Trudy McCormick begins retirement as recipient of 2024 J. Shirley Denison Award

By Elisa Nguyen
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

While on vacation in Spain to celebrate her retirement, Trudy McCormick received the highest honour that an Ontario lawyer can receive. 

The Law Society of Ontario announced that McCormick is the 2024 recipient of the J. Shirley Denison Award, a well deserved and timely send off to her career-long commitment to access to justice. 

McCormick officially retired as executive director of the Northwest Community Legal Clinic (NCLC) on March 8. 

Called to the Bar in 1987, Trudy McCormick has served as the NCLC executive director since its founding in 2009. 

Prior to that, she opened a private practice in 1987 in Atikokan that served the community for 12 years. She later applied for a staff lawyer position at the Rainy River District Legal Clinic in the summer of 1999 and has been there ever since, she said. 

In 2009, McCormick also attained her Masters of Law (LL.M.) from Osgoode Hall Law School. She was studying Administrative Law, the type of law she does with the clinic, part time while working at NCLC. Her thesis was in Indigenous studies on Treaty 3. 

McCormick completed her undergraduate degree and law degree at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. 

The NCLC’s journey and the lives it has touched have been shaped by McCormick’s tireless service to her community and her commitment to addressing the unique legal needs of low-income people in rural Northwestern Ontario.

McCormick was instrumental in establishing the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario. She has routinely led engagement and negotiation efforts with provincial officials and Legal Aid Ontario to ensure that the needs of clinics are understood and reflected in funding and policy decisions.

Her clinic aims to create access to justice by acknowledging the importance of community health, safety and wellness. NCLC creates positive social change and advocacy that supports the basic needs of marginalized people, including housing, food security, mental health and social inclusion.

In an interview with the Times prior to her retirement, McCormick said she was raised by a father who worked as a lawyer and a “feminist” mother who instilled the belief that she could accomplish anything she wanted.

“My mother was what we would now call a ‘feminist,’ and I was raised with the belief that I truly could do whatever I wanted,” she said. “So going to law school, becoming a lawyer, having my practice—those were things that in my mom’s world, the world I was raised in, I could do if I wanted to.”

McCormick’s father was a lawyer who worked in private practice for his whole career. He was her inspiration to go to law school, and a role model during the time when McCormick worked in private practice in Atikokan. 

“It was a plan from when I was very young to go to law school and become a lawyer,” she said. “I think he was pretty proud of me when I moved on to the clinic world. I’ve been very lucky, very blessed to have to be able to have this role. It’s a great job.”

The issues that people living on low-income face are very different from the issues dealt with when working in private practice, McCormick said. Although she most often worked with real estate and corporate clients when working at her private practice, McCormick would often volunteer her free time to speak to groups about legal rights. 

Once she moved to the clinic, McCormick was happy to work somewhere that supported and promoted serving the community and helping people learn about their legal rights. At the clinic, they focused on poverty law which helped those who did not have money. 

Working closely with individuals who are facing major life challenges is not an easy task. McCormick says it’s okay to admit that you don’t always have the answer, and to tell a client that you will find out and get back to them. 

“No one comes to the legal clinic because they’re having a good day. And they usually have some kind of major challenge in their life and now they need answers. They come to us with an eviction notice, they’ve been cut off from social assistance, so, we just have to do the best we can,” she said.

The next decade of changes will likely involve more use of electronic platforms, McCormick said, noting that dealing with tribunals has been a major challenge in their work since the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I really hope there’s progress there to make those systems, like the landlord tenant board, work more smoothly,” she said. 

Yet, although she hopes for electronic developments, McCormick hopes they won’t lose the in person pieces of the legal system. 

“Sometimes it’s a lot easier to do a hearing in person. Sometimes it’s easier to do it virtually. But it shouldn’t be all one way or the other,” she said. 

As a woman in a leadership role with a family, the key to success is having everyone in the family play an active role. McCormick acknowledged the efforts of her husband Dan and her extended family for always being as active in family life as she was. 

“There was no expectation that I should have a traditional at home role. It was just as supportive for me to be at work and have the executive director position as it was for him to be at work and have a management position,” she said. 

To manage busy schedules with her husband Daniel McCormick, who retired as CAO at the District of Rainy River Serves Board at the end of last year, McCormick found it helpful to look ahead at each other’s calendars.

“We’ve traveled a lot in our jobs. And there have been times that we sat down with both our calendars and figured out which one of us was going where which week. Because somebody has to be home,” she said. 

Moving forward, the couple will take a break and travel together as “snowbirds” that escape the cold. 

The other focus is to figure out where they will continue to be involved in the community as volunteers. 

“We’ve put a lot of time and effort into learning about nonprofit organizations and community organizations over our careers. And neither one of us wants to walk away from that. We want to stay involved. So we’ve just got to figure out what that involvement can look like in the next chapter,” McCormick said. 

McCormick could potentially volunteer for one of the provincial clinic boards, she says, as a way to step away from the day to day work, yet stay involved in the access to justice movements and in the community clinic system. 

Workwise, McCormick is most proud of the time she was given to mentor and teach staff at NCLC, and the ability to help clients throughout the years. 

McCormick also served as chair of the Canadian Mental Health Association Fort Frances Branch for around two decades. “I really appreciate everything that CMHA shared with me during those years,” she said. 

Giving advice to women who have big ambitions, McCormick advises them to find a mentor they trust and talk through challenges. 

“And if they’re lucky, they can find that mentor in the organization or the or the field that they’re working in so that they can get some support from somebody who’s been there and understands,” she said. 

“My last one was my dad in private practice. I will say that my colleagues at the other community legal clinics, especially the northern clinics, were all very supportive when I started and it’s been a really supportive group of colleagues through the years. My peers in the community legal clinic world are some really great folks. And they always step up when you need a hand,” she said. 

“I’ve been blessed to have the [executive director] role,” McCormick said. “It truly does take an entire community. I have been very blessed by that community.”