city itself at the time was relatively young at 40 years old, but it’s 20-year-old policies were ancient, and Walsh was able to bring both a fresh pair of eyes and a private-sector mind-set to his public-sector position. Additionally, he has since provided chief legal counsel in implementing a city accessibility plan, which aims to make Mississauga more navigable for people with disabilities. The plan is ongoing and all-encompassing, covering everything from transit services to the city’s website. Overall, Walsh’s work has saved the city approximately $200,000 because of all the additional responsibilities he has taken on.

WHY LAW?

“I would trace it back to my grade-11 law teacher, who I’m still good friends with. He was very enthusiastic about what lawyers could do and inspired me to understand what the profession was about. When I went to university, I did an undergraduate in history, but I didn’t see myself doing it as a career. It seemed like a degree in social science complemented a legal career certainly, so I went to law school. When I started, I was instantly reengaged and felt like I was back in grade 11.”

Not content to merely serve Mississauga professionally, Walsh also returned to two organizations he was involved with during his high school years—the Mississauga Food Bank and St. John Ambulance—and he now serves on both organizations’ boards. “I know the community,” he says. “I know what it needs and how to work within it, and this is how I could help.” According to Walsh, just like the Toronto area is facing gentrification, Mississauga is now ground zero for the fight against poverty. The Mississauga Food Bank acts as a hub, bringing food to several other banks throughout the city. For St. John, Walsh provides legal expertise.

Walsh’s homecoming is a return on many fronts, and the City of Mississauga is itself entering a new era, with Hazel McCallion, its mayor since 1978, stepping down. This shift in stability offers opportunities for change, and within that change, Walsh is looking for more ways to serve the community that raised him. Already he’s starting plans to help the city’s rapidly growing population of veterans find jobs, and as Mississauga continues to evolve, he’s ready to evolve right along with it.