Lawyer honoured for his volunteerism, community service

By Claire Brownell, The Ottawa Citizen

Aly Alibhai’s job as a lawyer helps keep a roof over his family’s head, but his volunteer work pays a different kind of bill.

“I really view this work as the rent I pay for living on this planet,” Alibhai says. “I’m a really big believer in a concept that has existed for a long time, which is the notion of the citizenship role of a lawyer.”

Alibhai, a 45-year-old senior lawyer with the Department of Justice’s international program, has been named the recipient of this year’s Lincoln Alexander Award by the Law Society of Upper Canada. The award, which honours an Ontario lawyer committed to community service, recognizes Alibhai’s volunteer work with more than a dozen organizations.

There’s another reason why Alibhai’s achievement is notable: he is the first non-Torontonian to receive the Lincoln Alexander since the award was created in 2002.

Born in Kenya, raised in Vancouver and a resident of Ottawa since 1993, Alibhai says he’s particularly happy to help the legal community in Canada’s capital get some recognition.

“I’m not one of those people who hate Toronto. I love it,” he says. “But I think, like a lot of other things, the legal profession can be a little too Toronto-centric.”

Alibhai speaks from experience — he began his legal career in Toronto as a civil litigator with a major Bay Street law firm. But he quickly realized private practice wasn’t his calling and moved to Ottawa to take his first public-sector position as a senior policy advisor to Herb Gray, who was solicitor general at the time.

Gray, who was the longest serving MP in Canada’s history, says he remembers Alibhai as a bright and promising employee.

“I found him a very efficient and effective assistant,” he says. “I’m not surprised that he’s earned this award.”

Alibhai’s zeal for public service has always extended beyond his job.

One summer while he was in law school, he worked for a camp in Haliburton for children with learning disabilities. He enjoyed it so much that he was inspired to do more community service.

Today, the list of organizations he has volunteered, fundraised or served on boards of directors for includes Legal Aid Ontario, the Aga Khan Foundation of Canada and the John Howard Society of Ottawa.

Melanie Adams, executive director of the Queensway Carleton Hospital Foundation, has worked with Alibhai during his term on the institution’s board of directors. She says he’s especially good at using his contacts to find and organize support.

“He brings a level of professionalism and expertise from his own profession,” she says. “He’ll have different insights from what other people would have when we’re having discussions.”

Alibhai’s volunteer interests are broad, spanning from libraries and children’s choirs to prisoner’s rights. He says the only common thread is a desire to focus his attention where he can make the most difference.

“If there is a connection, I think it’s really helping where I can help those who need it most,” he says.

But balancing a legal career with a heavy load of community service comes at a price. His workday can go late into the evening and his volunteer work can go even later — sometimes as late as 2 a.m. especially when preparing for a board meeting.

Alibhai’s wife also has a busy professional career as a family doctor and they have daughters in Grades 2 and 6.

“You make sacrifices,” he says. “My family doesn’t necessarily see me as often as they’d like and I’d like.”

But family, tradition and faith are major reasons why Alibhai endures the long hours. He was raised an Ismaili Muslim and the importance of volunteerism is one of the major teachings of the religion’s spiritual leader, the Aga Khan.

Alibhai says his parents, who immigrated to Canada when he was 61?2, are proud of how he’s worked their traditional values into his life.

“I think they’re genuinely proud that I’ve chosen a career where I’ve found happiness, where I feel like I’m fulfilled and self-actualized and making a meaningful contribution.”


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