Mapping Your Future Through Civil Law

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Remarks at a Ceremony to Mark the Official Start of the Academic Year, Civil Law Section, University of Ottawa

September 7, 2011
Ottawa, Ontario

Address by Jennifer Stoddart
Privacy Commissioner of Canada

(Check against delivery)


First of all, I would like to thank the organizing committee for inviting me to today’s ceremony. I never pass up an opportunity to spend time with young jurists and future lawyers—your passion is contagious and your perspective on the world always inspires.

Almost half of the lawyers who work at the Office of the Privacy Commissioner's legal services branch attended the University of Ottawa. They are comfortable with technology and know what’s going on in the world, and are fully prepared to meet current challenges. They not only understand the law perfectly, but also grasp the role it plays in today’s increasingly computerized and globalized world. They are very productive members of the multidisciplinary teams that handle our most complex and sensitive files.

Importance of civil law in the world

You have the opportunity to study at one of the few universities where it is possible to receive training in both civil law and common law, and study in both of Canada’s official languages. (My alma mater, McGill University, is another.) That is a definite advantage for those of you who will join the public service. It is also an excellent way to prepare to face the transborder challenges that await you.

Because of its two legal systems and two official languages, Canada is well placed to exert a positive influence in the world. In my field—privacy law—that influence is manifest.

Both legal traditions are present in the federal privacy legislation, the Privacy Act and the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act. The former, which applies to federal government institutions, sets limits on the government’s power to collect personal information, which addresses the Anglo-Saxon concern to prevent the unreasonable interference of government in the lives of its citizens. The latter, which applies to the private sector, uses the civil law concept of respect for dignity and integrity in its codification of the use and communication of information by organizations.

As you know, the Romano-Germanic tradition is followed in the countries of continental Europe, South America and a large part of Africa, whereas common law is the foundation of the legal systems in the United Kingdom, the United States and most of the countries of the Commonwealth.

Because the Canadian legal system embraces both of these great traditions, we are able to interact with most of the countries in the world using a common legal language. Canada’s bijuralism is more than a topic for abstract debate among eminent jurists. It is an advantage enjoyed by a nation open to several normative realities.

Bijuralism is an important asset in today’s networked world. It is one of the mainstays of our influence on the international scene. Along with bilingualism, it makes Canada a natural bridge between continents.

In the field of privacy law, we are especially concerned about the digitalization and networkization of personal information, which is becoming the main asset of many new multinationals. Since the global network knows no borders, privacy protection has become an international issue.

We use our influence and our common language—in both the legal and the literal sense—to defend Canadians’ privacy rights, no matter where their personal information ends up. For example, we were shocked in the spring of 2010 by the cavalier way in which the Google Buzz social networking service was launched. We were able to rally our counterparts in nine other countries with different legal systems. Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom joined us to denounce that assault on privacy with one voice. This Canadian initiative succeeded because of the trust we were able to win in all international forums, in large part because of the normative values we share.

Society’s values are reflected in the law and protected by the law

The lack of respect sometimes demonstrated by the major players on Web 2.0—and the courts’ responses—are examples of the way in which society’s values are now reflected in the law and protected by the law.

In most of the Western world, many values, and moral and ethical issues, were for a very long time governed by religious authorities. Today, in secular societies, breaches of ethics by individuals or corporations are brought before the courts or other bodies that administer the law.

Take, for example, the case of the man who set up a Facebook account pretending to be the father of two girls. The two girls accepted the imposter’s friend requests, which gave him access to their personal information and led to a series of abuses. The matter was referred to our Office in 2008.

Then there is the unanimous reaction of the privacy protection authorities to Google Street View. Taking pictures of all the front yards on the planet, all the streets, cars and faces of passersby, and putting them up on the Internet, and making an inventory of all the personal Wi-Fi networks in the vicinity, and recording the data sent over them while you're at it, raises some questions as to corporate ethics.

In your practice, you will often have to strike a delicate balance between ethical decisions and practical reality, between legal obligations and operational imperatives, between your independence as legal counsel and your employer’s interests. People will ask you to manage issues related to conflicts of interest, errors committed by senior management and risk in general. Every day, you will be the guardians of common values.

A wide array of choices

Mr Jean Lambert, who spoke to you last year, mentioned how legal services are now being offered by firms in developing countries. There is every reason to believe that your clients will have the choice between your services and those offered by a foreign lawyer willing to give perfectly sound advice for a tenth of your first-year fees. If Indian lawyers are doing it today, there is no doubt that Algerian, Brazilian and Russian lawyers will be doing it tommorrow.

Because many developing countries are trying very hard to leapfrog into a knowledge economy. So you mustn’t go to law school to get rich. You must go to law school for the same reason you do anything else—because you enjoy it.

And that is probably the best advice I have to give you—do what interests you. Life can be very boring and the weeks can be very long when you're doing something you don't enjoy doing. I know that you have a heavy workload ahead of you. But take advantage of the freedom and energy of your youth to follow your passions—because, believe me, it won’t last forever. Use the next few years to build a future based on the law, but also one that will lead to fulfillment.

When I was ready to go on to graduate studies in the seventies, I had a hard time choosing between history and law. Quebec was swept up by a wind of change and the women’s movement was tackling the questions of social roles and sexual identity. I opted for the Université du Québec à Montréal, where I did a Master’s in History on the subject of women and work.

I then went to start a doctorate at Paris VII, but I set that aside to come back to Montreal to study law at McGill. My year in Paris allowed me to step back and realize that what really interested me was law—and that a law degree would open more doors than a Ph.D. in History.

My own career path is rather unusual for a lawyer of my generation. I had three options when I graduated from law school: go back to teaching history at university, accept an offer from a major law firm in Montreal, or become a federal public servant. When I told one of my mentors—a partner in a highly regarded law firm—that I was joining the public service, he exclaimed, “But you may never practise law!” His words stayed with me for a long time.

In the positions I held in the public service, I was a manager rather than a legal counsel. That is what I wanted. My social science background predisposed me to looking at the law at a sub-judicial level. I had the good fortune to work for many years in a human laboratory in which personal experiences, legal standards and emerging public law intermingled in ever new and exciting ways.

Today, under the Privacy Act, my status as the Privacy Commissioner of Canada can be likened to that of a Federal Court judge. I also have the opportunity to rule on many fascinating matters: access and privacy are at the heart of so many public debates, and they permeate all the major news stories.

One of my classmates at McGill is now one of the most well regarded corporate lawyers in the country, another one heads a large multinational office and a third is a distinguished diplomat. There are certainly among you some of the great leaders, decision-makers and thinkers of your generation. Take the time to discover who they are, recognize their worth and listen to what they have to say.

The choices that brought me to where I am today were unusual for someone of my generation, but are not at all so for young lawyers these days. The fact that there are more women in the profession, who have introduced new ways of doing things, is probably one of the reasons why.

Nowadays, it seems to me that a legal education is designed to train thinkers—there is more emphasis on legal reasoning than legal knowledge. The new principles and methods are the foundation on which you will build your career. And a solid legal foundation is very important. Everything that you learn here will be useful someday, even the parts that don't seem especially interesting to you.

I also encourage you to nurture your emotional intelligence. In the private sector, you will be not only legal counsel, but also business consultants, managers, mediators, liaison officers, ethics specialists, confidants and much more. You will be expected to be the grown-ups who look after the organization. Your skill in understanding and dealing with motivations—your own and those of others—and interpersonal relations will be of the utmost importance.

And I encourage you to become a member of the bar when the time comes. Being a member of the bar will give you a professional and social status confirming that you share a common body of knowledge with your colleagues. It will also give you the necessary perspective to understand the professional standards of the people you will be called to work with who are members of other regulated professions such as doctors, engineers and accountants.

Your years spent at the Faculty of Law will be for you years of major achievements and personal and professional growth; they will give you the opportunity to get to know yourself better and gain a greater understanding of the profession we have chosen. Make sure you take full advantage of those years. Thank you again for inviting me and I wish you all the best.

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