By Joanie Veitch |
Gavin Giles is a successful litigation lawyer with more than 30 years of experience. He’s also raised more than $250,000 on the Multiple Sclerosis Bike Tour, and has received a distinguished service award for his commitment to the Canadian Red Cross Society, an organization he now heads up as their national chair.
Yet when asked what he’s most proud of, Giles fumbles for words. “I’m just a guy. I do what I do. I hope to make things better,” he says, pausing again before adding, “but I guess I’m really proud that I’ve managed to ride my bike up all of the toughest climbs in the Tour de France.”
In fact, Giles cycles between 6,000 and 10,000 kilometres a year, often in France with his wife Denise Stirling. “I absolutely love it,” he says. “If I could start again, I would be a professional cyclist.”
That Giles seems so humble about his accomplishments might stem from his early years, growing up in what he calls “relatively meagre” circumstances. “We were members of the working poor, but I can honestly say we didn’t feel that way.”
His mother was an active community volunteer and always encouraged Giles and his older brother to help other people. “Right up until she died, I spoke with my mother every day on the phone and one question she would always ask was: ‘How are you living?’”
What she meant by that, Giles says, was ‘Are you keeping your pride in your pocket and doing for others?’ “That was what mattered to her. Not any success I might have had,” he recalls.
Born in Montreal, Giles and his family moved to Halifax in 1968, just before he started Grade 7. And despite his successful career—he’s currently a partner at McInnes Cooper in Halifax with a list of professional achievements too numerous to mention—Giles’s academic track record early on was, by his own admission, not stellar.
“I was not an academically inclined person; I was dyslexic, I still am, but over time I have learned to cope with it,” he says. “It wasn’t diagnosed until much later, so I was seen as a stupid kid who misbehaved a lot in school. The analysis went no further.”
After graduating from Queen Elizabeth II High School, Giles studied political science at Saint Mary’s University. That he graduated as a Dean’s List Scholar in 1981 and went to law school is the result of a remarkable turn-around that Giles attributes as much to a special Saint Mary’s professor as he does to his own efforts.
Giles can remember clearly the day Ed McBride called him into his office. “He looked me in the eye and said ‘You’re just wasting your time here. You’re going through the motions…I know you could be doing so much better than you’re doing’,” Giles recalls. Taken aback at first, Giles went away and thought a lot about what his professor had said. He started making changes. “Did it happen overnight? No, of course, it didn’t, but it was pretty close to that,” he says.
Giles graduated from Dalhousie Law School in 1985. His current litigation practice is in commercial and construction disputes and complex insurance and human rights issues. He has appeared before many courts and tribunals throughout the country. His career has taught him a lot about keeping an open mind. “There are strengths and weaknesses in every case, but the end result always has to be fair. I try to retain my objectivity so I can see it from the other side.”
Gavin’s work with the Canadian Red Cross, which started as a result of a friend asking him to co-chair an awards dinner back in 2002, gives Giles an even broader perspective of the view from “the other side.”
“There are people all around us, and everywhere in the world, who are in lousy circumstances – under-resourced and under-supported. But for the luck of the draw any one of us could be any one of those people. Any one of us could be in Haiti, or Nepal, or Syria. Is it fair? No. Those of us who have been fairly treated by life can do a lot to make a big difference for those who haven’t.”
When his term as national chair of the society is up, Giles says he will definitely continue to stay involved, as the past chair role is an active one. He’s also interested in working with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which represents more than 190 such national organizations around the world.
“The Red Cross can provide services to people that governments cannot. When a sudden crisis hits, governments are not nimble enough to respond but the Red Cross is. It is pretty amazing—and pretty humbling—to be able to watch this amazing face of humanity unfold. I might be the volunteer, but the privilege is truly mine.”